Instead of feeling refreshed by the prospect of having a holiday break, are you already dreading being back at work? If you're finding yourself less interested than you used to be (even in areas you are passionate about), feeling more pessimistic, and wondering what’s going on, you might be teetering on the edge of burnout.
What is burnout?
Often in the nonprofit sector, you are working on solving complex problems with very limited resources. In that context, it’s natural to have highs and lows. There are times when you are excited to see the impact you’ve made. Other times, you might feel frustrated with the lack of funding or the limits of your work.
Burnout is when you are consistently feeling negative and exhausted. Coupled with declining interest in activities you used to care about, you can soon find your job performance, and your relationships, suffering.
Maybe you find that you are tuning out of meetings. Or sitting in front of your keyboard distracted rather than researching or writing. “Where has my motivation gone?” you wonder. We all suffer from occasional difficulties staying excited about our jobs, especially when we're dealing with a challenging piece of work. If you find yourself feeling more pessimistic, less motivated, and all around tired, you might be looking at burnout.
OK, I get it - that could be me. What’s the good news?
There are simple things you can do now to help prevent burnout, or start to reverse the trend if you are already experiencing it. Also, you’ll perform better once you re-blend your days to have more restorative and generative time.
Here are five things you can do starting right now to feel and perform better:
Pay attention to negative feelings
You’re feeling on edge. So, what your boss says in a meeting, or what your client says on the phone, or the printer jamming (again!), become huge problems. When you’re feeling burnt out it’s easy to blame everything, and everyone, else. Ultimately, though, it’s your life energy that’s getting sapped. So instead of ignoring negative feelings, pay attention to them.
Carry a journal so you can write down what you observe: What happened? How did you feel? Why? Then look them over. Think through what could be a more constructive approach to each situation. What was really making you react? Had you gotten the restorative time you need going into the situation?
For example, take the printer jamming. Write down what you did just before you needed to print and where were you headed. If you were doing a last-minute printout of materials for a meeting that you don’t even want to go to after a night of only five hours of sleep, that state is going to contribute to your frustration skyrocketing at the jam.
Then you can start to think about what conditions you might be able to change.
Can you see if the team is up for cutting meeting times and handling some of the work via e-mail? Ask everyone to bring their own copy of the materials? How could you shift your evening routine to get to bed an hour earlier? Start to look for patterns in what you record and use the other suggestions here to shift your approach.
Figure out what’s urgent and what’s not
We have lots of technology now that makes us feel like we need to respond immediately. The truth is, it’s a rare situation where we can’t wait until the time of day that we’ve set aside for that type of task. So think through your true priorities and plan out your day putting those first - especially the work that you are most excited about! Then fit in the more administrative tasks in the remaining time.
Give your brain a break
In order to do your best work, your brain actually needs regular breaks. Make an energy map to understand how your respond to different times of day, and what rhythm lets you be most productive. Start to match activities to the type of energy you experience throughout the day. Make room for healthy downtime. That can include dinner with friends, going for a walk, a long bath….whatever really relaxes you. Give yourself space. The sense of urgency can be overwhelming when you are working on powerful missions. Ultimately though, if you aren’t feeling restored you won’t be able to make headway towards the change you want to see in the world.
Revisit your support structure
Who are the people you have felt most positive around? How long has it been since you connected with them? Consistently finding ways to connect with people who bring positive energy into your life rejuvenates you. Take the time to think through which of your colleagues help you to feel alive about the work you are doing. Look for opportunities to work with those colleagues. Remember that networking is community building. So you can actually forward your career while growing your support structure. Of course, think through the support you need from your personal relationships, too.
Rekindle old passions and find new ones
Think back to hobbies that you enjoyed in the past, or to activities you’ve wanted to try. Have you been making time for them lately? Get on the mountain bike. Write in your journal. Bonus points: find a supportive group to reinforce your commitment. Join a book club. Hunt down a ceramics class.
At the end of the day, avoiding burnout comes down to finding a blend that works. We are not machines, and we can’t always have our switches turned “on.” Each of us needs deep and frequent opportunities to restore in order to do our best work. Only you know what kind of activities are most restorative for you. Make space for them. Not just once in a while, but every week. In small ways, every day. The time you spend restoring will pay back manifold in your happiness and your performance.
By Cynthia Jaggi
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