How to conquer career burnout

There must be something in the air.

In the last week, I’ve chatted with two people facing career burnout. This wasn’t a temporary, “I’ve been working too much and I need a vacation,” situation.

This was, literally, a life crisis.

Building a career can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s wonderful to see where you’ve come from and know that you’re truly successful. You may own a profitable business. Or you may be an in-demand employee. You’ve worked hard for your success, dammit – in some cases, spending over 1/4 of your life in your current career.

On the other hand…reaching mastery can mean boredom. Sure, you know that there’s more you can learn. But you also know that you can show up, turn your brain off, and do better than 90% of everyone else out there. You see the same debates floating around the industry (Is SEO dead? Is Google really evil?)

And you find yourself feeling…trapped.

Every work day feels as dull as the one before. You examine your immediate options and think, “Well, I can stay put. Or I can take a pay hit and do something else.” Depending on your financial situation, you may not have the freedom to change careers. Or, you may have been doing the same thing for so long that you have no idea what’s out there.

If you’re self-employed, the thought of taking a “real job” may be enough to keep you where you are.

Even if you don’t know why you’re still doing it.

Have I gone through this? Heck yes. I remember talking with a friend about closing down, moving to Mexico and living on my savings.  It wasn’t a pipe dream. I was working out the pros and cons.  Then there were the dreams where I would announce on stage, “This is my final conference – I’m leaving the industry.”

I love what I do. But there have been times that I’ve been…tired. And that’s when burnout can creep up and smack you.

Typically, you have little warning signs before the big burnout hits. Work doesn’t energize you anymore – even if you hit a huge milestone. You find yourself putting off important tasks because you just don’t care. You put in the minimum amount of time and no more.

If you ignore the warning signs (and the mini-burnouts,) you’re setting yourself up for a big crash. That’s when moving to Mexico seems like the best idea in the world.  You can pull back from this – I did – but it’s much, much harder.

Here’s what to do:

-  Have outside interests. This may seem like a “duh” comment, but career-climbers are often highly focused. They go to work, come home, go to bed and start it again the next day. Doing anything “fun” feels like it cuts into valuable work time. You may feel like you “don’t have time” to take a class, exercise, cook a healthy meal – whatever. But do it anyway.

-  Feeling antsy? Consider how you can tweak your career. Often, the first symptoms of career burnout is feeling bored. If you’re in that space, think about how you can add some spice to your work life. That could mean getting a new job. Or going back to school. Or launching a new product line. Or moving away from clients and selling products instead. Consider how you can leverage the talents you have while getting that dose of “newness” you need.

- Talk it out. I thought I was the only one who faced career burnout. I started beating myself up, saying, “Gee, Heather. You own your business and you can do whatever you want. You can change your situation. But you don’t know how. Loser.” Turns out, feeling like a “career loser” is pretty common.  Share how you’re feeling with a trusted mentor, colleague or friend. They may be able to provide an unique perspective (and if nothing else, it feels good to talk to someone else.)

- Increase your vacation time. An interesting side-effect of burnout is that we dig our heels in, work more hours and try to power through. This is typically the worst thing that you can do. :) If you’re feeling the beginnings of burnout, schedule a vacation right now.  Try for two weeks – but if that’s not possible, at least take four days away from work.  The mini-break alone may help provide some perspective (and when you return, schedule another vacation so you have something to look forward to!)

- Take a sabbatical. Vacations are nice, but they may not give you all the time away you need. Does your job allow you to take a sabbatical? Take it. Are you self-employed? A sabbatical is still possible with a little planning.  I’ll be taking my first one in about a month, and I’m excited to see how the time away treats me. But truthfully, it took a conversation with a friend (thank you, Bruce Clay) for helping me feel like I deserved a sabbatical.  Now, I’m pumped at the sabbatical possibilities – and I think that I’ll be feeling VERY energized when I return.

- Still not feeling it? Come up with an exit strategy. My father, a member of the Greatest Generation, was a master of switching careers. He was a a fighter pilot, a test pilot, an insurance agent, a trust officer, Vice President of a major financial institution and a small business owner. When he was done with one career, he seamlessly found something else to do. If you’ve tried everything and you’re still hating your work life, figure out your finances, set a deadline and start plotting a new career choice. Just because you’re considered an expert in X doesn’t mean that you have to do it forever. It will take some soul searching. It may not be “easy.”

But just remember: Life is too short to be bored with what you do.

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