Burnout. Frazzled. Fried. We all know what to call it, but do we know how to recognise it? Consistently having too much going on is overwhelming, and can lead to stress, anxiety and a multitude of other health issues. But we’re all guilty of thinking ‘but surely everyone else has it together with this amount on their plate, what’s wrong with me?’ and then pressing through, or at least attempting to, regardless- this rarely ends well.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought ‘What is going on with me today? Why can’t I just do this work, and do it well?’ Then my good old friend Imposter Syndrome creeps in with, “It’s because you’re way out of your depth. I told you this when you applied for this job, but you didn’t listen. Now look at you- you’re letting everyone down.”
That’s a different beast within itself- quieting your inner critic is no mean feat. But recognising why it is rearing its ugly head is the first step- and often it is because you’re simply dealing with too many things at once. I’m not saying this is a bad thing- some people thrive off this feeling. But if you’re ticking off at least two of the below, and you’re just not feeling like your work is where it should be, then this article is for you.
1. It feels like you have ‘too many tabs open’
We’ve all seen people sharing this quote, and it makes me inwardly cringe referring to it now, but you all know what I mean. It’s an accurate analogy. Your brain feels like your browser window when you’ve filled it with reports and blog posts to read, videos to watch, things to buy (I could go on), and it needs you to close a few to make room for the most important ones.
2. You have this nagging, out-of-sync feeling
You’re not quite feeling yourself. You’re struggling to concentrate in meetings. You feel like everyone else in your team is racing on ahead of you, whilst you’re panting at the back, struggling to keep up.
3. When you have the time to actually tackle your to-do list, you struggle
Great! A whole afternoon with no meetings, no distractions, no commitments. I’m finally going to show that list who’s boss! 2 hours later: Is this all I’ve got to show for this afternoon? Where did that time go? My list seems even longer than it did before, and I’ve somehow bought 5 pairs of shoes, 2 succulents and some gourmet coffee beans! Which leads me onto…
4. You end up doing anything to avoid work
Was there ever a more perfect time to clear out your old files from college in 2012, watch TikTok cat videos, start learning how to code/knit/do the splits, etc, etc? In your brain, absolutely not. In reality, with many of us working from home, there is a whole new productivity barrier to overcome- and being overwhelmed makes that wall feel sky-high. And yet, here we are (clicks ‘watch next’).
5. Most of your time is spent communicating about projects, rather than actually working on them
Sure, some singular projects take a whole lot of communication to keep momentum. But usually, if you’re spending more time replying to Slack messages, emails, and attending meetings than you are actually working- you’ve got too many projects on the go.
6. You dread going to work
If you love what you do, you usually look forward to it (at least for the majority of the time). However, if the thought of getting up and sitting at your desk makes you want to hide under the duvet forever, hitting snooze for the rest of eternity, there’s something not quite right.
“In reality, with many of us working from home, there is a whole new productivity barrier to overcome- and being overwhelmed makes that wall feel sky-high.”
So, what can you do to combat these?
Nothing changes if you don’t do something about it. The sooner you take action, the sooner you can get back to concentrating your energy on the things that matter.
And I mean your line manager, not your cat. Or anyone who has the power to make things better for you. It can be really challenging to admit that you’re suffering from burnout to anyone but yourself. However, telling someone is probably the only way to get yourself back on track. A problem shared is a problem halved (in case you hadn’t heard that one before…).
Don’t be afraid of being judged
Everyone who you work with wants you to do well. The CEO of wherever you work wants you to do well. Whether or not they care about you individually is down to luck, but no one wants a weak link in their business. It’s your duty to step up to improve your performance, and you shouldn’t be punished for doing that.
Break down your larger tasks into the smallest chunks possible
I learned this one from Sophie Cliff and it will stay with me forever. When you write down ‘Produce report’ as a task on your to-do list, your brain is thinking “What next? Should I email that question I had, do some research, or start writing?” This is one of the reasons you’re so flustered.
Open up a new spreadsheet, or however you want to do it, put the main task (the big, scary one that’s keeping you up at night) at the top of a column, then list every single thing you can think of that you need to do before you can tick the big task off your list. I’m talking as granular as setting up a new document, or thinking of a title. This will make everything seem much more achievable, and you get the satisfaction of ticking something off your list far more often.
Chances are, not all of the things on your plate need doing yesterday. So, take a moment either by yourself or with your line manager, and open the document I just mentioned. Give each main (big & scary) task a priority, starting with 1 and working your way down. If you haven’t listed all the subtasks in order already, then number those too. There- now you have a numbered list- doesn’t that seem more manageable? It helps if you’ve agreed this with a manager, because then you can use this list to refer back to and know that you’ve been given the go-ahead not to worry about the tasks further down your list.
Of course, there are a lot more coping techniques for dealing with burnout outside of work, and I'll be covering some of these in a future post so keep your eyes peeled!