How to conquer career burnout

There must be something in the air.

In the last week, I’ve chatted with two people facing career burnout. This wasn’t a temporary, “I’ve been working too much and I need a vacation,” situation.

This was, literally, a life crisis.

Building a career can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s wonderful to see where you’ve come from and know that you’re truly successful. You may own a profitable business. Or you may be an in-demand employee. You’ve worked hard for your success, dammit – in some cases, spending over 1/4 of your life in your current career.

On the other hand…reaching mastery can mean boredom. Sure, you know that there’s more you can learn. But you also know that you can show up, turn your brain off, and do better than 90% of everyone else out there. You see the same debates floating around the industry (Is SEO dead? Is Google really evil?)

And you find yourself feeling…trapped.

Every work day feels as dull as the one before. You examine your immediate options and think, “Well, I can stay put. Or I can take a pay hit and do something else.” Depending on your financial situation, you may not have the freedom to change careers. Or, you may have been doing the same thing for so long that you have no idea what’s out there.

If you’re self-employed, the thought of taking a “real job” may be enough to keep you where you are.

Even if you don’t know why you’re still doing it.

Have I gone through this? Heck yes. I remember talking with a friend about closing down, moving to Mexico and living on my savings.  It wasn’t a pipe dream. I was working out the pros and cons.  Then there were the dreams where I would announce on stage, “This is my final conference – I’m leaving the industry.”

I love what I do. But there have been times that I’ve been…tired. And that’s when burnout can creep up and smack you.

Typically, you have little warning signs before the big burnout hits. Work doesn’t energize you anymore – even if you hit a huge milestone. You find yourself putting off important tasks because you just don’t care. You put in the minimum amount of time and no more.

If you ignore the warning signs (and the mini-burnouts,) you’re setting yourself up for a big crash. That’s when moving to Mexico seems like the best idea in the world.  You can pull back from this – I did – but it’s much, much harder.

Here’s what to do:

-  Have outside interests. This may seem like a “duh” comment, but career-climbers are often highly focused. They go to work, come home, go to bed and start it again the next day. Doing anything “fun” feels like it cuts into valuable work time. You may feel like you “don’t have time” to take a class, exercise, cook a healthy meal – whatever. But do it anyway.

-  Feeling antsy? Consider how you can tweak your career. Often, the first symptoms of career burnout is feeling bored. If you’re in that space, think about how you can add some spice to your work life. That could mean getting a new job. Or going back to school. Or launching a new product line. Or moving away from clients and selling products instead. Consider how you can leverage the talents you have while getting that dose of “newness” you need.

- Talk it out. I thought I was the only one who faced career burnout. I started beating myself up, saying, “Gee, Heather. You own your business and you can do whatever you want. You can change your situation. But you don’t know how. Loser.” Turns out, feeling like a “career loser” is pretty common.  Share how you’re feeling with a trusted mentor, colleague or friend. They may be able to provide an unique perspective (and if nothing else, it feels good to talk to someone else.)

- Increase your vacation time. An interesting side-effect of burnout is that we dig our heels in, work more hours and try to power through. This is typically the worst thing that you can do. :) If you’re feeling the beginnings of burnout, schedule a vacation right now.  Try for two weeks – but if that’s not possible, at least take four days away from work.  The mini-break alone may help provide some perspective (and when you return, schedule another vacation so you have something to look forward to!)

- Take a sabbatical. Vacations are nice, but they may not give you all the time away you need. Does your job allow you to take a sabbatical? Take it. Are you self-employed? A sabbatical is still possible with a little planning.  I’ll be taking my first one in about a month, and I’m excited to see how the time away treats me. But truthfully, it took a conversation with a friend (thank you, Bruce Clay) for helping me feel like I deserved a sabbatical.  Now, I’m pumped at the sabbatical possibilities – and I think that I’ll be feeling VERY energized when I return.

- Still not feeling it? Come up with an exit strategy. My father, a member of the Greatest Generation, was a master of switching careers. He was a a fighter pilot, a test pilot, an insurance agent, a trust officer, Vice President of a major financial institution and a small business owner. When he was done with one career, he seamlessly found something else to do. If you’ve tried everything and you’re still hating your work life, figure out your finances, set a deadline and start plotting a new career choice. Just because you’re considered an expert in X doesn’t mean that you have to do it forever. It will take some soul searching. It may not be “easy.”

But just remember: Life is too short to be bored with what you do.

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8 replies
  1. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    Wow are your posts always timely! After 30 years working as a legal secretary, I felt this coming on two years ago. I felt trapped and dreaded even the drive to work let alone being there for 8 hours a day. I took AWAI’s 6-figure course, a web/marketing launch course, as if I were preparing an escape from prison. Finally after 9 years at my most recent job, I got laid off a week ago today. Oh I also bought three websites to work on. At the age of 49 I’m looking forward to a new chapter in my life. Funny thing is I was pumped and ready to start, and now I feel like – Holy Cow, what am I going to do. Guess I need a little “sebatical” too to figure that out. Don’t mean to go on, it’s just that your posts are uncanny when it comes to getting in my head. LOL – You deserve it. I deserve it. Let’s meet for cervesas in Mex. LOL.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      LOL – I’m in your head! (I’m really not….promise!)

      Good for you! And isn’t it funny how sometime life kicks us in the rear and forces us to make a decision – in your case, it was getting laid off.

      You’re probably still in shock from being laid off – and you’ve spent a LONG time in your current career, so the transition would be hard. Take some time. Relax. Go somewhere or do something outside of your comfort zone. You’ll figure it out…really.

      Reply
  2. craig wright
    craig wright says:

    I’m in exactly the same boat – been cruising along, not pushing myself and going through the motions, bored out of my brains. Then the company I worked for was taken over, new contracts were issued and I ‘woke up’. Financially, I needed that job, but something inside just said – take a risk, go self employed. It is scary, but it feels like the right thing to do and that line from the film Inception keeps entering my head: Take a Leap of Faith. Incidentally, this was going through my mind when you posted that article about self doubt a few weeks back. As Laurie said, the timing of your blog posts is uncanny!

    Strangely, now that I’ve made the decision to go it alone, I’ve newfound enthusiasm for my original career (technical writing) as well as copywriting. I feel the need to learn, improve and be a better me. And lots of little opportunities have started to crop up.

    Life is strange like that. Something always seems to turn up if you have the guts to make the change. My brother changes jobs all the time and he has far more responsibilities than me, but he never worries about anything. Fortune favours the brave!

    Reply
  3. Heather
    Heather says:

    You are so right. Sometimes, it feels like life is waiting for us to do what we’re *supposed* to do. Once we make the leap, things fall into place and good stuff happens. It may be scary (really scary) to make the leap – but things typically do work out.

    Fortune does favor the brave. :)

    Good luck with your business – it sounds like a fantastic move for you!

    Reply
  4. Lyena Solomon
    Lyena Solomon says:

    Heather,

    As a survivor of a burnout myself, I thank you for this post. Often people recognize that they are burned out when it is too late to do anything about it.

    I have a couple of tips I use to make sure it does not happen again.

    1. Decide what the balance between your personal life and work is. Then, plan your personal life first. Work – second.

    2. When you sacrifice your personal time for work, keep score. Missed your kid’s soccer practice? Make up for it that weekend by taking them to a ball game. Do not postpone it.

    3. Focus. There is always more work than you can possibly do. When you have goals, you know what the most important work is. Do it first.

    And the most important trick I learned early on – leave your work at work.

    Reply
    • Heather
      Heather says:

      GREAT tips! Thank you!

      The work/life balance is definitely a challenge for me. :) And planning my sabbatical has been quite the interesting exercise in how to keep everything balanced. I’m having to turn folks away and say that I can’t work with them until I’m back in the office. Of course, I hear, “But can’t you fit me in before you leave?” The old Heather would have said yes and worked 18 hour days to make it happen. The new Heather calmly explains that no, there is no available time – and I’ll be much more focused when I’m back.

      It’s a strange feeling. But a good one.:)

      Reply
  5. Courtney Ramirez
    Courtney Ramirez says:

    So so so very timely Heather! As usual. I am transforming my business for the 15th time (it seems like) due to burnout and frustration. I loved your perspective in this article.

    Reply

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