Beating Burnout: Knowing When To Back Off

ShissoJust as water seeks the lowest level, dysfunction seeks the lowest level of tolerance. If your standard for what you require in life and relationships is low, bad things will ooze into your life just as water dribbles to the lowest spot of ground.
-Dr Henry Cloud

Knowing when to say ‘when’ is one of the most useful of life skills.

It can be useful in your personal and professional lives. It can help you manage your projects, your time and yourself.

Without the ability to know when it’s time to back off, you could find yourself hanging onto your temper by a thread or making bad decisions at critical moments. You know when you’re getting close to your edges when:

  1. You get to work and find yourself with a list of to-dos that has you re-prioritizing medical appointments that were scheduled 6 months in advance.
    I know, in times like these, work seems to take priority. After all, you want to keep your job, but you need to stay healthy and employed.
  2. You read a joking email from a colleague and it goes so far over your head that you take it seriously and respond with series of what seem to be insightful questions to get to ‘the root of the matter.’
    If after realizing that it was a joke you still don’t laugh, time for a break. Go expose yourself to some unfiltered air outside of the building.
  3. When you’re on the third reply to an email what seems to have an ever expanding audience of readers.
    Stop typing. Push back from the keyboard and go get a cup a coffee. When you come back, pick up the phone or LEAVE YOUR CUBE and go talk to the person yanking on the other end of the email thread.
  4. When your day starts at 6 am with a meeting, goes through 6 pm and then you have another meeting at 10 pm that evening that you have to take.
    Unless the meeting involves life or death, nothing is so important that it can’t wait until tomorrow.
    Shut down the laptop and put it back in the bag (I know you’re working at home).
  5. When unemployment is looking like a vacation without any benefits.
    If you get to this state of mind, you are way off base and dangerously close to burnout, if you’re not already there. In Japan they have a phrase, karoshi 過労死 or death from overwork. The belief is that the dedicated employees worked themselves to death out of a “samarai-like pride.”
    You’re not a samarai. Stop it. Shut down the computer.

Knowing when to say when is critical to staying balanced. When you love your job, sometimes love can cross over into burnout without you noticing when you got there.

When my sense of humor, priorities, time clocked and longing for a break go off-kilter, I know I’m out of alignment. Like lights in a dashboard, when one of them starts blinking, I know I need a break.  When they’re all on, I’m in the soup.

Do you recognize the signs in your behavior that warn you to back off?  Leave me a comment or send me a tweet, my id is jgodfrey.


1 Comment

  1. Things that have worked for me:
    1. A years sabbatical (if you can afford it or it is paid for)
    2. Long plane or car trips (forced inactivity helps my mind to unwind)
    3. Walk around the block (leave the cube/office and go walk, I’ve had many great solutions pop up while doing this)
    4. Slow down: walk slower, move slower for a hour – seems completely counterintuitive but helps me to be more productive in that period of time
    5. Stop. Just sit there for 5 minutes. Just sit, do nothing. This often clarifies what I need to do next better than any other activity.


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