by Michael Darling
How can you try so hard to succeed and yet fail?
I once knew a salesperson who was so successful that he failed.
His sales and commissions were high, and yet he failed. He was in his office at 6:00 a.m. each weekday and left at nearly 9:00 p.m. each evening. Weekends were used to work at home to catch up on reading, paperwork, and administrative details.
His unrelenting work schedule was amply rewarded financially. Unfortunately, along the way, he became a different person. He became irritable, forgetful, impatient, and fatigued. His family, friends, and co-workers were disappointed and even disgusted with his new personality. Even though he was very successful at work, he was failing at everything else. Eventually he became bored and disenchanted with the sales profession altogether. He was a classic victim of the vicious cycle of BURNOUT.
SO, WHAT IS BURNOUT?
It’s what happens when you run a machine too hard and too long. It burns out. The same thing happens to a human machine—a person.
When people strive too hard and too long to reach a goal, they burn out. Burnout is a state of fatigue and/or frustration brought on by an intense pursuit of a goal or devotion to a cause. It brings on a series of physical, emotional, and psychological problems.
WHO SUFFERS FROM BURNOUT?
Super-achievers suffer from burnout. They usually have overly full schedules and yet still find the time to take on more. They have a difficult time saying no to the requests of others. When working on projects, they usually do more than their share. Part of their problem relates to their inability or unwillingness to delegate things to others. They like things done right and done on time. Consequently, they do almost everything themselves.
I liken burnout victims to jugglers. They pick up three balls (jobs, tasks, causes) and start juggling them. Once they feel competent enough, they pick up two more balls. Then three more. Now they’re juggling eight tasks at the same time. Other people marvel at the burnout victim’s ability to do so many things at the same time. The victim’s pat response is “I work well under pressure.” That is true, of course. They’re proving that daily. However, nobody works well under extreme levels of tension and pressure for extended periods of time.
Eventually, the overall quality of the victim’s work diminishes. People around them become increasingly skeptical, disappointed, and critical of the victim’s work. The victims sense these negative feelings and overcompensate by pushing themselves even harder. They actually pick up four more balls for their juggling act. The quality of their work deteriorates even further. The vicious cycle of burnout claims another victim.
The people who fall prey to burnout are not bad people. They simply lose their perspective of what is really important in life. They strive too hard to reach a goal in one area of their life, such as their business or profession, and let the other areas of their life (family, social, personal, etc.) flounder. They usually don’t heed the warning signals or symptoms of burnout because they honestly believe things will get better soon. I have news you might use….They don’t!
These people simply expose themselves to too much stress over too short a period of time, and they burn out. Even when they’re lucky enough to achieve their goal and get what they wanted, it usually isn’t what they expected. In other words, the reward doesn’t seem to compensate them for their efforts.
ARE YOU IN THE PROCESS OF BURNING OUT?
Most people like to know whether they are one of the unlucky victims of burnout. If so, you’re probably exhibiting some or all of the burnout symptoms. These include constant exhaustion, paranoia, forgetfulness, emotional tension, boredom, lethargy, impatience, irritability, skepticism and cynicism, and a superman complex—a sense of omnipotence. Now, don’t rush to the burnout doctor if you are experiencing some of these symptoms. It’s common for everyone to experience some of these ills occasionally, yet temporarily, in some areas of their life. The burnout victims have symptoms that are constant, growing, and pervasive throughout all aspects of their life. They are truly sick physically and emotionally.
How prone are you to burnout? Take the BURNOUT QUIZ I have at the end of this article to determine your current potential for burnout.
HOW DO YOU PREVENT OR RECOVER FROM BURNOUT?
It’s not easy. If it was, everybody would do it. It requires an intense commitment on your part to change your behavior for the better, and the healthier. It will require the same devotion and willpower as quitting smoking or going on a diet. However, don’t try too hard. You may burn out by trying too hard to get better. How’s that for irony?
The following activities can help prevent you from becoming a burnout victim. They can also aid you in recovering from a burnout you are already experiencing. If you follow these guidelines, don’t try to change too many of your behaviors at once. That will result in a quick case of frustration and a reversion to your comfortable old behaviors. Attempt one new behavioral change at a time. Do not try an additional new behavior until you have comfortably mastered the previous one. In this way, your new healthy behaviors will last.
1. Limit the number of hours you work. The classic burnout victims work excessively long hours—6 or 7 days per week. Even when they’re home or out socializing, they can’t stop thinking and talking business. They wear themselves down physically and mentally.
Make a firm commitment to cut your daily workload down by one hour per week, each and every week, until you’re down to 8‑9 hours per day, five days per week. Don t say that’s impossible. It certainly is possible if you learn how to manage your time better. What you’re going to find is that by giving yourself a little “wiggle room”, you’ll actually become MORE productive in less time. That’s working SMART. Hard is good once in awhile. Smart is good all the time.
2. Set goals—write them down. Most burnout victims work so hard and so long because they get bogged down in too many trivial tasks. Very often the really important jobs, the ones with a high payoff, never get done. This lack of task perspective is very often the direct result of not having clearly defined goals down in writing.
By knowing what is truly important to you in your life, and by having clearly written goals and action plans, you are better able to differentiate the high-payoff tasks from the low-payoff tasks. Then, if you spend most or all of your time doing your high-priority tasks, you’ll probably accomplish twice as much in half the time. Once again, that’s working SMART.
3. Learn to say “No!” Burnout victims have a difficult time telling people they are not able to do another task. They feel it shatters their omnipotent image. Ironically, taking on too much puts so much pressure on the burnout victims that the overall quality of their work decreases and their superman image suffers anyway. When you feel you have more than enough to keep you busy, politely refuse to take on more.
4. Learn to delegate. One of the major problems afflicting burnout victims is their inability and unwillingness to delegate tasks to others. They must resist the tendency to do things themselves. Train others, especially your secretary or assistant, to do your routine and low-priority tasks. Also delegate the right to make mistakes. That’s how others learn. Give them their space to do things on their own. You should be spending your time on planning and completing your high‑priority tasks.
5. Exercise. One of the most effective ways to relieve tension and stress is through exercise. It not only helps you avoid a burnout episode, it also helps you circumvent many other physical ailments. Workaholics and super-achievers complain that they do not have the time to exercise. On the contrary, taking time out of a busy schedule to exercise usually makes you feel less fatigued while you’re working and actually increases your level of awareness and productivity on the job. Force yourself to get at least 200 minutes of physical activity per week spread out over at least five separate days. I’m as guilty of this as many of you. It’s easier said than done, but it’s attainable.
6. Break your routines. Don’t follow too rigid a schedule. Too much structure gets you into a rut. In the field of nutrition, the experts recommend rotational dieting. That simply means not eating the same foods all the time and adding variety and flexibility to your eating habits. The same advice holds true for your daily and weekly work schedule. Purposely go out of your way to do some things differently, to do some new things, and to do them at different times.
7. Try to relax. Kick back every so often during each day. Let your mind wander, not thinking about anything in particular, and especially not about business. These are necessary recharge breaks. Take long, hot baths at home to relieve tension. You will find that this is an ideal way to relax both your mind and body.
8. Eat lunch AWAY from the office. This is an excellent way to accomplish many of the above suggestions: Walking to and from the restaurant or the park is an excellent source of exercise. Eating lunch outside or in the park is an ideal way to relax and cleanse your mind. Leaving the office for meals breaks the routine of being in the office all day.
9. Take vacations. Most burnout victims rarely take vacations. They have too much work to do. Even when their spouse forces them to go on a vacation, they load one suitcase with books, reading materials, and work. If the vacation consists of more than three days in the same location, burnout victims start climbing the walls. They’re on a withdrawal from work.
If you react in the above manner, take a series of three‑day vacations throughout the year and discipline yourself not to bring any work with you. Vacation to relax, not simply to work in another environment.
10. Spend more time with your family. I realize not everyone is married or has a family. Those who do should schedule their family members into their appointment book and respect the entry as they would any other business appointment. Eat at least one meal per day with your family. Try to keep business calls to a minimum at your home. Spend one evening and one half-day per week doing something with your family as a group (TV watching doesn’t count!). Get to really know the people who are very important to you in your life.
11. Take time for yourself. Get away by yourself intermittently. Spend some time alone getting to know yourself. Meditate. Relax. Read light, enjoyable material. Pursue a hobby that has absolutely nothing to do with your line of work, but which is relaxing and enjoyable. Treat yourself—you deserve it.
12. Don’t take life too seriously. Believe it or not, you’re not indispensable. Not to the world. Not to your country. Not even to your company. Everything will go on with or without you. Let up on yourself and others. Yes, you do make a contribution—maybe even a major one. But don’t overestimate your own value and worth. Do what you do and do it well. But, don’t kill yourself in the process, because then you’re of no value to the people and causes for which you were working. Take care of yourself and enjoy all aspects of your life—not just work.
Everyone will be the better for it, especially you.
Being successful is not easy. It is, in fact, one of the most difficult things in life to do. It takes hard work, smart work, and dedication. However, if you try TOO hard to succeed, at the expense of other areas of your life, it is only a matter of time before you burn out. The consequences of burnout are not pretty. You don’t have to fall victim to it if you just keep your goals in perspective and your total life in balance, and follow the burnout-prevention recommendations suggested in this article. You’ll be successful in ALL areas of your life, not just work.
SA = Strongly Agree = 10 points
A = Agree = 7 points
D = Disagree = 3 points
SD = Strongly Disagree = O points
I always seem to feel fatigued throughout the day.
I find myself talking less and less in business and social meetings.
My memory seems to be deteriorating—I’m forgetting more and more.
Even after a good night’s sleep, I still feel tired.
I find it very difficult to really relax—my mind always seems to be in full gear thinking about work.
At the end of each day, I feel that I’m further behind than when I started the day.
I seem to be more irritable and cranky lately. I am not as patient with others. I have a short fuse and blow up easily.
I am spending less and less time on physical activities and hobbies—or with my family and friends.
I seldom seem to be pleased with what I’ve already accomplished. I feel that I should be accomplishing more.
I either operate at full speed ahead or at dead asleep—no middle ground.
0-15 points—you either don’t do anything or you’ve really got your act together.
16-50 points—you’re doing well. At this level, you're highly unlikely to suffer from burnout.
51-80 points—you’re on thin ice and just about ready to fall in. You’d better change your lifestyle quickly because burnout is knocking down your door.
86-100 points— I’m glad I don’t work for you or with you. You are a walking time bomb. If you do not make immediate adjustments in your behavior, you may be burned out by the time you finish reading this article.
Take a deep breath....and thanks for reading.