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Burnout: How To Cure It (With Lessons From Pjorn)

cure_to_burnout

In my experience the stages of burnout go like this:

  1. Oh yes! I’m so excited to be starting this. Think of the possibilities!
  2. Hmmm. It’s not gaining as much traction as first hoped. But hey, life’s alright.
  3. Are these doubts going to subside? Ah forget that, let’s keep cracking on.
  4. We’re struggling, something just fell through, and I just spent all day mentally elsewhere (trying to think of every character from Sesame Street). 
  5. Shall we go to the pub for a beer and talk turnaround strategy?
  6. These blankets are so warm. I’m not getting out of bed. No. Stop it. Get up!
  7. Sorry guys I’m done. Too much stress. Can’t do this anymore.

True burnout has happened to me once. There were three of us building a company. Looking back now, it’s easy to see that by the end of it, none of us were content with what we were doing and were all on a track for the dreaded B. It was just a matter of who reached stage 7 first. 

This is not about doom and gloom though, quite the opposite. Occasionally burnout is well-needed, as there’s a few positives that happen as a result which are hard to see at the time. One positive is that taking action after becoming burnt out might lead us to seek experiences that are truly exciting and personally profound, and those experiences might lead to new things. For example, a good pal has been slowly making his way around the Pacific for over a year, working on farms, and teaching and volunteering on boats, and as a side-effect of that experience he’s now found permaculture as something that fires him up. It takes getting drained to learn about ourselves and our values sometimes.

kayaking_is_fun

Another benefit of burnout is, as we now know what the signals are, they should be easier to spot and resolve in the future. Because whilst there’s a time for embracing it, there’s also a time for trying to stop it happening. 

These are the signals (IMO) that show we’re at risk of burning out:

  • If we only spend time working or sleeping, it’s bad news.
  • If we wake up and aren’t stoked more than three days in a row, it’s bad news.
  • If we convince ourselves that what we do is the be-all and end-all, it’s bad news.
  • If we struggle to generate new ideas, it’s bad news.
  • If we need a break two days after getting back from a break, it’s bad news. 
  • If we agree with stuff that we shouldn’t agree with just because we’re too drained, it’s bad news. 
  • If we start to become jaded, cynical and pessimistic, it’s bad news.

Hopefully you don’t have too many of those symptoms, but if you do, spotting them early offers the best chance of exterminating them. But how? What is the metaphorical burnout fire extinguisher? HERE is the (non-medical, ahem) CURE to burnout in one word: Fun. Play. Enjoyment. Oops that was three words.

The best thing to do to stop burnout is to take time to have fun and come back with a fresh mind and a new outlook. “Adults are just obsolete children”, said Dr. Seuss. Good one doc. See, now this post is medically proven. We can’t gain perspective when we’re ‘in it’ so the best way is to step back and play and enjoy doing something that’s completely unrelated to whatever is causing anxiety. Take a train to Hypothetiville without a phone. Strum on your ukulele. Do something that makes you laugh. Do one of those things where when you’re doing it you aren’t thinking about anything else and reach a flow-state. For Obama, putting balls on the golf course is a way of relaxing and gaining perspective. 

ukuleles_can_be_fun

Without realising it, sometimes everything can become very “serious”. A bubble of importance is created around what we do. That seems silly if we consider the benefits of “the non-serious”. Light-heartedness and fun don’t need to be justified, but we can justify them if we want as they have these side-effects: increased creativity, optimism, happiness, fascination, contentment. And those things lead to more focus and better work. So all in all smiles and fun and laughing are pretty vital. 

There’s a guy called Bjorn from Sweden, he was in a documentary that was on the other day. You probably know him but I’ll leave it as a riddle to see if you can work it out. When he was starting out, he’d go off to a cabin in the woods and write songs with the goal of becoming a pro musician. His songs became hits quickly and because of that he was able to keep going to the cabin in the woods and keep writing cheesy love songs and keep having fun doing it. Bjorn’s initial efforts paid off rapidly, which isn’t the case for most people. He was obviously skilled and had dedication, but that’s the case for lots of people. Luck played a part. 

The thing about luck is that most of the time people don’t get lucky the first time around. That’s just how probability works. Other than rare exceptions, the only way to get lucky is to stay in the game long enough so the odds of probability increase. (n.b. this is not a good approach for gambling addicts).

So because first-time luck is rare, there’s probably a single Bjorn to a thousand Pjorn’s. Who’s Pjorn? I’ve got no idea. Pjorn is just a guy chasing a dream of a creative career, building something from scratch and trying to carve a path in the world. Only at some point he will probably come face-to-face with the dreaded burnout, and he might quit and stop having fun. There’s a lot of BS out there that would now say that perhaps if Pjorn had just kept going just a little bit, he would’ve made it happen. But that might not be true. No-one other than Pjorn has a valid opinion. Pjorn is the best judge of when to give up and move on. Quitting when you become burned out is totally fine if it’s the right thing to do. Pjorn knows more than anyone when enough is enough.

The thing that Pjorn should remember – regardless of whether he’s burnt out and quits, or tries to extinguish his burnout before it becomes an issue by having fun every day – is that stuff takes time. That doesn’t mean he has to stick to doing the exact same thing for years and years if it becomes a drag. It just means he needs be flexible and willingly sign up to the long haul and trust that things take time. For people like Pjorn, the long haul is the only approach that comes with decent odds. It takes time to increase experience and skill, but probably more importantly it takes time to increase the odds. Whether those are correlated is another matter.

beaches_can_be_fun

Burnout doesn’t mean we need to run away entirely, although there can be benefits in doing that. It can be less dramatic, and simply a time to re-assess whether what we’re doing each day is what we really should be doing each day. No-one other than the burnt truly knows what to do.

It took a long time to move on from my burnout. There’s a horrible dark period that happens during and after it which isn’t enjoyable at all unless you actively remember to step back and have fun. But I’m grateful it happened, as whilst we can learn from stuff that’s comfortable, it’s really the uncomfortable that teaches us the lessons we won’t forget. 

I don’t want burnout to happen again any time soon, but sometimes wonder what would happen if it did. What would be the actionable result of going back to that place? Would it be an escape? Perhaps it would be a big walk with a rucksack full of ramen. It’s impossible to say. But for now, being settled, having fun, looking out for symptoms of burnout and trying to kill them, and being content in the knowledge that things take time is quite OK.

Maybe that’s growth. Maybe that’s the conclusion Pjorn reached too.



Vague Direction: A 12,000 mile bicycle ride, and the meaning of life.
Available now: Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com



Follow Dave on Instagram for adventure photography and behind-the-scenes updates about his new courage project.
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