Burnout and the Disrupted Routine

My palms were sweating.  My knuckles were white.  I was wondering what I had gotten myself into.  I don’t remember ever being more focused in my life.  As I gently eased the aircraft down onto the runway like I had done a hundred times, I was glad to hear the tires squeak and feel my body sink into the seat before turning off the runway and returning to my instructor.  I had taken off and landed with him in the right seat dozens if not hundreds of times.  The only thing different was that my instructor wasn’t sitting by my side this time: he was watching (probably nervously) from the airport as I circled around and landed.  I’ve come to think of landings as a critical phase of flight but nothing like the stress I felt that day.


What we know about our human condition is that we learn new skills by concentrating on them.  When things are novel, we engage resources and focus our attention on them, but this comes with a cost.  It consumes a relatively large amount of energy.  Our brains already consume 20-30% of our glucose (energy) but represent only 2-3% of our body mass.  We can’t keep our brains actively thinking.  Instead, we convert normal things into patterns and systems that can be run with very little concentration.

Your first time driving a car commanded your entire attention.  Now, whether or not the laws in your state support it or not, you’ll talk on the phone, listen to music, eat, put on makeup, shave, or do a hundred other things that divert your attention from the task of driving.  Driving has become routine, and it doesn’t demand any attention.

Once something is habituated, we can expect performance without concentration.

Concentration Disruption

In fact, once something has been habituated, any attempt to access it consciously decreases performance.  Instead of our concentration adding value, it slows down the normal processing and can make things not work.  Top-performing individuals like athletes talk about being in flow and the negative -outcomes when they can’t get into flow.

Whether we’re doing something habituated or learning something for the first time and concentrating, the performance won’t be what you’d expect from someone who does it all the time.  This performance difference can convert a simple disruption in routine into a critical burnout problem.

Performance Expectations

If you expect that you’ll perform at the level of someone who has a great deal of experience, and then you don’t, you’ll be disappointed.  You’ll naturally wonder if you’re effective at the task or if you should stop doing it.  If you’re focusing your concentration on something and it gets worse, you may wonder what’s wrong with you.  Isn’t performance supposed to go up with attention?

Rather than performance expectations going up, they should go down.  Ask any professional athlete who chose to rebuild a skill to improve their performance if they didn’t have a performance dip.  Everyone who can be honest will tell you that they did.  It’s a natural part of the process.

Burnout Inefficacy

Burnout is ultimately about our perception of our efficacy or inefficacy.  When we feel like we’re not able to meet the performance expectations we have, we feel ineffective, and burnout isn’t far behind.  If we want to head burnout off at the pass, we need to realize that if our routines are disrupted, we’re going to have a performance dip.  That performance dip doesn’t mean we’re not effective.  It means that the natural result of the transition is happening.  We just must wait to get past it – and past the critical cause of burnout.

Burnout is a Result of Lack of Skills, Not a Lack of Character

Admitting that you are burned out still has a social stigma attached to it.  While it’s more socially acceptable than admitting that you are depressed, there’s still the mistaken belief that burnout is a result of a lack of character instead of the truth that it’s a lack of skills.

In today’s world, few people know how to sew their own clothes.  A hundred years ago, it was shameful to say that you didn’t know basic sewing techniques.  Today, we don’t shame people for not knowing how to sew, we teach them how to sew when necessary – mostly through YouTube videos.  People with burnout today are sometimes shamed or shunned by society for their lack of character.  How long will it take before we understand that burnout is a lack of skills just like any other lack of skill, and those skills can be taught?

Burnout has been characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  Feelings of inefficacy are the driver in this definition of burnout, because cynicism is the result of a lack of feeling like you can have an impact, and exhaustion is simply the result of working hard – whether you’re effective or not.  Burnout is, then, as simple as becoming effective.  Like many things in life, some skills development can send you soaring to new heights.

The Skills

What skills, then, are missing?  What things does someone in burnout need to be able to evacuate themselves from the neighborhood of burnout?  Here are a few of the keys:

  1. Self-Talk – If you want to avoid burnout – or recover from it – you must treat yourself as a valuable human being.  Most people berate themselves and haven’t learned the skills associated with accepting themselves for who they are, faults and all.
  2. Accepting Self-Efficacy – It’s a skill to listen to someone compliment you on something you did and simply say “Thank you.”  No arguments about it was nothing.  Not dismissal that they don’t know what they’re talking about or that they don’t understand.  Simply, accepting that you do get things accomplished, at least sometimes.
  3. Self-Care – Put your own mask on before helping others.  We’ve all heard it, but rarely do we do it.  Rarely do we think that we’ve got to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves instead of taking care of our commitments to others.  Learning appropriate self-care is not self-indulgence: it’s a skill.
  4. Saying No – Our two-year-old selves mastered a skill that we’ve forgotten.  We knew how to say no, then as we grew and became more socialized, we forgot how to say no.  In our quest to be liked and respected, we felt like no was no longer an option.  However, no is not only an option, it may be the only option if you can’t find the personal agency necessary to meet your own needs.
  5. Asking for Help – The ideal of the rugged cowboy charging across the American plains to conquer the new frontier is a myth.  Groups of families crossed the plains in wagon trains so that they could “circle the wagons” to protect and support each other.  It’s a skill to be able to ask for the help you need from people who are safe and willing to support you.
  6. Letting Go – Buddha said that our suffering comes from our attachment to things.  Whether you subscribe to this philosophy or not, we have all held too tightly onto things that we needed to let go of.  Learning when it’s the right time to let go is a skill.
  7. Accepting Change – Our lives are filled with change.  None of us live inside a change-proof bubble.  Learning the skill of accepting change frees us from the fear that change sometimes brings.

The Journey

There are many more skills that are helpful, but not required, to avoid or recover from burnout.  It’s not that someone instantly learns the skills they need to become invulnerable to burnout.  It’s a journey in life that builds skills to make burnout less likely.  You’re not bad or broken because you’ve got burnout.  You’re just waiting to develop the skills you need.

What to Do When Your Personal Agency Is Empty

Burnout is what happens when you feel like you can no longer get anything done.  What do you do when you feel like your personal agency is gone – that you’re no longer effective?  The answer is to find ways to help you feel more effective.

The Bathtub

Think about your capacity to get things done as a bathtub filled with your personal agency.  If your bathtub is empty and you want to fill it, you can’t just turn on the spigot and try to fill the bathtub.  You first need to plug the drain.  Our personal agency bathtub is drained by the demands we accept.  We like to think that demands are external to us, but most of the time the demands placed on us are our own.

With a plug in the drain of the bathtub we can focus on filling it – through accepting our results, asking for help, and doing self-care.

The Demands

We all have demands placed upon us.  In most cases, the demands placed on us are smaller than the demands that we place on ourselves.  You may be asked to bring food in for a pitch in.  If you accept this demand (and you don’t necessarily have to), then you should bring in food.  However, the natural elevation of the demand is that the food must be home cooked.  Home-baked cookies might be great, but store-bought cookies work.  You’ve silently elevated the demand and made it bigger.

How can you plug the drain by not accepting any demands that you don’t need to – and not making the demands bigger than they already are?

Relishing Your Results

A pat on the back is nice.  Recognition for a job well done is appreciated, but, too often, we let the impact of those results end when the reverberation of the words leaves the room.  Everyone gets some kinds of positive results – just not all the time.  How do you relish the results that you get – and hold on to them so that you can realize you are getting things done?

More than that, how do you leverage your reputation to get to the next level?

Soliciting Support

If you want to fill your bathtub quicker, ask for help.  Ask for people to bring in buckets and start pouring some of their personal agency into your bathtub.  Maybe it’s getting a barrier out of your way.  Maybe it’s the leg up you need to overcome the next hurdle.  Whatever it is, you’re unlikely to get support from others if you don’t solicit it.


If you’re feeling that you’ve got nothing left to give anyone, it may seem like self-care is out of the question.  After all, you’ve got nothing left to give – even to yourself.  However, self-care has a magical property of increasing not only the personal agency in your bathtub but the bathtub’s size as well.  Self-care doesn’t have to be an extravagant vacation or an expensive dinner.  Self-care can simply be a few minutes of relaxation and breathing.  It can be a brief meditation – if you’re not worried about doing it wrong.  (It can’t be done wrong.)


If you can adjust all of these valves, your bathtub will be overflowing.  You can make yourself available to other demands, so that you can help others fill their empty personal agency tub and escape burnout.

Circling the Burnout Drain

In science and children’s museums across the world, there are coin donation spirals that cause coins to roll around a circle before dropping into the waiting pit below.  After being launched from a ramp, forces pull the coin ever closer to the center and into their eventual drop through the hole.  Our lives can feel like this.  We’re going along fine, pulled by an unseen force towards the burnout black hole at the center of our world.  We find that we’re spinning round and round, getting nowhere, and ultimately feeling exhausted before we drop.

Forces at Play

The forces that drive the coin drop are gravity, the momentum of the coin, and the centrifugal force that pulls the coin away from the center as it rolls faster and faster.  In our lives, the tendency towards feelings of inefficacy can pull us down an ever steeper and more treacherous slope.  The closer we get to burnout, the more ineffective we are, and the more ineffective we feel.

Inefficacy is at the heart of burnout.  It’s our feeling that we can’t get anything done.  As we spend more and more of our energy on trying to avoid the pull, the less effective we feel – and the closer to burnout we get.

Sucked In

With blackholes, it’s called an event horizon.  It’s the point beyond which there’s no chance of escape.  The amount of velocity required would exceed the speed of light, and – according to Einstein – nothing can do that.  As a result, it’s the point at which any object would be inescapably caught.  The good news is that burnout doesn’t have an event horizon – no matter how burned out someone might feel.  Well before the event horizon of a blackhole, you’ll feel the pull.  You’ll start getting sucked in.  However, just feeling like you’re getting pulled in doesn’t mean you can’t escape.

For pre-event horizon objects, the escape path isn’t to fight the entire force of the black hole by aiming away and pushing as hard as possible.  The escape path is to increase the velocity of your orbit around the blackhole.  In burnout, the trick isn’t to fight it directly; instead, we should find ways to be effective in the presence of the pull.


The quickest boost anyone can get when they feel ineffective is to call in reinforcements and ask for support.  When others help us, we can feel more effective, and it doesn’t take any more work on our part.  While many may resist asking for help, getting help can make the seemingly impossible just a bit less difficult, and the rewards for being effective are all the sweeter.

Being supported doesn’t mean that we didn’t accomplish something in the same way an athlete wins the medal themselves even if they were coached for years.  Getting support just means that we’re getting that little push we need to avoid getting stuck into the downward spiral.

Sometimes it’s not support we need.  It’s simpler.  Sometimes all we need to do is recognize our velocity and spend less time worried about burnout and instead focus on what we can do to move forward in our lives.  This added focus can make us more effective.  Eventually, this additional productivity and velocity can help us escape from burnout’s grip.

Don’t spend your life circling around burnout’s drain; start finding ways to ask for support and focus your energies on moving forward, so that you can escape the drain and move on with your life.