Opinion | How to avoid and recover from burnout

By Lucas DiBlasi, Senior Staff Columnist

Feeling burnt out is a common experience for students and professors during midterm season, especially during a pandemic. But if feeling burnt out is a consistent issue, it’s worth wondering if there’s a way out — a way to avoid burnout in the first place and recover from it now.

Sometimes, avoiding burnout can seem nearly impossible due to the expectations that society places on us, but there’s usually some room to design our class and work schedules in the future to minimize the risk of burning out. Additionally, by putting some more thought into how we relax and unwind, we can recover from burnout more efficiently. 

Even though it’s a common refrain to describe yourself as burnt out, I’ve been surprised at how many people have told me they’re burnt out over the past few weeks — and I’m talking about professors as well as students. I even had a class begin with a professor asking if we were all burnt out, which was met with complete agreement by the students. 

Given how widespread of an issue burnout is in general, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at how we become burnt out — even if that doesn’t help us right now. There are plenty of complex factors that go into burnout, including both personal choices as well as unavoidable societal pressures.

First, we need to recognize that we live in a capitalistic system that fetishizes productivity. We’re supposed to “rise and grind,” “thank god it’s Monday” and stop when we’re done, not when we’re tired. I once asked an adviser how much extra work it would take if I did some independent research, and he looked at me as if just asking the question disqualified me from the prestigious honor that 100 hours of work would bestow.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that most people need to do work in order to make a living, and work can be immensely meaningful. But our society’s deification of work becomes an issue when your ability to do work becomes tied to your sense of self-worth. And often, it’s worse than that — your ability to project to others that you’re working hard becomes tied to your self-worth, not the actual value of the work you’re completing. 

This trap of harshly judging yourself based on how busy you seem to be is even worse for people who are not naturally inclined to work. Conscientiousness is one of the “Big Five” personality traits generally recognized in personality psychology and is tied to people’s innate willingness to complete tasks in a timely manner. Different people have different natural levels of conscientiousness. 

I’m not saying that people’s willingness to work is a completely fixed part of us, but conscientiousness remains relatively stable over our lifespans. In a society that values people based on how busy they are, a low conscientiousness trait can cause people to struggle and burn out quickly.

But even if you have a high level of conscientiousness, you need to be conscious of how you design your schedules — as much as possible. It’s not always the best idea to take on that extra class or extracurricular, even if it may seem like a good idea at the time. Sometimes, saying no is not only the best option for your sanity, but also allows you to do a better job at your other commitments.

Additionally, meaningful work is always going to be more motivating than work that you couldn’t care less about. Even though it’s difficult — and sometimes simply impossible — it’s always good to try to prioritize working on things that are meaningful to you. 

But if you’re burnt out right now, and you need a way to recover, I’d urge you to put some extra thought into how you relax. That may seem counterintuitive, because putting more thought into relaxing sounds like the opposite of relaxing, but purposefully choosing how you’ll relax allows you to carefully choose what’s best for you.  

Consider the types of things you do to relax right now and ask yourself how they affect you in the next 15 minutes, the next few hours, tomorrow and next week. Whenever possible, try to choose the methods of relaxing that allow you to recover better over the long term.

For example, when you’re thinking about ordering a pizza, consider how you’ll feel tomorrow morning and next week — and maybe cook food instead. Instead of falling into revenge sleep procrastination — staying up late in order to have some downtime in a crowded schedule — consider that by catching up on sleep, you’ll be more efficient and well-rested tomorrow.

Changing your habits is quite difficult, and I am by no means claiming that I have mastered relaxing. In fact, I’m terrible at it, and that’s why I know that one of the worst ways to get better at relaxing is to beat yourself up over failures. Instead, consider what went wrong, forgive yourself and don’t forget to congratulate yourself on small victories when things do go right. 

There is no cure-all for being burnt out, and some of the causes of burnout may be rooted in societal factors that you can’t change. But burnout doesn’t have to be inevitable — if you do your best to design your schedule and your methods of relaxing, you may be able to recover better now and reduce burnout in the future.

Lucas DiBlasi writes primarily about politics, music and crises. Feel free to email him at [email protected].

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