Regrets Lead to Burnout

It was late spring in Boston when I stepped out of the conference center for a walk.  It was day three of a conference that was cramming information in my brain, and I needed a chance to get some fresh air.  I walked down a block, lost in my own thoughts as I looked across the river to Cambridge and MIT, when I was stopped by a young woman in her late teens or early twenties holding a clipboard and asking if I’d take a survey.  Lost in thought, I expected that she was a college student trying to complete a project for a class, so I agreed, and she walked me half a block back the way I had come to The Church of Scientology building.  I took their standardized test by filling in bubbles on an answer sheet.  Then I waited in a small room where someone came to read the results.

One of the first questions was whether I had any regrets.  In a moment of unusual clarity, I answered no – and then went on to explain, “I like who I am, and I need every experience to be the person I am today.  I can’t have regrets if I like who I am.”  It would be years before I realized the power of these simple remarks and how they helped me to become more resistant to burnout.

The Power of Regret

Regret is a powerful emotion that robs our accomplishments of their worth.  Our ability to get things done – and therefore our immunity to burnout – relies on the simple premise that the work we’re doing is good.  When we regret, we take the awareness of our potential and question whether we’re doing the right things even if we’re able to do them.

Burnout is defined by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, but it’s inefficacy that’s at the core.  If we feel ineffective, we’ll become exhausted and cynical.  When we feel regret, we may feel as if we’re somewhat effective, but we question whether the effects we’re having are right or enough.


There’s a degree of acceptance that we need to grant ourselves but don’t always.  This is particularly true of the actions we don’t take that we feel as if we should have.  It seems we’re more attuned to regret the things we didn’t do than the things we did.  As a result, we often find ourselves wondering if we’re doing enough – or, more dramatically, if we are enough.  “Enough for what?” is the question, but it’s the one that rarely gets asked.

Through acceptance of who we are, we can accept that we’re enough for where we are – even if we’re not exactly where we’d like to be at this moment.

A Little Bit of Wrong

Somewhere along the way, many of us have failed to learn an important lesson – that failure is okay as long as it’s not fatal.  We’ve failed to learn that we can – and will – get things wrong if we’re willing to try.  The more we try, the more we’ll be wrong – but more importantly the more we’ll be right.

If we allow our regrets to paralyze us and prevent us from doing the things we know are right and we can do, then we’ll eventually fall into the pit of burnout through our quite realistic lack of efficacy.  Learning to accept ourselves for who we are – both the good and the bad – may be one of the best ways to neutralize regret and protect ourselves from burnout.

Frozen in Fear on the Path to Burnout

It’s only a split second, but it feels like an eternity.  The eyes are glowing in the light, but everything is motionless.  For a moment, your brain stops as it tries to process what’s happening before eventually realizing that the deer is frozen in the headlights like they’re in some sort of magical freeze ray.  You slow down, honk the horn, and the spell is broken.  The deer continues on its way, and you start to realize your heart is trying to beat its way out of your chest.

We’ve all been that deer.  We’ve been on the other side of those magical headlights and been frozen by our fear of what might happen.  In our fear, we’ve failed to do the one thing that can keep us safe – to keep moving.

Burnout and Efficacy

Burnout is most frequently defined as exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  We know that we can be exhausted as a part of our greatest times in life as well as our lowest.  Cynicism is a response to our belief that we’re not able to affect change – so the best we can do is complain about it.  Inefficacy is, however, different.  Inefficacy is a sense of learned helplessness or a lack of hope that we can change our circumstances.

In our moments of fear, we may feel as if hundreds of ideas are running through our head vying for our attention, or we may find ourselves completely blank without a single coherent thought.  Either way, we’re stuck, just like the deer in headlights.

Getting Unstuck

In most of our moments in life, there’s no magical car horn that can sound to break us out of our trance of fear – perhaps because in doing so it might make us more fearful.  Instead, we must rely on our awareness of the situation, the problems, and the solutions we already have to help us move forward.  That relies on our assessment of the stressor and of our resources.


In our lives, there will always be things that are stressors to us – things we fear because of their potential impact to our lives.  We may believe there’s a poisonous snake or a lion that is about to bite us, and that our best answer is to stay still and hope they don’t see us.  However, most of the things we are afraid of today are less about life and death and more about loss.  Whether it’s the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, or the loss of our home, we perceive the possibility for loss and are afraid of how we’ll cope.

There are two aspects to assessing the stressor.  The first is the impact, and here our greatest challenge is recognizing the real, long-term impact.  Too often, we overestimate the impact or extend the impact forward in time forever and thus expect that it will permanently change our world for the negative when the truth is rarely that way.

The second is evaluating the probability that the imagined impact will become real.  Mark Twain said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”  We quite often overestimate the likelihood that something will happen once we’ve identified it.


Our resources to cope with a negative impact caused by a stressor are both our own internal capacity as well as the capacity of those around us who care for us.  When evaluating the fear that is preventing us from moving forward, we sometimes skip over the resources we have in ourselves and in our friends, colleagues, and allies.  If we give these collective resources their due consideration, we often find that the stressor, though troubling, isn’t something to be afraid of.

Moving Forward

If you want to get unstuck, move forward with your fear, and, ultimately, stave off burnout, it may be as straightforward as reevaluating the stressor that’s triggering the fear and your assessment of your capacity to address it, even if it were to become real.

Time to Leave Burnout

You just can’t seem to make it work.  It feels like there is always something wrong, and there will never be a way for you to be effective.  Maybe it is a nagging feeling that you’re just not meant to be doing this even if you’re moderately successful.   That’s when it may be time to leave – leave your job or leave the industry.  At some point, you’ve got to stop pushing the square peg through the round hole.  Deep down, you know it, even if you don’t like the answer.

Escaping Burnout

Burnout is defined with exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  At some point, you have landed in a place of exhaustion and not even realized you were there.  You no longer felt like you had the energy to fight, but you weren’t even sure what you were fighting for.  Feeling ineffective is at the heart of burnout, and you feel like you’re always ineffective.  For you, it always feels like failure or not enough.  This leads to a pervasive cynicism that the job or even the industry will never get better.

When you’re out of options, when you’re feeling like it can never get better, you’ve lost hope, and it’s time to find it or get out.


Holding back all the evils of the world, hope can be powerful yet beleaguered.  Hope allows us to continue with the belief that it will get better someday.  But what about the case where hope is gone, or, equally challenging, when hope drives you to continue to fight a fight that you were never supposed to be in?

When you can no longer find hope where you have been looking, it is time to look somewhere else.  Another job or another industry, someplace where hope may have taken residence.  That may mean leaving what you know for something unknown, but when you’ve already searched everywhere, it’s time.

There are also times when hope drives you to fight the same fight day after day, but it’s not the right fight for you.  You can do it.  You can continue to slog your way through, but it’s not what you’re supposed to be doing.  It’s not that anyone is directly saying it, but it’s just something you know.  You’d be better someplace else or doing something else.

The Last Resort

When people are feeling burnout, the desire to change jobs or industries is often the first thing that people feel.  It’s an escape.  However, it’s not always the best answer.  Too often, burnout follows them on a six-month delay.  Knowing when it is the right time to change requires separating the challenges of the day to day from the deeply-held thoughts and feelings that there has got to be something easier, better, and more suited for you.

While there’s no one answer as to when you should consider a change of roles, companies, or industries, the sign posts that lead the way out of burnout point towards something unresolvable in the current situation no matter how much support you receive, self-care you do, or even how well you manage the demands.  You simply won’t be able to feel like the results you are getting are right or enough.  When you see those signs, then maybe it is time for a change, so you can leave burnout behind.

Burned Out or Overwhelmed

I sat back down at my desk and stared at the screen.  I had plenty to do – too much in fact.  I was painfully aware that I couldn’t get everything done in the timeframes that I wanted to get them done in.  That should be good motivation to get busy and get done what I could.  However, that wasn’t the case this day.  What I realized was that I had become overwhelmed with the work that needed to be done, and I was dangerously close to pushing myself into burnout if I wasn’t careful. 


We’ve all experienced those times when our commitments – both internal and external – have outstripped out resources.  We’re juggling, and we’re in that fleeting moment when we know we’re going to drop some balls, it just hasn’t happened yet.  It happens to everyone, but we’ve not let go yet.

One of the natural outcomes of being overwhelmed is to stop.  Like a deer in headlights, we don’t do anything.  We can’t move from where we are.  It’s breaking free of doing nothing that can be the hardest part and the most essential to escaping both being overwhelmed and the potential burnout it can spawn.

Deciding What to Drop

The first step is figuring out what to let go of.  Here are four strategies to release the pressure and stop being overwhelmed:

  • Do Less – Buy a greeting card for a friend rather than making a custom one.
  • Do It Later – Move back the deadline that you’ve got to get something accomplished.  The project that you wanted to get done this month can wait until next.
  • Delegate – Get someone else to help get it done.  Maybe they won’t do as good a job at it, but you just can’t get it done now.
  • Drop It – Decide that you can’t do it now or in the foreseeable future.  Even if it’s something you want to do, realize that you just can’t.

It’s not easy to decide what to let go of – but until you do that you may be stuck staring at your screen asking what is next.

The Next Best Thing

With the relief that you’ve released one of the things on your plate, you’re often not out of the woods yet.  Instead, you’ve got a brief reprieve so that you can move forward on the next best thing.  With a bit of breathing room, you can decide what thing you need to work on next.  What thing can you accomplish and get off your plate so you don’t have to worry about it any longer?  If you’re committed to doing it, it doesn’t matter if it’s the biggest, hardest, or even the most important thing that you must do.  It just needs to be accomplishable.

Once you’ve got that thing accomplished, you can move to the next best thing to accomplish.  You can move on to something else that you can get done, so you can feel like you’re effective and accomplishing things.


Feelings of inefficacy are at the core of burnout.  The generally accepted criteria are exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, but the feeling of inefficacy drives burnout.  We’re only cynical about those things we are ineffective at changing, and we’ve all been elated and exhausted at the same time.  That’s why it’s critical to approach being overwhelmed head-on.  We’ve got to remove the pressure that’s preventing us from doing anything, and then work on those things that help us know we are effective, so burnout doesn’t set in as a result of a temporary state of being overwhelmed.  It’s just being overwhelmed until we let it stop us from being effective and drag us into burnout.