How I Avoid Burnout

crumpled papers beside a laptop

On March 22, 2011 I knew I needed to make a change in my life and career.

Well into my fifth year of teaching bassoon at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, I was exhausted. I had a studio of twelve lovely bassoonists, I was performing in two orchestras, giving recitals, and building a non-profit organization. All wonderful pursuits, however, when taken together I was simply overwhelmed.

In pursuit of trying to do everything, it felt like I was successful at nothing.

That night in March, I shared a recital with four of my colleagues at Bowling Green State University. Less than 24-hours prior, I was running a national conference in Kansas City, MO. For the entire weekend, I worried that I wasn’t going to be at my best at the performance. Breaking news, I wasn’t.

Standing on stage during the performance, I remember feeling ashamed that I was letting my colleagues down. My guess is that most people in the audience didn’t realize I wasn’t at my best, but I did.

I knew I needed to make a change.

I was stretched too thin for too long and the path I was on was unsustainable. I was successful, but it came at the cost of my sleep, my relationship with my wife, and ultimately, my happiness.

I knew I was suffering from burnout but I kept going, hoping that everything would simply work itself out. However, as I was putting my instrument away after the performance, I knew that my current path was unsustainable.

It took a horrible performance experience for me to finally seek a change, and in the years since that performance, I constantly work to keep myself from feeling a sense of burnout.

Burnout is a real thing, especially for creatives! Author Anne Hellen Anderson just wrote the book on burnout. I spoke a bit about burnout in a recent podcast episode. Check it out here. You should also check out this recent episode of On The Media where Anne Hellen Anderson speaks at length about what she calls The Burnout Generation.

If you’re suffering from burnout, here are 5 tips that might help:

  1. Control what you can control: There are so many things beyond our control at this moment. Whether it’s the pandemic, our unstable political system, or even our ability to work, these are things we cannot, for the most part, control. To the extent that you can, let those things go and so you can turn your attention to those things that are within your power to control.

    Tip: As crazy as this sounds right now, try going on a low-information diet for the next five days. Don’t look at your Twitter feed, avoid your online news source, and forget watching the news on cable. You might even try one of the many apps that help you limit your social media use. Instead, limit yourself to 5-10 minutes a day to check one reliable source for your news updates and call it a day. I find that the news cycle doesn’t change that much over a period of 24 hours so I can easily get a quick update on the news in this shortened amount of time before diving back into my work.

  2. Focus on your productivity: One great way to avoid burnout is to take a look at your levels of productivity. I find that my productivity suffers when I try to do too much and, ultimately get spread too thin. In extreme situations, I burn out, which moves me in the opposite direction from where I’d like to be going in regards to my productivity.

    Tip: Productivity happens when you come up with a plan and stick with it. For me, it’s not about working more, it’s about working smarter. If you’re feeling the effects of burnout and you don’t feel particularly productive, it’s time to hit the pause button and figure out why the work isn’t getting done. This article by Josh Spencer is a great place to start. I also recently created a checklist to help you stay motivated and productive. Check it out here.

  3. You deserve that drink: I find that one of the biggest reasons I suffer from burnout is when my income doesn’t meet my financial needs and I’m forced to cut spending (or go into debt) in order to make ends meet. Historically speaking, I often cut the very things that help me avoid burnout in order to balance my budget. An occasional cup of coffee from Starbucks or a beer with a friend at a local bar isn’t going to be the reason you are ultimately struggling financially. Quite often, these small moments of joy are the things that keep me from burning out in the first place.

    Tip: Stop worrying about the things that cost less than $10 and instead establish a “joy” line in your budget and reserve funds for things that bring you joy and, more importantly, help you avoid burnout. You could certainly look for ways to cut spending elsewhere and I would also suggest that you look at your income in order to identify ways to bring in a bit more money.

  4. Lean into your friends and family: One thing I often notice from individuals who suffer from burnout is that they feel isolated and overwhelmed by work. Life/work integration can play an incredibly important role in helping individuals avoid burnout and in this case, that balance comes from focusing your time on being with the people you love, AKA, your friends and family!

    Tip: Prioritize your friends and family for the next week and see if it helps you shift away from burnout. Especially during a pandemic, human contact is one of the most important ways to find balance and avoid burnout.

  5. Recenter why you’re doing this: So often, I work with individuals who suffer from burnout because their expectations for what should happen in their work and life aren’t matching what is happening in reality. This is especially true today. My advice is always to start by asking why they are in their chosen field.

    Tip: Ask yourself this question: Do you find your current work meaningful? If yes, why do you feel this way? Jot your answers down on a piece of paper. If you don’t find your current work meaningful, why not? What do you need to do in order to find meaning within your work? Jot that down as well. Finally, where are you finding meaning in other parts of your life? Jot those down as well. Your goal here is to identify those meaningful reasons why you are on the path you’re on.

Thanks for reading and I hope the tips above will help you the next time you suffer from burnout.

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

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