Business Hacker Guide to Burnout

What is burnout, and what can you do about it?

Burnout is an atypical form of depression caused by prolonged mental exhaustion.

To best understand burnout, it’s important to understand how it occurs. Steve Jobs use to say, “a computer is the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”

Consider this for a second, if a computer is a bicycle for our mind, then using a computer all day is burning our mental energy at a pace un-before experienced by our primate minds. People race around thinking at the speed of their computers all day rather than the speed of life. Computers and their smaller counterparts, mobile devices, are tools that activate the mind and draw us in like a stimulant. From the LED screen, to the physical acts of typing, clicking, liking, tweeting, and swiping, we are actively engaging with a computer at an unprecedented rate, all day, every day.

In the past 5-10 years, computers have hit a tipping point in the amount of data they are able to  process enabling supercomputer usage for the average knowledge worker (even while using  a mobile device). The complexity of tasks a single person can now accomplish on a computer in a single moment far exceeds anything our species has ever known before. The fact of the matter is our minds, organic brains, and physical bodies simply cannot keep up. We are human.

Even athletes experience burnout, so taking care of yourself physically isn’t always enough since burnout is more than just a physical condition. When thinking in terms of burnout, you need to envision that caring for the mind is like taking care of a puppy, or newborn baby. You need to keep it hydrated, fed, stimulated, and also make sure it takes time to rest and recover. The last part being the most critical.

Disclaimer: This is a guide to burnout, and is not an alternative to getting psychological help. If you are suffering from an anxiety disorder, or depression then please seek proper help from a qualified health professional. I am not a doctor.

Potential symptoms of burnout include:

  • Loss of interest in normal activities.
  • Lack of motivation – no longer experiencing the warm fuzzies after completing tasks or accomplishing goals anymore.
  • Low sense of accomplishment despite working diligently.
  • Poor concentration.
  • Lack of focus.
  • Easily distracted.
  • Poor decision making.
  • Constantly tired.
  • Brainfog.
  • Anxiety.
  • Irritability.
  • Easily agitated.
  • Disillusioned.
  • Depersonalization.
  • Social isolation.
  • Negativity.
  • Unable to solve simple problems quickly.
  • Increased drug and/or alcohol usage.
  • Increased caffeine consumption with minimal effect.
  • Insomnia but also a decreased need for sleep.
  • Irregular sleep habits – Not sleeping enough, and/or oversleeping on weekends.
  • Poor eating habits.
  • Not working out enough.
  • Social anxiety.
  • Not leaving the office or house, only interacting with people online.
  • Procrastination – mental escapism.

If you think you are suffering from burnout, or have experienced burnout in the past don’t worry! Burnout is a temporary state and can be overcome. As with most injuries, taking action to recover can decrease the healing time while continuing in the same pattern that caused the injury to occur will only make it worse. So treat your mind with acceptance, and give yourself time to heal. Being impatient won’t heal your burnout any faster, it’ll just make you more irritable.

Here is what helped me overcome my burnout:

Meditation

I put this first on the list simply because it is the best solution I’ve found for preventing burnout. I currently meditate 20 minutes a day usually within the first hour of waking up. I practice a wide range of techniques from transcendental meditation to visualization, labeling, and others.

If you have no idea what meditation is, or how to get started, checkout the applications Headspace or Buddify. Also r/Meditation on Reddit is a great resource.

I also recommend finding a local meditation group. This will help connect you to a network of people to deepen your practice, or get your practice started if you’re having a hard time meditating on your own. There is something about meditating with a group of people that plugs you back into the collective human consciousness, metaphysically speaking. There are zen centers in most major cities. I sometimes attend a group called Dharma Punx.

Meditation is amazing at teaching you to let things go that you can’t control, as well as helping you change your relationship with anxiety, preventing depression, managing your moods, and overall being more focused, aware, and mindful.

If you’ve ever been to a concert and found yourself insyc with the music and the crowd, that feeling is very similar to what you can experience from attending a group meditation. They’ve done studies on this, it’s a thing.

If there is one thing you should take from this guide, it should be meditation especially if you suffer from anxiety.

Reduce or Avoid Alcohol

Put the sauce down, it isn’t doing you any favors in the mental capacity department. Meanwhile it is dehydrating your brain, taxing your liver, and depressing your system further. I know this is the most socially acceptable drug around, but it’s probably the worst for your short term and long term health.

A glass of wine or a good beer with friends once or twice a week is one thing, but hard alcohol and mixed drinks just aren’t necessary. Keep it light and go for quality of experience, not the quantity of drinks you can consume. A buzz is fine, getting wasted is not.

Also make sure you consume protein and stay hydrated when you do drink so you can function the next day.

Quit Coffee and Energy Drinks

This is extremely important.

Caffeine prevents your body from being able to tell your brain that you’re tired.

Caffeine is a drug just like any other, and although it probably isn’t killing you physically like other drugs it exacerbates burnout. It also makes recovering from burnout really difficult, and there really is no safe amount. Just because you have a high caffeine tolerance, it doesn’t mean it isn’t impacting your mind or your circadian rhythm.

If completely cutting out caffeine is going to cause you stress and anxiety, start with significantly cutting back your caffeine intake by only having one (8 ounce) cup in the morning, and/or stop consuming caffeine after 4pm.

If you absolutely need caffeine to function drink tea, preferably green teas which have other health benefits and lower levels of caffeine. Other alternatives include herbal teas such as rooibos, ginger, and peppermint.

Eat Better

There have been an increasing number of studies that directly link the health of the gut biome (the bacterial contents of the digestive tract) to brain chemistry. This means that the foods you consume directly effect your moods and mental health. In other words, it is really important to consider what you are eating, not just how much. Food selection actually has more of a direct impact on your overall health then any other metric including calories.

Avoid processed foods, and instead look for  fresh and properly preserved delicacies.

Eat plenty of healthy proteins and fats, fruits and veggies, and don’t buy into the food pyramid or fad diets. A healthy diet consists of natural whole foods such as meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, and nuts. That’s it. Everything else probably isn’t as healthy for you.

For optimal brain performance you need to eat a balanced diet and power your body off protein and fat instead of sugars. The best way to do this is limit or eliminate grains, unnecessary carbohydrates, and starches. 

Avoid anything with artificial sweeteners as they can disrupt your biome, especially corn syrup which is suspected to be the leading cause behind the diabetes epidemic.

Listen to Your Body

If it hurts, stop doing it. Find another solution that hurts less, or ideally, not at all. Apply this to food as well as exercise by being aware of your body’s reactions to bloating, energy levels, and other minor discomforts that are often ignored.

Work Less by Working Smart

This is probably the hardest thing on the list for a wide range of reasons, but it is also by far the most logical. If you don’t have to work as much, then you won’t burnout as quickly, can take more breaks, vacations, and take better care of yourself.

Ultimately you need to figure out how to stop trading hours for dollars.

Now that doesn’t mean you have to become less efficient, this actually means you need to learn to manage your time to be more efficient. You need to learn to establish a life work balance. If you’re working all the time you’re doing it wrong, and if you’re not working enough you’re probably not getting much done.

I use Things for my personal to do lists, and when working with others I use project management tools such as Slack, Basecamp, Asana, and Trello.

Avoid or Reduce Drug Usage

By drugs, I mean everything from marijuana to prescription painkillers, anti-anxiety meds, to MDMA. Anything that changes your brain chemistry will obviously impact your brain. The problem is sometimes you’re taking these drugs to help you deal with the effects of burnout. So the most important thing to practice is moderation. If you have to take something keep the dose low, just enough to get a buzz or take the edge off.

Notice how drugs make you feel the next day, and avoid or limit the ones that impact your daily functioning. If a drug helps your daily functioning then maybe try only doing that drug, and avoid everything else. Listen to your body, your doctor, and find what works best for you.

Stand Up

The human body wasn’t designed to sit in a chair all day. Blood circulation is aided by skeletal muscle contraction, which means body movement helps the flow of blood move more efficiently through your body; we are designed to be moving, or resting. Stimulating your brain while sitting is not relaxing.
If you are working on a computer all day make sure to take breaks, stand up every hour, and stretch. I highly recommend standing desks as well.

Exercise

Yoga, walking, and running are my prefered physical activities of choice, but find what works for you. I prefer these three activities as they allow me to meditate and sharpen my focus. They also strengthen the body, and refresh the mind.

Exercise can also be good for getting you out of your usual comfort zones by trying out new activities, and getting you out of the work zone and into a different setting. Try to work out at least 3 times a week, if not more.

Vacation for 2-3 Weeks or More

Vacations are a time to re-energise yourself, whether that’s with physically rigorous adventures or languid rest and relaxation. You may have to relearn how to relax; in our fast paced world, relaxation can feel like a luxury rather than a necessity. Make sure you’re not constantly hooked into your devices, and either interact with and enjoy the world and loved ones around you, or just curl up and enjoy some blissful alone time.

Make sure to spend time in nature, and try to incorporate nature into your post vacation lifestyle.

Human Touch

Human touch is not typically something most people correlate with mental health, but it is arguably a basic human need. When you touch another person, it releases oxytocin, which is linked to human bonding, socialization, and even maternal instincts. It also relieves anxiety and fear.

Many of us spend most of our days working behind a computer, and aren’t physically interacting with other people. In fact, most work places have banned all physical interaction aside from handshakes so it is important to find physical touch from other appropriate sources.

If you’re in a relationship, one of the best sources of oxytocin is from sex. Sex is effective at helping with burnout for multiple reasons as it is both a source of oxytocin and physical activity.

If sex is not an option, you can also get a massage. Not only is a massage just as effective for getting oxytocin, but it is great for any repetitive stress injuries you may have. Another option, especially for those with injuries and pain is acupuncture.

Accept that you are your own person

Take this list as a collection of information and ideas to inspire and manifest your happiness. What works for your best friend or partner may not work for you, and that’s perfectly normal. Burnout is often clumped together with depressive disorders, but it’s just your body’s way of telling you that it’s exhausted and needs to rest and recalibrate. While computers are replaceable, your body is not.

It’s hard to accept that there are limitations that require retraining your habits. Call it growing older, or learning to accept that our brain chemistry, magnificent as it is, doesn’t always instinctively know what’s best for our bodies, or when we need to take a break. In our current culture of pushing through tiredness and all bodily functions to complete deadlines, personal goals and the ingrained stubbornness born from all those all nighters we have the capacity to pull off, taking a break feels a lot like quitting, but it isn’t.

Life is not a race, and the sooner you tune into how things actually make you feel the sooner you can find a path that brings you more peace, rest, and happiness.

Interested in quitting your day job and starting your own lifestyle business?