Burnout is your lifesaver. When you hate Mondays.
Over the past few days the word “burnout” was mentioned in a few conversations I had with entrepreneurs, business owners, and digital nomads (while recording podcasts, doing research for remote teams coaching, and while coaching my clients). In some cases the word itself wasn’t mentioned, instead, people would say,
“I’m so exhausted, I need a sabbatical or at least a vacation”
“I’m not energized by work as I used to be”
“I feel I’m just going through the motions”
“My energy just isn’t there! I’m not feeling excited about my company as I used to feel”
“I feel like so many more things and people just annoy me”
Burn-out is defined in ICD-11 as follows:
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
All the symptoms of burnout, of course, don’t just affect our work, they bleed into our life as well. We lose enthusiasm, and energy for things we used to enjoy, for building and maintaining relationships, for exploring new hobbies and perhaps new opportunities and exotic destinations.
You just want to check out. Everything feels like heavy lifting.
All of this sounds very similar to insufficient levels of dopamine in your brain:
“Dopamine is crucial to the feeling of motivation we need to work towards both long-term and short-term goals.
It delivers a feeling of satisfaction when we’ve accomplished what we set out to do.
Dopamine is released when our needs are about to be met.
It helped our prehistoric ancestors survive by giving them an energy boost when they were presented with a great opportunity, such as locating a new source of food.
You wouldn’t think that we would need to be motivated to find food, yet lab mice with dopamine deficiency are so unmotivated that they starve to death even when food is readily available.
…because of the way it makes us feel — alive and excited.”
Burnout isn’t just about work
I’ve never heard from a person, that they felt burned out at work but they were excited in other areas of life. Even though the definition of burnout says it’s only work-related — it’s not. It’s whole-you-related. You can’t separate yourself at work from yourself in life.
We can’t be exhausted during certain hours and all excited at other hours. It’s a phenomenon, that touches our whole system, your whole body, and brain, your whole life.
And from all the data I observed and gathered, it seems that in the majority of cases, it’s a simple problem of dopamine mismanagement.
Dopamine, motivation, and how burnout is a lifesaver
Dopamine is a molecule of motivation. It makes you go, hunt, get resources, get food, get mates, and explore, enhance chances of securing resources for the future. And you’d think, more is always better, right? Not exactly.
Just like more exercise can kill you (overtraining is a thing that burns a lot of athletes out for weeks, months and years sometimes), more GO-MODE, when mismanaged and not balanced with the recovery of your energy reserves can kill you too.
Humans, just like most biological systems have limits on how much effort and energy we are able to manifest or exert to use. After that, we need to take time to replenish the reserves and resources.
Our nervous system is designed in a way that should prevent exertion dangerous for life.
In even simpler words — your brain and the rest of your nervous system’s job is to make sure you don’t overspend resources (don’t you sometimes wish you had the same for your finances?)
In my research and experience-based opinion?
You pushed your limits too far for too long, you engaged your dopamine system too much, and now your brain decided to downregulate your dopamine system (it can do that easily), and your brain makes you feel unmotivated, tired, fatigued, unexcited and uninterested in life — all with the purpose to make you chill the f* out, do nothing, rest, eat, disconnect, not do anything to potentially spend more resources that are running low. This “energy-saving mode” will be active till you recover and replenish your energy reserves. And then your brain will upregulate your dopamine system, you’ll feel excitement and motivation to pursue, ideas, things and people again, and life will get its colors back.
Burnout is a way of your brain to help you survive long-term.
Otherwise, you’d be like one of those racehorses, raced to death. You went too fast for too long. To prevent this from happening, prevent you from dying of mental and physical overexertion — your brain has breaks. We call it burnout.
Burnout and BS work-life boundaries
Before we get into simplifying the anti-burnout lifestyle, I wanted to touch upon boundaries, because I often heard that mentioned along with burnout.
People would mention, not being able to set work-life boundaries — working for too many hours, answering emails and calls, and messages in their off-hours, feeling obliged to finish what other people asked them to do, even though it bleeds into your personal life.
Some people think, they care too much about others, and their work. Well, we do, but what we care more about is our social status and what others think of us. I’m not gonna go today into all the ways you can feel significant and good about your social life without being a “24/7 on-demand” person who always says yes to others (This always backfires).
I’d like to talk about boundaries instead.
Metaphysical boundaries, like work-life balance, don’t work. Burnout is a biology-conditioned phenomenon, and your boundaries to prevent it also got to be grounded in physical reality and biology to succeed, instead of some metaphorical, hard-to-define work-life balance.
We have 24 hours in a day. We need 7–9 hours of sleep. We need to eat. We need to exercise and stay active. We need to have downtime to prevent dopamine burnout.
These are non-negotiable rules for the long-term well-being of a human, that allow you to work on your projects, and enjoy life and health long-term.
As long as you are a human being these are the aspects you need to take care of if you don’t want to burn out.
It’s not up to you to choose whether you want to do them or not. It’s been designed into your biology. You are a machine, an organism, a system that has rules of function.
So what do we do with boundaries now? How do we prevent burnout?
Instead of trying to define some metaphysical work-life boundaries divide your day into time buckets, that are concrete and tied to the physical boundary of the 24-hour day cycle in which we all function. Define unstrechable (just like the time is — you can’t have more than 24 hours in a day) buckets of time for sleep and downtime.
I’ll leave out exercise, steps, social connections for a moment, and other aspects of healthy living, and I’ll give you a simple time-buckets scheduling solution that in my experience works the best for very productive people who don’t burnout:
- Have a 30–90 minute interval of non-working, self-care routine without social media, messages, and email when you wake up;
- Have a disconnected 30–90 minute break in the afternoon dedicated to food, meditation (yoga Nidra aka body scan works wonders to restore your dopamine and work capacity), and things like walking outside;
- Have a 30–90 minute pre-bed buffer when all screens, messaging, and things that can add stress are off and you are getting ready for bed, letting the “pressure” of the day come down — take a bath or a shower, go for a walk, journal, meditate, read an easy book, spend time with family etc.;
- Have at least one “lazy” day when you don’t engage in activities work-related, that might exhaust your dopamine reserve — too loud, too adrenaline-boosting, things that require a lot of planning and thinking — think of it as your proper “downtime”. The best guideline — do nothing, stay quiet, walk slow, don’t accomplish, get bored. Things like meditation, laying on the beach or a grass patch in a park, yoga, slow music, cooking and slow gardening, meditative hobbies — are perfect downtime activities. Planning an “all-out” party is not.
- Sleep for 7–9 hours on the same schedule daily.
*Social media engages and stimulates our dopamine system, it keeps your brain engaged, not “off”, that’s why it’s crucial to stay “disconnected” during breaks.
When we do this consistently — you can go on and on and on, making progress, staying excited about your work and life, and wondering what that burnout is all about. You might even find yourself wanting to start a new hobby, climb a mountain peak during vacation, pick up a more active exercise routine or learn a new language or musical instrument that you never had the time and energy for!
🙂THANK YOU FOR READING! DO GREAT THINGS.
📘MY BOOK IS OUT “Fit-and-Focused Brain-Body Blueprint for Remote Pros and Digital Nomads: Neuroscience-based routines, hacks and habits to stay productive, healthy and fit anywhere”