Ever wake up exhausted and just dread going to work? Do you feel like that most days? Every day?
And we’ve all seen others who have suffered the death spiral of burnout and become shambling zombies at the office. They’re not “The Walking Dead”, they’re “The Working Dead.”
Well, maybe you’re just tired. But tired isn’t burnout. Tired is tired. Get more sleep and you’re not tired anymore. So what does real burnout feel like?
Ah, must be time for a vacation. Vacations fix burnout, right?
Wrong. Research shows that’s like taking painkillers to treat a brain tumor. You feel better for a while but then the problem comes roaring back:
So what gives? What is burnout really? Where does it come from? And what do we have to do to avoid it? Time for some real answers.
Let’s get to it…
What Burnout Really Is
Burnout isn’t being overworked or not getting enough rest.
Burnout is job-induced depression.
When work just gets too frustrating and pursuing your career goals feels futile, you become pessimistic. And University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman explains that “depression is pessimism writ large.”
Seligman’s work also shows optimism promotes persistence. When we expect good things to happen, it’s rational to be more resilient.
So burnout is actually the flip side of grit.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my new book here.)
So how do you make sure you never end up as one of “The Working Dead”? Well, if the root cause of depression is pessimism…
Optimism and pessimism all come down to the story you tell yourself about what happens to you. Researchers call this “explanatory style.”
There are three important elements here. Let’s call them the 3 P’s: permanence, pervasiveness and whether it’s personal.
Pessimists tell themselves that bad events:
- Will last a long time, or forever. (“I’ll never get this done.”)
- Are universal. (“You can’t trust any of those people.”)
- Are their own fault. (“I’m terrible at this.”)
Optimists, well, they see it the exact opposite:
- Bad things are temporary. (“That happens occasionally but it’s no big deal.”)
- Bad things have a specific cause and aren’t universal. (“When the weather is better that won’t be a problem.”)
- It’s not their fault. (“I’m good at this but today wasn’t my lucky day.”)
Pay attention to the voice in your head. When it starts describing negative events as permanent, pervasive or personal, correct yourself.
By remembering the 3 P’s and flipping the script, Seligman says you can make yourself more optimistic over time.
(To learn more about how to be optimistic, click here.)
So you’re looking on the bright side. Good. But is there anything that can make you downright immune to burnout? Yup…
Find Meaning In What You Do
When you find true meaning in your work — when it’s not a job, it’s a calling — you don’t burn out.
When jobs are meaningful, long stressful hours don’t have to be the path to an early grave. In fact, the exact opposite can be the case…
The Terman Study followed a group of people across their entire lives, from childhood to old age. What did they find?
(To learn how to make your current job feel meaningful, click here.)
Rose-colored glasses? Check. Feel your work is meaningful? Check. But when the stress hits hard what’s the emotional EpiPen you need to inject yourself with to prevent burnout?
Double Down On Relationships
When you get busy at work, you often make less time for friends and family. Bad idea. That’s the emotional equivalent of being so overworked you stop eating and starve yourself to death.
Who handles stress the best? Those who increase their social activity when things get hard.
But does this theory really help you avoid burnout in the real world? Yes.
(To learn how to make friends as an adult, click here.)
Alright, we’ve covered a lot. Time to round it up and learn the most important idea underlying all of this…
This is how to avoid burnout:
- Burnout is depression: You’re not tired from your job; you’re pessimistic about your job.
- Be optimistic: Remember the 3P’s. (Every one of my blog posts is always good and it is personally due to me.)
- Find meaning in what you do: I’m writing this to help you. So I’m not burned out. (But, man, am I tired.)
- Double down on relationships: Work stress is a poison and friends are the antidote.
What’s really interesting here?
None of these fixes actually changes what you’re doing. Optimism and meaning only change your interpretation of what’s going on. And time with friends happens when work is done.
Working less doesn’t make your job less frustrating. It makes it less frequently frustrating. You can still be quite pessimistic about things you don’t do as much.
People have jobs far worse than yours and don’t get burned out. It’s about perspective.
You decide whether the glass is half-empty or half-full.
But make sure to drink with close friends.
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