Understanding why I am in a state of burnout and how to get out of it.

One of my Strengthsfinder is Achiever, which also means that I am not satisfied with my day until I have at least 2-3 green boxes on my calendar. Green represents the things which impact my life, like group projects and presentations, and yellow represents terribly difficult things that I struggle with, and blue represents the things which give great meaning in my life. The common theme is that all three requires effort and I see them as ‘work’.

Since 2015 I think I have been trying to constantly find at least 3 things that I’m grateful for in the day, and in 2016-current period of 2017 I have come to equate ‘what I am grateful for’ to ‘what I strive to achieve every day’. So as time passed, more and more things felt like something I had to ‘work at’ doing or being. I had to work at making friends, making lunch, going for a walk at night, and that ongoing stress of not being able to achieve everything on my to-do list or doing anything that is different from the past week’s achievements eventually led to these two weeks of burn out. The most obvious indicator is the boxes on the calendar- it is a clear upward progression of blank boxes to filled ones and then an increasing number of green boxes.

So there lies the root of why I have been feeling lethargic and unmotivated for the past two weeks. I have more time than ever in this semester compared to the last semester, but I am not happier or more productive, because the system of making everything in my life an achievable goal places a lot of emphasis on the ‘work’ factor, which can make things dreary and frankly, unenjoyable.

Several factors then contributed to the increasing stress- the uncertainty of grades, the poor sleep during to uncertainty of finding a job and also TCM, and meeting of new people, increased people interaction, and the inability to exercise because of the placement of rashes on my legs. And projects etc.

Burnout, for me, is characterized by both emotional and physical symptoms. The past two weeks have been particularly draining because I can’t sleep properly, and I wasn’t able to think and contribute properly in daily life. That feeling that the life inside you has been drained out, although not sure to where, and I am no longer performing at my best. The general lack of motivation, increased pessimism, eating too much melona ice cream (this could just be my hormones or natural greed) and a lowered ability to pay attention. An obvious increase in detachment from school (or maybe it is just the environment that I dislike), chest palpitations, shortness of breath sometimes and headaches. No, I’m not dying, it’s just the listed symptoms online. Which are also attributable to TCM treatments because I’m very near the final point called a complete recovery.

I am not ill- I know this because after understanding why I’ve been feeling this increasing weight on myself (the seeing-everything-as-work factor), I also realised that a lot of the pressures are indeed self-imposed. And understanding that no one actually cares about where I am in life lifts that pressure. I feel a lot better compared to two hours ago when I was reading about burnout. There was that ‘aha!’ moment when I realised that all my current inefficiencies could be controlled.

So here’s the personal solution that I’ll try for myself. Instead of tracking things in colour according to meaning in life/impacting my life/bad things, I’ll track things according to their function. Relaxation, work, and happy things. Writing, exercise, church, friends, sleep, eating etc are all under relaxation. Because I do those things for myself. While I am committed to them, I will not freak out if I do badly in those. School falls under work. And all the happy things like ‘dad bought me matcha cake!’ falls under being happy.

It is very different from my current method because the only emphasis on ‘work’ is when it is actually work, I don’t have to pressurize myself to sleep exactly 7 hours a day or make myself intentionally relax. I just realised what an oxymoron that is, haha. To forcefully take a walk to clear my head. But that’s just me being a bit of a crazy person.

But hey. If there’s one thing I know, it is that I tried out multiple methods to keep meaning in my life. The three grateful things method worked because I realised that there is still a lot of meaning and happiness to be found in my life, and it made me a much more self-aware and positive person. The perfectionist method also works because I’m getting job interviews without much trouble (sample size of 2 companies), thanks to my GPA. Being a perfectionist means experiencing less overall because I didn’t dare to split my energy too many ways. The green/yellow/blue method works because I have experienced a lot of things in the past 3 months which I did not think I would experience.  Incremental improvements! Which makes me sound like a motivational speaker.

Now that I have tried the methods I know, and have a clearer view of the different portions of my life, what I’m going to try for the next few months is to do the relaxation/work/happy method and see whether or not my body and productivity level responds. There is after all the 80/20 rule which I haven’t tried yet, because I am not too sure how to track that. Basically 80% of my results will come from 20% of my time. I can only concentrate on what I know to be an improved version of measuring my life for now.

I don’t intentionally switch methods. I think it’s just that after a few months, you kind of know whether or not something is working? There is that switch in me which tells me “hey something is going wrong”. It doesn’t change what I am dealing with in life right now, but it changes my attitude about it. Right now, I am feeling a lot happier- it is kind of like reading. Reading gives me a lot of new insights into the lives of other humans, and it affects how I treat other people in my own life. It can be difficult to break out of the 24/7 cycle of lethargy and stress and feeling drained if you do not assess your life properly- how are you working, why are you working, what is a better way of handling things etc.

But of course- to leave a space for ‘terrible days’. Some days you just wake up and realise that okay you have to do the exact same thing that you did yesterday, which is ‘study for accounting exam’. There’s no way out of that. So just grab a caramel macchiato and some French fries, and sit very still for six hours.

And if it is not a single thing that you have to focus on but a larger mission, like ‘work in HR’, then I guess I’d focus on the why of doing something. I see HR as being called to provide for myself (salary) and also to care for other people. That motivates me (assuming my work has any effect beyond administrative functions) to carry on.

If you are committed to too many things in your life, take some of them out. As a wise man once said, “the need is not the call”. Just because there is a need, it doesn’t mean that you are the one who is needed. Look at your own priorities, are you handling them well, and why not? It is a bad idea to pack all commitments on Friday-Sunday, because that effectively leaves no time for personal rest and relaxation. However, as I often quote Sir Terry Pratchett, wisdom comes from experience and experience is often a lack of wisdom. If I am insightful, it is purely because I have done many stupid things in the past.


All the best.