Unplug and Recharge: When Burnout Fries Your Motivation

When burnout wipes the canvas clean, it is an invitation to pick through the ashes and make life new again.
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Life really does have an uncanny way of imitating art.

It was Labor Day of 2010. I'd just finished penning the final revisions to my latest book "Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive." My husband Gordon and I returned from an early-morning hike and spotted smoke in the gulch below the house. Within minutes there were flames. Hastily packing what we could, we loaded the dogs into our cars and prepared to flee.

A hundred-foot wall of flames raced up the gulch as we said goodbye to our home. The roar of the conflagration was terrifying as we witnessed the worst wildfire in Colorado history. It burned for almost a week and incinerated 169 homes and more than 7,500 acres of pristine beauty.

"Fried" was suddenly more than a book title. Five days into the evacuation we were told that our home had, against all odds, survived. Twelve neighboring homes were reduced to ash. The once-magnificent view had been replaced by a charred, lunar landscape. Clouds of soot and toxic dust settled over everything inside and out.

Staying on top of the insurance claim, hiring and overseeing contractors to clean and repair the house, canceling checking accounts and credit cards that might have been compromised -- all the while traveling, working and living in a hotel -- started to burn me out.

Berkeley psychologist Christina Maslach created a scale that measures the three basic components of the syndrome: emotional exhaustion and physical depletion; loss of empathy; and decrease in self-confidence and competence. Burnout starts innocently enough with working harder but slowly and surely culminates in physical and mental collapse.

As work expands and threatens to eat life whole, values get turned upside down. Exercise, play and time with loved ones may get short shrift. The result is snarkiness and impatience, a tendency to feel edgy and judgmental -- a closing of the heart. In an attempt to feel better you might overeat, drink to excess, turn to prescription or illicit drugs, get lost in porn or find yourself staring mindlessly at the television. It's like a film of plastic wrap has been stretched over the world, and you can't connect with life.

Motivation gets replaced by a "why bother?" attitude. Headaches, trouble sleeping, stomach problems, muscle aches, high blood pressure and the whole panoply of stress-related ills increase. The end result looks a lot like depression. The cure is not in a pill but in making choices that allow you to make a living while having a life.

Tips for Revival:

  1. Unplug and take stock. Go away for a few days to a quiet place where you can get some perspective. What's burning you out? Are you a square peg in a round hole? Customer service, for example, is a bad choice for the conflict-averse. Are you a caregiver who needs respite? Are you a people-pleaser who needs to say "no" to others and "yes" to yourself? Is your lifestyle so expensive that working enough to fund it is killing you?

  • Purge what's not necessary. Pareto's Law states that 20 percent of one's actions result in 80 percent of hoped-for results. Identify leverage points and energy drains. What serves you, and what wastes your time? When I cut down on radio interviews, reviewing people's manuscripts and doing favors for just about anyone who asked, I had much more time for what really matters. The fire gave me permission to say "no" without feeling guilty. But you don't need to wait for an excuse to live your own life.
  • Play both for the sake of fun itself and because play changes your brain state and supports creative thinking. Work smarter by exercising or playing when you feel stale.
  • Pay yourself first. Schedule time for self-care, family and friends before filling up your calendar with work demands. Waiting for free time to materialize is the same as deciding to save the money that's left at the end of the month.
  • Take a weekly Sabbath. Do absolutely nothing related to work on that day. This is a time-honored strategy for staying sane and enjoying life.
  • Cultivate beginner's mind. The late Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi wrote, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few."
  • As a result of the fire I've had to give up expert status. After months spent grieving the destruction of the land, I'm constantly surprised by new life revealing itself. Charred trees are host to flocks of magpies and woodpeckers. Some of the browned-out trees are showing signs of life. The pleasure of seeing the landscape with fresh eyes is not in the end-product of what all the cutting, pruning and planting might create, but in the act of creativity itself.

    Pay yourself first. We humans are born artists, and when burnout wipes the canvas clean, it is an invitation to pick through the ashes and make life new again.