Burnout—What can I do about it?

Dear Alice,

I've never been very good at managing my time, getting homework done, or staying organized. Yet, I learned to work around this and get things done rather successfully. However, recently, I haven't been able to do ANYTHING. I can't get school work done. It's starting to impact my grades. I think this might be a result of a stressful junior year combined with a stressful summer job. I worked 50 hours a week at an understaffed Boys and Girls Club. There might be something about taking care of children — many with serious family/home issues — that really drained me. I only had about a week of summer vacation where I wasn't either working or at home with pneumonia. I went from a rough summer into a difficult senior year. Now, I feel like I need a break to collect myself, but I know I won't get that break until I graduate. What can I do? I don't think I need new organizational strategies, I've picked those up over the years, but then again if I knew what I needed I guess I wouldn't be asking!

Burning out

Dear Burning out, 

Wow, you've had a busy year! It’s great that you’re paying attention to your body and how you feel. Recognizing that you may be on a path to burnout can help you prioritize your well-being and reduce its impacts. It can be tough to go so long without a break so incorporating some daily strategies to manage stress and take care of yourself may help you deal with the stressors you’re experiencing. 

The experience you describe in your question sounds similar to burnout, which occurs when a person experiences excessive amounts of stress over a long period of time. Rather than feeling overly stimulated, this stress can cause people to lose interest in their activities, feel as though they may not care as much about their work anymore, and feel hopeless about their circumstances changing. It may also include not feeling as accomplished or loss of personal identity.  

Burnout can happen gradually, so you may not notice it initially. However, when someone acknowledges that they may be on their way to burnout or that they’re currently burnt out, there are a number of ways they can reduce these feelings: 

  • Seek out social support. Making time to hang out with people who inspire positive feelings can help you fight those feelings of burnout. This social support can make handling other stressors in your life feel more manageable. If you'd rather do more structured activities, you may reap similar benefits from being involved in intramural sports, clubs, enjoyable jobs, or any activity in which you find meaning and interest.  
  • Set some boundaries. Taking some time to set some boundaries for yourself so you don’t feel as overwhelmed and finding time to relax can help. Setting aside these times can provide an opportunity to not only learn more about your true interests and goals, but also figure out what in your life is working for you and what isn’t working as well.  
  • Focus on physical activity. Even something as simple as taking a walk for ten minutes can help improve your mood. Additionally, focusing on what your body is doing during the activity, rather than your thoughts, can help increase those feelings of stress relief. 
  • Eat a balanced diet. The foods you consume can have an impact on how you feel during the day. Focusing on getting a wide variety of nutrients can help fuel you and keep your body running smoothly.   
  • Get some zzzs. Most adults function best when they get between seven to nine hours of sleep a night. More or less sleep may make people feel less alert and more irritable. Not getting enough sleep can also make burnout feel worse. Maintaining a routine sleep schedule (i.e., waking up and going to bed around the same times each day), reducing caffeine consumption, and limiting electronic use before sleep are just a few measures that could be helpful for improving sleep. 
  • Take a break. While you may not have any breaks in your semester planned, taking some time away from your electronics and your work for some time throughout the week can be helpful to prevent your thoughts from wandering to everything that's causing you to feel stressed and overwhelmed. Additionally, if able, taking a few days off may be a needed break to relieve some of those feelings of burnout. Taking a weekend away from work may prove to be a helpful respite. If taking a few days isn’t possible, setting aside even a day or even a few hours may offer a reprieve. 
  • Try mindfulness. Trying to incorporate some mindfulness into your routine may help fight those feelings of stress. By focusing on your breath and what you’re feeling in your body, you may be able to reduce some of the stress you’re experiencing. 

Although you may feel like you won’t get a break soon, building in time for yourself can help to reduce those feelings of burnout. By incorporating some of these techniques into your life, hopefully you’ll be able to feel motivated again. If you're still struggling to feel like yourself, you may want to see what types of support may be available on campus, be it support groups, time management resources, or a mental health professional among others, as they can provide additional information and resources to help you. 

Last updated Apr 29, 2022
Originally published Feb 09, 2007