What to Do When You Are Feeling Burnt Out

Burnout is a common phenomenon at this time of year. Given the high demand of classes and activities in the final weeks before winter break, a multitude of holiday celebrations, colder weather (well, theoretically), and less daylight, many of us are primed for the feelings of exhaustion and ennui.

From my experience, there are two kinds of burnout.

First, there's the burnout that happens in the midst of the storm. All you want is an hour or two (or ten) to stay in your pajamas and hibernate, but for the demands of life.​

You keep your nose to the grindstone and move from one commitment to the next, but in between you feel exhausted and ornery. You are a machine, and your only opportunity to switch "off" happens at night when you're asleep (if you're able to sleep restfully, that is).

Second, there's the burnout that ironically seems like a bit of a luxury--the kind that you can feel because you have time to be tired and unmotivated. This is the burnout that comes after the storm. You've accomplished quite a bit leading up to this point (you may have even been operating with Burnout #1 for a while). But now that you're no longer running on adrenaline and willpower, you don't want to do much. Still, you want to neither feel ineffective nor waste the discretionary time at your disposal.

The key to dealing with burnout is finding the balance between taking productive action steps and giving yourself the rest and self-care you both desire and require. It isn't one or the other.
That balance is for you to find. But I know you can do it!
Here are some steps that you can take in times of burnout.

1) Rest and Restore

It may sound obvious, but part of the reason you are burnt out is that you are tired. Giving your body and mind a chance to receive quality rest will energize you and allow you to make the most of the time available to you--whether it is twenty minutes or ten hours.

In addition to a good night's sleep, I'd also group into this step other self-care activities like meditating or coloring in one of those trendy coloring books for adults.

2) Go for a Walk

Sometimes you can break through a mental or physical wall by going for a brisk walk or run outside--even in the cold! Sure, it's nice to be all toasty and warm inside. But the hit of fresh, crisp air combined with physical movement will leave you thinking and feeling more clearly. Ten to twenty minutes is all you need for an energy burst.

3) Practice Self-Compassion

Once you sit down to take a break, you may encounter guilt, frustration, restlessness, or some other form of negativity. Respond to the feeling or thoughts with self-compassion.

We are so in the habit of bouncing from one activity to the next that the minute we are still, our minds start racing through all of the things we could/should be doing. Our negative self-talk says things like, "I am so lazy. I am so unproductive. I should do better than this."

But, the truth is, it's okay to take a break. A regular period of rest is not self-indulgent. It is a chance to recharge and important in maintaining balance.

Remind yourself that it is okay to rest. It is healthy to restore.

4) Write It Out

In Acing It! A Mindful Guide to Maximum Results on Your College Admissions Test, I describe the process of "Writing It Out" as a way to clear your mind of extraneous thoughts and release pent up emotions. You can also do an intentional "Write It Out" to help with your burnout.

Before you go to sleep, write a letter to an imaginary friend or mentor and express how you are feeling. You might explain that you are feeling really, really tired and even though you know there are still things left for you to do, you're not sure where to start or where to find the energy to start even if you knew where to start. You may mention everything you've accomplished of late. You may list some of the things you've yet to accomplish that are weighing on you and/or specific items still on your to-do list.

Then, close your letter by asking for help. Something like this:

All that said, friend, my top priority is to feel better... like A.S.A.P. Is there anything you can do to help me with this? Maybe you could help me feel energized so that I can accomplish some items on my to-do list, or maybe you can give me peace of mind so that I can take time to relax.

Thank you, friend, for all of your help. I really appreciate it!

Once you've finished writing, go to bed, and see how you feel the next day. If you are feeling energized, make or review a to-do list. If you have a strong desire for some other self-care activity (going for a run, taking a bath, attending yoga class, reading a book), then do that! Whatever activity sounds appealing from your rested and centered place is the "answer" from the recipient of your letter.

Note: I would avoid watching television or turning on the computer (for leisure) first thing the morning after writing your letter. These activities can drown out your inner voice that will guide you to the activity that will help you feel better. If, once you've done something else for a few hours, you want to watch television or dive into the internet, that's your prerogative. Just keep in mind your to-do list and set boundaries around the time so that twenty minutes doesn't turn into four hours.

5) Make a To-Do List (And Act on It!)

Especially in the case of Burnout #2, one of the reasons why it is hard to focus your attention amidst burnout is because you are both exhausted from what you've already done and overwhelmed by everything you could do. Making a to-do list gives you a clear set of actions which will help you to feel productive and... better!

Taking productive action isn't inherently exhausting. Stress is exhausting. Worry is exhausting. Overwork is exhausting. Well-rested, centered, focused action is energizing. Knowing that you've accomplished something is fulfilling.

6) Practice Self-Appreciation

It's worth reflecting on what you've accomplished thus far. This is both a daily and a long-term practice.

Take a moment every night to appreciate all you've done that day.

When you have additional time, you can do a different spin on the above "Write it Out" exercise. Write yourself a congratulatory letter from your imaginary friend (or yourself) regarding everything you've accomplished. This exercise is particularly well-suited to the end of the year.

Something along the lines of:

Dear ___,

When I heard about everything you've accomplished this year, I was absolutely blown away. I had to take some time to say congratulations! I am so incredibly proud of you.

From there, you may list a few of your accomplishments...

You __ed, ___ed, and ___ed! Amazing!

You might acknowledge something that you struggled with and overcame...

I know that you were worried that ___ wouldn't work out, and the fact that it did is really terrific.

Then, close it out with well-wishes for the future.

After accomplishing all of this, I can understand if you need a little rest (I certainly would!). But, I am also so excited to see what you accomplish in the new year. I know that it holds a lot of possibility for you, what with your SAT/ACT prep, second semester of freshman/sophomore/junior/senior year, [insert other goals/activities here]. I know you want to ___. And you want to ____. When I think about all of these things, I'm so excited for you, because I know you have everything it takes to be successful.

I'm so lucky to know you. Thanks for being such a wonderful part of my life.

Lots of love and well wishes,

[Your signature, or the name of your made-up friend]

* * * *

Burnout is a thing. But, as psychologist Carl Jung said, "What you resist persists."

Burnout won't go away unless you address it.

Take good care of yourself this holiday season. You've worked hard this year, and now's the perfect opportunity to practice finding peace amidst the demands of life.


Erika Oppenheimer is an SAT and ACT test prep coach and the author of Acing It! A Mindful Guide to Maximum Results on Your College Admissions Test. Using her unique "Test Prep for the Whole Person" methodology, she helps students from across the country reach their potential in the test room and in life.

Download a free sample chapter from Acing It! here.
Learn more about Erika's coaching programs here.