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11 Ways to Avoid Burnout

Be more productive, sleep better, and have deeper insights with a few simple precautions and regular treatments.

The latest Gallup poll (2012) revealed that 87 percent of employees are “not engaged” or are “actively disengaged” from their jobs worldwide. This means that, on average, burnt out employees outnumber the engaged employees 2 to 1.

Traditional theories teach us that burnout is caused by working too many hours or enduring too much stress, but that’s a gross oversimplification of the matter. Not every person feels overwhelmed at the thought of delving into an inbox 96 new emails deep, and some people actually rely on pressure at work to perform at a high level.

There’s also no one-size-fits-all cure for burnout: Some people reach for junk food when stressed, while others may find themselves unable to sleep properly. At 99U, we’ve long explored the best strategies for coping with, treating, and preventing burnout. Here are 11 of our favorites to help you create your own escape plan:


1. Figure out which kind of burnout you have.

The Association for Psychological Science found that burnout comes in three different types, and each one needs a different solution:

1. Overload: The frenetic employee who works toward success until exhaustion, is most closely related to emotional venting. These individuals might try to cope with their stress by complaining about the organizational hierarchy at work, feeling as though it imposes limits on their goals and ambitions. That coping strategy, unsurprisingly, seems to lead to a stress overload and a tendency to throw in the towel.

2. Lack of Development: Most closely associated with an avoidance coping strategy. These under-challenged workers tend to manage stress by distancing themselves from work, a strategy that leads to depersonalization and cynicism — a harbinger for burning out and packing up shop.

3. Neglect: Seems to stem from a coping strategy based on giving up in the face of stress. Even though these individuals want to achieve a certain goal, they lack the motivation to plow through barriers to get to it.

Read the rest of the article here.

2. Cut down and start saying “no.”

Every “yes” you say adds another thing on your plate and takes more energy away from you, and your creativity:

If you take on too many commitments, start saying ‘no’. If you have too many ideas, execute a few and put the rest in a folder labeled ‘backburner’. If you suffer from information overload, start blocking off downtime or focused worktime in your schedule (here are some tools that may help). Answer email at set times. Switch your phone off, or even leave it behind. The world won’t end. I promise.

Read the entire article here.


3.  Give up on getting motivated.

With real burnout mode, you’re too exhausted to stay positive. So don’t:

When you’re mired in negative emotions about work, resist the urge to try to stamp them out. Instead, get a little distance — step away from your desk, focus on your breath for a few seconds — and then just feel the negativity, without trying to banish it. Then take action alongside the emotion. Usually, the negative feelings will soon dissipate. Even if they don’t, you’ll be a step closer to a meaningful achievement.

 Read the entire article here.


4.  Treat the disease, not the symptoms. 

For real recovery and prevention to happen, you need to find the real, deeper issue behind why you’re burnt out:

Instead of overreacting to the blip, step back from it, see it as an incident instead of an indictment, and then examine it like Sherlock Holmes looking for clues.

For example, you could ask yourself: What happened before the slip? Did I encounter a specific trigger event such as a last-minute client request? Was there an unusual circumstance such as sickness? When did I first notice the reversion in my behavior? Is some part of this routine unsustainable and if so, how could I adjust it to make it more realistic?

Read the rest of the article here.


5.  Make downtime a daily ritual.

To help relieve pressure, schedule daily blocks of downtime to refuel your brain and well-being. It can be anything from meditation to a nap, a walk, or simply turning off the wifi for a while:

 When it comes to scheduling, we will need to allocate blocks of time for deep thinking. Maybe you will carve out a 1-2 hour block on your calendar every day for taking a walk or grabbing a cup of coffee and just pondering some of those bigger things. I can even imagine a day when homes and apartments have a special switch that shuts down wi-fi and data access during dinner or at night – just to provide a temporary pause from the constant flow of status updates and other communications…

There is no better mental escape from our tech-charged world than the act of meditation. If only for 15 minutes, the ability to steer your mind away from constant stimulation is downright liberating. There are various kinds of meditation. Some forms require you to think about nothing and completely clear your mind. (This is quite hard, at least for me.) Other forms of meditation are about focusing on one specific thing – often your breath, or a mantra that you repeat in your head (or out loud) for 10-15 minutes…

If you can’t adopt meditation, you might also try clearing your mind the old fashioned way – by sleeping. The legendary energy expert and bestselling author Tony Schwartz takes a 20-minute nap every day. Even if it’s a few hours before he presents to a packed audience, he’ll take a short nap.

Read the rest of the article here.


6.  Stop being a perfectionist; start satisficing.

Trying to maximize every task and squeeze every drop of productivity out of your creative work is a recipe for exhaustion and procrastination. Set yourself boundaries for acceptable work and stick to them:

Consistently sacrificing your health, your well being, your relationships, and your sanity for the sake of living up to impossible standards will lead to some dangerous behaviors and, ironically, a great deal of procrastination. Instead of saying, “I’ll stay up until this is done,” say, “I’ll work until X time and then I’m stopping. I may end up needing to ask for an extension or complete less than perfect work. But that’s OK. I’m worth it.” Making sleep, exercise, and downtime a regular part of your life plays an essential role in a lasting, productive creative career.

Read the article here.

7.  Track your progress every day.

Keeping track allows you to see exactly how much is on your plate, not only day-to-day, but consistently over time:

Disappointing feedback can be painful at first – research shows that failure and losses can hurt twice as much as the pleasure of equivalent gains. But if you discover you’re off course, reliable feedback shows you by how much, and you then have the opportunity to take remedial action and to plot a new training regime or writing schedule. The temporary pain of negative feedback is nothing compared with the crushing experience of project failure. Better to discover that you’re behind and need to start writing an hour earlier each day, than to have your book contract rescinded further down the line because you’ve failed to deliver.

 Read the article here.

8.  Change location often.

Entrepreneurs or freelancers can be especially prone to burnout. Joel Runyon plays “workstation popcorn,” in which he groups tasks by location and then switches, in order to keep work manageable, provide himself frequent breaks, and spend his time efficiently:

You find yourself spending hours at your computer, dutifully “working” but getting very little done. You finish each day with the dreaded feeling that you’re behind, and that you’re only falling farther and farther behind. You’re buried below an ever-growing to-do list. There’s a feeling of dread that tomorrow is coming, and that it’s bringing with it even more work that you probably won’t be able to get ahead on.

List out everything you need to do today. Try to be as specific as you can…Next, break that list into three sections. Step 1: Go to cafe [or desk, a different table in your office, etc.] #1. Step 2: Start working on item group #1…Once you finish all the tasks in group #1, get up and move. Close your tabs, pack your bags, and physically move your butt to your next spot. If you can, walk or bike to your next stop…When you get to the next cafe [or spot], start on the next action item group, and repeat…

When you’ve completed everything on your to-do list for the day, you are done working. Relax, kick back, and live your life. Don’t take work home with you because that won’t help you get more done – it will just wear you out.

Read the article here.

9.  Don’t overload what downtime you do get.

Vacations themselves can cause, or worsen burnout, with high-stress situations, expectations, and sleep interruption. Use it to help in recovery from burnout instead: 

Make a flexible itinerary a priority. [A] study from Radboud University found that effective vacations give you the choice and freedom to choose what you want to do. That means two things: Try to avoid structuring your vacation around an unbreakable schedule, and plan on going somewhere that has multiple options to pick from depending on the weather, your level of energy, or your budget.

Read the article here.


10. Write yourself fan mail.

Seth Godin uses self-fan mail as a way to keep motivated instead of burning out on a project that seems far from completion:

I define non-clinical anxiety as, “experiencing failure in advance.” If you’re busy enacting a future that hasn’t happened yet, and amplifying the worst possible outcomes, it’s no wonder it’s difficult to ship that work. With disappointment, I note that our culture doesn’t have an easily found word for the opposite. For experiencing success in advance. For visualizing the best possible outcomes before they happen. Will your book get a great testimonial? Write it out. Will your talk move someone in the audience to change and to let you know about it? What did they say? Will this new product gain shelf space at the local market? Take a picture. Writing yourself fan mail in advance, and picturing the change you’ve announced you’re trying, to make is an effective way to push yourself to build something that actually generates that action.

Read the article here.


11. Break projects into bite-sized pieces.

Taking a task on in one entire lump can be exhausting and provide little room for rest in between. Breaking up your projects into set chunks with their own deadlines provides a much healthier, and easier, way of completing a large project:

The default take on deadlines is typically to consider them to be cumbersome and stressful. Yet, from another perspective, a deadline can be viewed as a huge benefit to any project. Without the urgency of a hard deadline pushing a project to completion, it’s easy for you, your team, or your client to lose focus. We’ve all worked on agonizing projects where the timeline just bleeds on and on, merely because the flexibility is there…

It turns out that the manner in which a task is presented to someone – or the way in which you present it to your brain – has a significant impact on how motivated you will be to take action. A study led by researcher Sean McCrea at the University of Konstanz in Germany recently found that people are much more likely to tackle a concrete task than an abstract task… It seems to me like the difference between being handed a map versus following the step-by-step instructions of a GPS device. Not everyone can read a map, but everyone can follow the directions. By breaking your project down into smaller, well-described tasks, the way forward becomes clear and it’s easy to take action.

Read the article here.


How about you?

How do you avoid or recover from burn out?


More Posts by Sasha VanHoven

Sasha is the Associate Editor of 99U. You can watch her tweet here.

Comments (41)
  • JS

    Great article! Here are some more tips on achieving a healthier work/life balance:

  • LP Marie

    If I could give my younger self advice, I would definitely say stick to a schedule, like rising and settling down at the same time each day. Always make a point of physically getting out of the office at lunch time (or else you’ll fade by 3 pm and be ravenous by 5 pm.), and stretch your legs often. In times of deadlines, eat as healthy as possible — even if it means springing for a fresh salad from the deli. Just do it. You’ll be glad you did. Great collection of advice. Thanks!

    • LP Marie

      Honored by the feature!

  • Pedro

    Doing sports is my solution. We need to keep active to be more productive, more creative and more healthy!

    • Tom Durkin

      Definitely agree!

  • Jonathan Whelan

    There should be a12th topic on this list: Avoiding interruptions from micro managers. The biggest cause of burnout and stress in my opinion. The 11 topics above are great if other people allow you to achieve them

    • Sasha

      Agreed! Which can be extra difficult in an open office. We use the headphone rule: both ear-buds in, don’t bother me. Only 1 in, you can interrupt me.

      • Martin LeBlanc,

        Open offices + developers is a combination that leads to burn-out and stress for developers.

    • helloimnik

      that is so true, my current boss is THE worst micromanager – thankfully I’m pretty separate from him but the rest of the staff get micro managed all the time, I don’t know how they cope!

      • Thomas Lejeune

        I totally understand this. The thing is, how do you tell your boss you need to work a full 10 min without being interrupted? Mine wouldn’t just understand it if I told him I didn’t have time to listen to his not-so-important-thing while working on things that matter.

        I’m still trying to find a way for people to let me work instead of constantly interrupting.

  • Santhosh Tuppad

    Great pointers, however; its challenging (Its easier said than done) & I love challenges. Running or any physical activity may help 🙂 I love to increase my patience level to more every day! Its me who has the control to filter negativity or anything that doesn’t matter or is non-sense to me. Stay strong, stay happy. One life, rock it ~ Santhosh Tuppad.

  • Simo

    Thank you for the post. It’s useful indeed.
    When working in a (noisy) open office I found it helped to create a work-playlist. Music has always had a strong influence on my state of mind, so listening to calming songs helps me block out distractions and focus on work. And including some of my favourite songs makes me smile, even if the task I’m working on seems endless and annoying.

  • Olivia

    Hi, great article! So useful for me at the ment as I’m going through an insanely busy time with personal, work, and study commitments.

    Just a quick note that the way you’ve used the stats in the teaser isn’t quite right.

    • Sasha

      Hey Olivia, glad it helped! Could you be more specific about the stats? I pulled those verbatim from the Gallup poll linked with them, and would never want to incorrectly report something, so if there was any oversight, please share. 🙂

      • Omar

        The stats are fine.

      • Olivia

        Hi Sasha and Omar, it’s not the numbers I have a problem with, they all match up with what’s on the Gallup report. I just don’ think you can infer your second statement from your first.

        The second statement, refers to the percentage of “actively disengaged” workers (i.e. 24%) whom you are calling “burnt out”. This is what’s compared to the 13% of engaged employees in the “nearly 2-to-1” quote from the report.

        If I may make a respectful suggestion, I would suggest using some statement other than “this means that”. They’re both valid and powerful statements, but you can’t say that one “means” the other. Perhaps something like “in addition”. Or just use one of the stats (one would be strong enough), and a comment about how this is relevant to your article i.e. that you see “disengaged” = “burnt out”.

        Cheers! Olivia
        PS. Sorry for being so pedantic, normally I wouldn’t say anything but the first two sentences nearly stopped me from reading what turned out to be a great article.

  • Skye Stevens

    Great article! Good ideas that will help keep focused when the stress ball doesn’t cut it anymore! LOL Thanks!

  • http://OverAchieve.Us Steve Ed Alan

    Fantastic! As someone who’s learnt about burnout the hard way, these are all genuinely important tips and reminders. I will be sending this to lots of people I know.

  • Sharath

    Good points to put into practice and spread the same message in your organization

  • Prafulla Shrivastva

    One more point I want to add here, enjoy your work, encourage all the team members with appreciation & your smile, it will give you a pleasant feelings & satisfaction.

  • Evan

    This is great advice, but I’m not sure how most of these suggestions can help with Burnout #2 (under development and unchallenged). The feeling of being stuck in a job where you’re not growing because your employer is stuck in the 1990s is stressful — especially when you watch your colleagues growing with the times. The trouble with that is you end up not being experienced with what is really in demand, which makes movement more difficult.

    • Sasha

      I can relate entirely, as my last job had me caught between being depressed over how bored I was and scared to leave as everyone around me was saying how grateful I should be for the position and salary level I was given. Finally I started to apply elsewhere in my free time for a different kind of work, and made what I thought was the farthest, never-gonna-happen leap in applying to 99U — yet they ended up hiring me! Sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit.

      • Melisa

        Please share with us your experience about taking this leap. I think it could help inspire burned out workers like us to have some hope. I’ve always been an idealist at work, always wanted to be an asset to the company/org, always taking the initiative to try to improve myself and the work I’m involved in, esp. the process and procedures. When I work, it’s for the image /brand of the company/org I work for, so I see my work and myself as part of the image/brand.

        But my last job (esp. the boss) took advantage of it, and harassed me when I asserted (which he found offensive) that my resignation (after several attempts since year 2) was final and irrevocable (he always said he couldn’t find someone of my “caliber” to do the job, so he always sweet-talked me into not resigning, trying to appeal to my sense of compassion and family ties [it’s a religious org that my family is affiliated with], even resorting to subtle threats that I would “be answerable to God” for leaving the job that God wanted me to do “in service of Him”). His actions made me feel worthless, after all those 6 years, like, “Okay, so you want to leave, then? Go ahead you *** (then proceeds to kick me in the shins)! Who cares if you leave?!” Ouch, my foot.

        Now I feel I would rather not live at all and forget everything. I didn’t know burnout could lead to depression. It’s really worse and traumatic; I have lost the interest to live. I need real help. I just couldn’t be persuaded with normal reasoning. My feelings are way, way down the bottom of the sea of helplessness.

        But, thank you, Sasha, your post was insightful.

      • Sasha

        Melisa, I’m so sorry your boss took advantage of you! He sounds very controlling and manipulative; any healthy working relationship is about support and helping others grow, even if that means someone moves on to the next project. I highly, highly encourage you to seek professional help through this time. If you’re in the US, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They can help you find hope again, and set you up with contacts that can provide support for you until you’re back on your own two feet again.

      • Melisa

        Thanks so much for this information, Sasha. I’ve been thinking about it, too.

        Burnout is a pressing workplace issue because it can lead to depression, and most workers are vulnerable, esp. if they’ve been through so much in life. I’m thankful you wrote about this topic. It actually helped improve my feelings. 🙂

      • shoaib

        Doing more than one project at a time really squeezes the creativity lemon. Doesn’t it?

    • DSmart

      I definitely have that type of burnout. In fact, I’m avoiding work right now because I’m just so freaking bored of the same old thing. But I go back and forth because I’m so lucky that I work from home, I’d hate to give that up. I see several ways that I can help the company I’m at evolve, but no one wants to take my advice. Maybe instead of wasting my time and energy on them I should just take my own advice and put those ideas to work starting my own company?

  • Gota


  • slyrs

    Why is everybody always so sure that it is the workers who are at fault, they need only quit complaining and get lists of tipps to getting things done.We should (also) consider some other real causes of burnout, not only devise therapeutic regimes to help us cope just a little longer. Why don’t we ever focus on poor management (for instance a prevalence of sociopathic individuals in positions of authority)? This ideoloy of self-optimization tries to squeeze out even the last drip. And there are fairly few attempts to illuminate methods to improve the quality of management, plan projects with with real-world goals, reduce exploitive and manipulative practices. It is not always our fault if we do not burn but burn out.

    • Evan

      I do in many ways agree with you. I think it’s a two party responsibility to learn to sustain with the demands of our employers, and improve management practices. If a company can do a great job with both, they would be unstoppable.

      The problem I find with management is that they are not in the front lines (or ground floor so-to-speak) so they do not see things the way us worker bees do. So when we come up with great solutions to problems or to improve SOPs, they go ignored ’til much later… then they get the praise.


    • Hélène

      So true. I’m glad you pointed this out.

  • James Allen

    This is exactly what I needed to read – a bit late as I’m at the end of my semester, but still applicable. Thanks for the great summary!

  • Frank Wood

    Before the experience of burnout, that feeling that you are so done with the position you find yourself, there are dependent events, taking some thought from Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraint. These dependent events if recognized provide a means of leveraging the situations at hand so that burnout is avoidable.

    In a way, treating burnout as an outcome rather than a condition to be avoided permits leaders to leverage the stress that comes with work, at home and in relationships.

  • DSmart

    “Forget comfort”, I like that! It’s so true, we have to take risks in order to get the rewards that life is offering.

  • Greg Donert

    Great article! I think I’m definitely guilty of number 6, it’s difficult not to be a perfectionist when you’re really passionate about what you do. Especially when it comes to creative work, it’s all too easy to compare yourself to your peers who are doing incredible stuff. I’m starting to learn now though that striving for perfection can be foolish, as long as you keep improving with each piece of work that’s all that matters.

  • Pablo Testa

    Very interesting article, I have gone through several stages of which are named,
    to start saying no was one of the biggest changes to avoid reliving stressful situations, also the personal stuff to do outside of work helps a lot, spend time with sports is one of them.
    After intense stages of work is good to disconnect a couple of days, working on simple tasks, relax your mind to start over with complex or high stress projects. Very useful tips, sure will help to many people.

  • David Veal

    Burn out demands a challenge. It is the mind without a life.

  • Rick Solomon

    This article hits the nail on the head with me. I constantly try to squeeze every bit out of my day and often feel like the world is on my shoulders.

  • TalentCove

    Tracking your progress daily is a good habit to develop. Not only does it allow for frequent feedback that helps you stay on course, or get back on course, but it also provides opportunities to celebrate small wins that can help improve your mood.

    Great article, Sasha! (And I love how conversational you are in the comment section, as well.)

    – Lolly

  • shoaib

    Before 99u : whenever I had to make an important decision like which college to go to, or preparing for exams. Just the thought of big decisions stressed me out. I would end up watching tv or curl up in my bed and sleep.
    After 99u : I have realised its very normal and now if I feel overwhelmed I just keep going and everytime I do it I rewire my brain. Truly fabulous. thanks Behance.
    Insted of procrastinating I think of the big picture.

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