Welcome to this edition of the “Making Better Decisions” newsletter. This week I bring your attention to a particular and terrible malaise of modern society — “Burnout”, based on a suggestion from @Aditi Kashyap. It is my belief that “burnout” is an insidious ailment that is best avoided, and that avoiding burnout is not all that difficult — it can be a natural consequence of living consciously.
“I just love what I do. I’m not worried about any burnout.” — Canelo Alvarez
You feel like you are getting the most out of your life. You like what you do at work. You are able to maintain and relish relationships with your family members. You also have a good core group of friends with whom you have good social time and also have fitness partners who motivate you enough to keep your fitness regimen going. You are also able to take time out to indulge in your personal interest in watching all spaghetti western movies or running or something like that. This way of life is the opposite of burnout. Not many of us may have all of this going in our lives but many people have a at least few of these features in their life. Very few of us go through burnout but many of us believe that we are going through one or have been through one.
From what I have experienced and seen, in burnout,
- You tend to be listless — you go through life like a zombie
- You tend to be predominantly pessimistic and cynical
- You need to be dragged into action; need for external factors to get you to act
- You have sustained perceived need for weekend/vacation breaks, substance indulgence to escape stress or relax
- Your life feels like an ordeal
- Your personal standards for quality tend to deteriorate
- You are working too hard for too long
Note that hard work is the last item on this list. Yes, burnout is generally not a result of over working alone. Overwork can cause other issues but not necessarily burnout. Too many exceptions to prove this — most folks who achieved extraordinary success work quite hard — right from a number of house maids and cab drivers to scientists to political leaders to schoolteachers. Specific (popular) examples: Narendra Modi, Charles Darwin, Adi Shankaracharya, Mahatma Gandhi, Barrack Obama . Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos etc.
While burnout is accompanied by hard and/or long work hours, it is actually characterized by listless hours of work with an overwhelming sense of no control or autonomy.
“The land of burnout is not a place I ever want to go back to.” — Arianna Huffington
Burnout is particularly pernicious because it is somewhat irreversible (technically speaking, burnout has a non-ergodic impact on you). Once having experienced burnout, it will be hard for one to recover the original level of zeal or ambition. Additionally, one will have to contend with the stigma of burnout. Putting oneself at a high chance of burnout is bad career strategy. Burnout is career regressive.
The best way I can think of to avoid burnout is to have a strong sense of purpose behind the work you do. This purpose has to be bigger and higher than materialistic selfishness. Few examples: the role of a national leader as an opportunity to advance the nation, going after scientific breakthroughs to help uplift the lot of humanity, building companies to make world a better place, pursuing career to develop teams and create opportunities for others, working to make money for educating your children and giving them significantly improved shot at a better life than yours etc.
Even with a higher purpose behind your work, burnout will inevitably result if you work too hard for too long. Rest and recovery are as important as action and work. Strategic approach to “rest of recovery” should be an essential part of you plan for achieving goals. General tendency is to give-it-all during weekdays and recover somewhat in the weekends. Then take a vacation once every three to six months to recover from the accumulated strain and stress. I’m not a big fan of this strategy. Rest and recovery should be taken as active tools for progress and hence should be not legated to weekends and vacation breaks. Rest should be taken every day and constant/frequent recovery should be sought. Nature provided a basic architecture for this already — “everyday” need to sleep. Sleeping over seven to eight hours a night (something I have not been able to do achieve myself) is a most accessible, no-brainer opportunity for most people. Dinner with family and a daily “walking” regimen with your spouse or friends are other relatively easy/accessible ways to incorporate these breaks. The biggest hack though, is pursuing work that challenges you, makes you curious and helps you grow.
Over the last decade of my running experience, I have noticed two categories of runners: those who nurtured their running careers and have gone from strength to strength and those who had spectacular performances but what turned to be flashes in a pan. Eliud Kipchoge, the greatest marathon runner ever, does not race more than two full marathons a year and yet, year after year, he is getting better and better. One of the key factors that he attributes to his success is “a well-managed system with knowledgeable passionate people, working alongside dedicated teammates with common goals.”
“I feel burnout comes as a result of consistent over-simulation.” — Dinesh Paliwal
When your actions are driven not so much by personal glory but by a purpose that goes beyond just you, when you are in good health and when your life is characterized by meaningful indulgences in at least two of the following: your relationships, personal hobbies and your career/work, “burnout” need not ever be your concern.
Thanks for taking time to read this article. In this newsletter, I share my learnings that could help you improve your decisions and make meaningful progress on your goals and desires. I share stuff that I have personally experienced or experimented with. If you find this newsletter worthwhile, please do share it with others — of course, only if you do not mind it.
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