You could not claim to have lived a vibrant life if you did not suffer from burnout at least once and then grew from that phase.
Self-help books can only prepare you so much. The shit only gets real when you are in the thick of it. When micro-expressions such as a smile are hard to come by. When parsing all emotions seems impossible. When getting up in the morning is the hardest part of your day. And, when you sit idle on your desk staring at the brightly-lit screen.
If you are reading this while aware of being burnt out, take a five-second pause and be grateful. You are mindful and present. This is a great state to be in before attempting recovery.
There are many paths that may lead to a burnt-out:
✋ Lack of control
🤷 Unclear job expectations
🥊 Dysfunctional workplace dynamics
😰 Extremes of activity
🆘 Lack of social support
☯️ Work-life imbalance
Disclaimer: Please do your own research and consult a professional. I am not a mental health professional. This is not medical advice. Instead, I am sharing my experience to encourage and inspire others out there.
This is not meant to be a program or comprehensive guide. Instead, these are some things that helped me grow out of my pains:
Be Patient. Don't be hard on yourself 🧘🏻
By the time you realize you are burnt out, it is too late. Acknowledge that this state is a result of prolonged physical/mental strain. It didn't happen overnight. And that is ok, you are still capable and alive -- be grateful. You can change things around and make a comeback.
The next thing you need to tell yourself is that a decent recovery will take anywhere from 12-18 weeks. It can even take longer than that time. Be patient. Don't be hard on yourself. You will soon discover too many things around, and inside, you are out of sync. It will take time to get it all sorted. Being mindful of this and not succumbing to emotions is the most important thing -- it might be the hardest one too. For the next 12-18 weeks, always be mindful that you are in recovery. Give yourself a pass on things. It is ok for things to not work out. It is ok if you cannot perform. You are in recovery mode at 256bits. You cannot operate at 4k.
Make space for recovery ❤️🩹
The most common advice I hear about recovering from burnout is to 'detach' yourself from the situation. I don't find this to be the most practical first option. Everyone doesn't have the financial stability to quit a job. I have also heard some people suggest you take a small job size at a different organization. This is good advice, but I don't see it as an excellent first option either. If you are a passionate person, the mere anxiety of not being in a high-performance role will depress you. Also, ramping up on new positions in new organizations can be taxing. I propose the best first option is to take a vacation. Remember you need 12-18 weeks. So using as many vacation days as you can, is an excellent first step. What you do on this vacation is essential, and I will talk about it below. The break might not be enough time.
Before going on your vacation, you need to take your manager into confidence and share. You need to build trust with them that you are burnt out, need a break. You need to further get their support for the plan after when you come back from your vacation. The post-vacation period is more important than your vacation. When you return somewhat re-energized, you don't want to repeat the mistakes that led to this burnout. A manager who thinks of themselves as a coach will understand and be supportive -- I hope you have one who does.
Don't forget to create space for yourself in the digital world. You will need to disconnect for a few weeks. Get away from endless feeds, dopamine hits of likes, and those red dots. You know what works for you here best. The lowest lift thing to do is delete all social apps from your phone and not sleep with the phone in the same room.
Reset your circadian rhythm ⏰
Sleep disorder is a common side-effect. Your biological clocks are at a whack. You need to figure out a morning time to wake up that works best for you to reset them. Look at your average workday, morning activities, and commute. Then set a wakeup time. Having a fixed wakeup time is critical to restoring balance across the body. This time doesn't have to be 5am. Do what works best for you.
Once you have figured out this time, you need to wake up on the dot for the next 8-12 weeks. The first morning and night before are most important. There are two ways to solve this cold-start problem:
- take a Melatonin pill 2-3 hours before your desired bedtime for a few days
- accept the first day to be crappy. stay up through the night/day and sleep at expected bedtime
Both strategies work. They help you fall asleep and get enough sleep. How much is enough? Only you know that. Before, I required 9-10 hours to wake up energized. Now, I need six to seven. Not hitting the snooze is also crucial. I am not an asleep expert, so I will stop here and let you do your own research.
Work the weekends 👩🏭
This heading was an intentional click-bait right in the middle of the post to ensure you were reading.
The standard workweek with nine to five during Monday to Friday with Saturday for chores and Sunday for Church is an artifact of the assembly line era. Two days off and fixed timings with extra incentive to work extra hours -- overtime -- made the lives of managers and accountants easy. It is a great template if you ever needed a single one for everyone without much care for individual work styles and preferences.
In this day and age where remote work is becoming commonplace and your output matters more than your hours, the notion of a fixed workweek with two days off makes no sense. We have enough data, connectivity, and collaboration systems in place for everyone to personalize their workweek and decide when they need time away from work. Why can you not spend a Wednesday afternoon strolling the parks if you have no meetings or deliverables? Why do you have to do chores on Saturday instead of doing them on Tuesday and using your Saturday for a side project or improving a particular skill?
I personally find Sundays one of the most important days of the week because a few hours of work on Sunday helps me stay organized and grounded Monday to Friday. As you recover, I strongly urge you to think about:
- what times do you do your best work
- what times work for you to take a break
- what times are a hard block for you because of family, work, or other personal commitments
Breaking away from a nine to five, Monday through Friday lifestyle will force you to think more profoundly about how you spend your time -- the most precious resource in your life.
Detox and then eat well 🥗
Diet is a central pillar of health. I would go as far as saying sleep and diet are more important than exercise. A great way to restore balance in the gut is to first let it reset. Letting it get to a normal state and then taking it towards a healthy cycle. There are many ways to reset. Some people juice or intermittent fasting, while others prefer 48-72 hour water fasts. I chose fasting dawn to dusk, where I don't eat/drink anything. After dark, I try to eat healthily and light. And I did this for 30-35 days. You do you.
Once reset, get back to a diet of your choice. One which is nutritious and colorful. One where you eat more plants and vegetables. And one where you can roughly measure caloric intake. No fancy regiment needed. You can follow one if you want. It is good as long as you can sustain it; for life.
Figure out how you like to burn calories 🏋🏻♀️
With sleep and diet are taken care of, you want to figure out your caloric balance. Too many people overthink physical health. We get drowned by the constant barrage of fitness workouts, diet regimens, and shiny new devices coming our way. Life is much simpler if you zoom out.
To be fit, you need to follow a few simple principles:
- burn more calories per day than you consume
- push your heart rate to the max at least 2-3x per week
- stretch everyday
- eat a colorful meal
- get enough recovery and sleep between workout sessions
- maintain -- and build enough -- muscle mass
- the workout should be accessible to you
Abs and booty are great if you can maintain them through your 60s. But, unfortunately, most of us cannot long run. Don't get me wrong, abs are the most visible indicator of good health; they're a function of a good diet and a strong core. But, of course, one might maintain a good diet but not focus on the core exercises longer-run. Nevertheless, being healthy and functionally fit is something we all need for a quality life.
A good run or a speed walk is great exercise as long as you can do them consistently. Different workouts burn calories differently. Building muscle is the most time-efficient way to burn calories.
You might switch between different workouts over the years. Then, when recovering from burnout, find the most accessible exercise to start burning some calories consistently.
Walking and cycling are accessible. Both allow you to gather your thoughts and parse emotions concurrently. They might be just enough to get started.
Rediscover the little joys of your life 🤹🏻♀️
Each one of us has a favorite activity or two that sparks joy in our hearts. Then, over time, we stop doing those things because we might be short on time, or they might seem silly considering we're mature now. Sometimes picking up long foregone hobbies might be the grounding you need to recover emotionally. Other times, you will pick up an old interest, find all the progress made, and pick up a new hobby. For example, as a kid, I wanted to fly fighter jets. Later, I found joy in FPV drones. Go find activities that make you joyful and help you disconnect.
Find your inner child 🧸
By the time we hit our late 20s, many of us had stopped pursuing creative endeavors. After all, we have to hustle, be productive, and be efficient with our time. So why would we spend a weekend playing with paint when we can get that next side project shipped or that thinkpiece posted on the blog? As a result, we lose our inner child.
Even as engineers and developers, we get lost in learning new languages and frameworks instead of tinkering with what we already know. Children go and do things without permission and extensive planning. Adults start putting pre-requisites towards milestones. All the planning makes things hard. Sometimes you just need to waste time on creative projects and indulge your inner child without a plan. This aimless wandering without bounds helps relieve the pressure of day-to-day life away.
Finding your inner child will help you recover faster and look at things differently, like when you were five -- young, curious, and hungry.
Introspect your ability<>desire gap 👩🏻💻
For startups, they say idea > execution. The same is true for most things in life. Ideas are figments of imagination and easy to cook up in our heads and get positive feedback from others around us. Ideas communicate our desires.
Execution is hard. It requires having the ability to materialize our ideas. When the gap between "things you want" and "things you can" is too big, you become frustrated. If this frustration persists for more extended periods, you end up burnt out.
During this recovery, reflect on past ambitions and your skill gap. Dreaming smaller might be the reasonable thing to do. But what would such an unambitious life be? Think about ways you can reduce the skill gap instead of dreaming smaller. The second half of this recovery might be a great time to pick up new skills.
Reconnect with yourself 🦸🏻♀️
The most important thing you want to do as part of this recovery is to reconnect with yourself. I know most advice is around going back to loved ones and family. But I'd argue that nothing external can make you happy if you are unsettled internally. You need to spend time and rediscover your evolved self. You have grown over the years. Spend time doing things to learn how you have changed.
The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron is an age-old program. Some people are turned off by its religious undertones, but you can look past it; it might be one of the best investments you make with your recovery time.
I hope this helps your recovery and go back to living a fulfilling life because, like a friend says, "you owe yourself an incredible life."
I would love to hear your feedback on twitter @osamakhn