I graduated from college in 2011, and since then, I’ve always had what I consider a “big girl” job. These jobs paid well(ish), were challenging, and had growth trajectories. I had business cards, traveled for clients and conferences, brainstormed with sticky notes and sharpies, and contributed to a retirement account. I always kept my resume updated and never had a gap in employment………that is, until now.
For the first time ever, I don’t have a job, or one lined up, in fact, I don’t have much of a plan at all.
I’d love to go back and tell that to 2011 me just to see my reaction.
The truth is that I hit a wall, I burned out. After a few years of genuinely enjoying where I worked, and who I worked with, I found myself frustrated, unmotivated, stressed, bored, and cynical all at the same time. Waking up with a knot in my stomach, and dreading what was coming that day started to become a regular occurrence. I was snappy, cried way too easily (especially in the car to and from work), and generally felt pretty miserable on a regular basis.
I won’t say this hasn’t happened before, but whenever I found myself unhappy with work, I always figured out a way to make a change that was fairly low risk and still involved a paycheck. When I was ready to move on from my first job out of college at a consulting firm, I spent some time thinking about what I wanted to change in my life, moved to Colorado, and started working for a startup. When I realized I was even more stressed and unhappy in that role, I made up a new position. When I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to continue working in tech at all, I experimented with some different options through volunteering and classes; and when I decided it was time to step into the arena I was tiptoeing in, I took on more responsibility.
But, this time was different. I had no energy, no motivation, no concept of what I could change to fix this mess. I wanted to lock myself out of my email, burn Slack to the ground, and put my brain on do not disturb mode.
I guess in a way, do not disturb mode was the only solution I could come up with. So, here I am, empty inbox and calendar, figuring some shit out.
Here’s what I’ve come up with in my four weeks of nothing.
1. Burnout is complicated
Burnout has always been a thing, and research on it dates back to the 1970s. Though it seems so common now, we hear about it constantly, and most people jump to pin it on lazy, entitled millennials. But the World Health Organization does recognize it as a diagnosis.
I don’t know anything about classifying diagnoses, but I do know the way it’s described is pretty spot on with how I was feeling on a daily basis:
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
– feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
– increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
– reduced professional efficacy.”https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/
I had trouble accepting burnout was what I was experiencing because I seemed to think it only happened in really high stress jobs, where people were working long hours.
While I had some long days, and some stressful periods, it’s not like I didn’t have time to have a life; and I wasn’t saving lives, sending people into space, or going into battle. Far far from it.
I worked in a nice office in picturesque Boulder, CO, could work remotely if I needed to, had access to a kitchen full of free snacks and La Croix, and most of my coworkers were awesome humans to be around. “You should be grateful, you should be able to figure this out, you need to get it together” was my daily mantra.
But burnout doesn’t really adhere to any particular rules. Your industry, title, hours, location, income, age, race, gender…..it doesn’t matter, we’re all susceptible.
However, I do believe there are legitimate reasons why burnout is a more common occurrence these days, especially for my fellow millennials, who are anything but lazy. Anne Peterson does a great job writing about this topic in “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.”
She points out that we more than any other generation have been conditioned to believe we must find what we’re passionate about, and do meaningful work our family and friends admire. Meanwhile, we’re supposed to earn enough to live in cities we can’t afford (because that’s where jobs are), pay off our debt, give to worthy causes (because everything is a mess), have interesting hobbies and side projects, travel, build a network, foster authentic relationships, be healthy, fit and mindful, and get a solid 8 hours of sleep on top of it all.
We can’t pretend the financial crisis shit storm most of us were greeted into adulthood by hasn’t actually set us back, or that the realities of the modern workplace, global economy, and political landscape haven’t inherently changed how we live and work compared to previous generations. We also can’t ignore how much the internet, social media, and smart phones have impacted our thoughts, perceptions, and daily life.
We define ourselves so much by what we do, and how good of a worker we are, and we have so many options for what we could do, so many things to fix or “disrupt” (God, I hate that word), and so many channels to compare our choices and lives to everyone else’s. We are always on, always optimizing, always thinking about what’s next and how we can do more, and it’s never enough.
While there are big things that take up a lot of mental and physical energy in life, there are also all of these tiny things that add up on top of a mountain of pressure we already put on ourselves to improve and succeed, to be exceptional. For example, I subscribe to a daily email newsletter called Optimize (see, always optimizing). I started to get overwhelmed by the amount of emails from it that I wasn’t reading and the exercises I wasn’t doing. I tried to cancel it (because I pay for it) which meant I had to talk to someone on their support team (another item on my to do list). Then when I finally got to the right place to cancel it, I had options to pay less if I stayed, even use it for free. Well, if I could use it for free then I should keep it right? This information is useful, beneficial, helps me become a better version of myself. So I ended up not canceling it, and now I’m back to where I started.
That example is so trivial, so stupid, but it was one more thing I thought I should be doing that I was failing at. Combine this with hundreds of other “shoulds” and you reach a breaking point.
I don’t share any of this as an excuse, I share it to make sense of where these feelings come from and why. Knowing there are reasons for what we’re experiencing rather than believing there’s something inherently wrong with us can be somewhat of a relief.
2. There’s no right way to fix it, but it’s your responsibility to navigate it
Anne says in her article, “burnout isn’t a place to visit and come back from; it’s our permanent residence.”
What that means to me is that all of these pressures, demands, shoulds, options….etc. are not going away, especially as we age. There’s no easy fix, no life hacks, no self help seminar to make it right, this is life.
What I do know is that I had to step away and take a brief intermission. Maybe I’ll need to do this again in the future, or maybe I’ll be able to avoid a similar situation, I don’t know. Either way, this was a conscious choice I made. Some people might view it as running away, or being weak, but this choice was how I took responsibility for how I was feeling. I could have continued doing what I was doing, and stayed a miserable person to be around, but I didn’t. I had no idea what I would do with my time off, whether it would be helpful or if I’d figure out a better alternative. In other words, I don’t know what the outcome of this will be, but I’m doing it anyway
The biggest realization I’ve had so far is that taking responsibility for what is making you unhappy, no matter how it came about, is the only way to make a change. However, equally important is realizing that we will always be faced with problems no matter how much we fix and optimize, that’s just the way it is. The sooner you stop beating yourself up for not feeling happy and successful, get clear on what you value/what’s most important to you, take responsibility for choosing to live in alignment to those values and forget the rest of the noise vying for your attention, and accept that hard things, discomfort, and uncertainty are guaranteed and not something to be avoided, the better off you’ll be.
Those ideas may seem pretty obvious but they resulted in a big shift in thinking for me, which is what needed to happen before I could really navigate this burnout thing. And like I said, there’s no one piece of advice or self help resource that can fix all of this, but the book ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck‘ was super helpful in shifting my mindset, so there you go. I probably would have never read it, but I thought Marc Maron was the author (it’s actually Mark Manson) and the title had a swear word in it, so I was sold.
Taking time off, a hiatus, sabbatical, intermission, whatever you want to call it, isn’t the only answer to burnout, but if that’s where you’re headed please do keep a few things in mind.
- You’re Replaceable
- In case you have some guilt or sense of obligation for staying at your job, remember it’s a job and you are replaceable no matter how important you think you are. Life, the business, it will all continue to go on the very moment you step away.
- Your job is not going to tell you when you’ve had enough, so don’t wait around for permission. You are in charge of your mental health, and no matter how much PTO and yoga classes your company may offer, they only care about what you’re delivering and if you’re not able to do it, you can be replaced. I worked at my company for almost five years and I kept telling myself I needed to stay a little longer to take care of this and that, or see something through. I finally gave myself a quit date and stuck to that timeline. No one cared to the extent I thought they would.
- Money Buys You Time
- Make sure you have some funds set aside for however long you’re planning to take off. Obvious I know, but if your finances are in order you can avoid panicking and making rash decisions that land you right back where you started. This means really understanding where your money is going, cutting back where possible, and being realistic about how much you’ll need and for how long. You are likely going to need at least a month of doing nothing before you can start to make sense of what to do next, probably more depending on how burned out you really are. Then you need to consider how long it will take you to make that next move that will start earning you income again.
- In my case, I slashed my living expenses wherever I could (that means sharing a 500 sq ft cabin with my boyfriend and dog in the woods), saved half of my monthly income for a few months, and set aside four months of funds that will pay my bills and allow me to have a little fun while still leaving me with emergency money.
- There are other ways to go about this, and there are some good resources out there for helping you plan for a ‘mini-retirement’. Here are a few I came across:
- No Plan is a Good Plan
- Unless you know what it is you want to focus on, giving yourself permission to not have any plans, to do nothing and see what happens is OK.
- If you immediately start filling up your calendar, signing up for classes, trips, volunteering, or jumping into a project, you’re going to stay burned out. You’re not doing this to escape and be consumed by something else, you’re doing this to shut down your brain, reflect, and re-calibrate.
3. Unstructured time can be overwhelming
Now as much as I advocate for no plans, you need to know it’s a strange, sometimes overwhelming feeling. If your days have been very structured and filled to the brim like mine were, it’s weird to wake up with no idea as to what you’ll be doing that day. Not to mention, you just quit your job, so you also have to let go of defining yourself by your occupation and get used to not feeling needed. No alarm, no meetings, no Slack messages……it sounds blissful, but combine that with no other plans and you start to realize you don’t really know what to do with yourself.
My first week after quitting was met with snowy, cold weather. I read a lot of Harry Potter, wandered around with my dog, went to the gym, organized and cleaned every drawer, appliance and corner I could within 500 sq ft, and vacuumed more times than anyone needs to know. I didn’t feel that great to be honest; I felt like I wasn’t doing this time off thing right. I should be traveling, living in a van or something, writing a book, and starting a side business right?
STOP IT! There is no right way to do this. Anytime you find yourself saying you “should” be doing whatever, imagine yourself looking at that thought and snipping it in half with a big pair of scissors. I’m serious, these are deep thought patterns you’re going to have to cut off life lines for. Leave your day open for a while, take it one day at a time, and whatever you do, don’t look at Instagram all day unless you want to find yourself rocking back and forth in the fetal position on your couch, researching camper vans.
4. Guilt likes to show up when you have nothing to do
Ah guilt, I know you oh so well. Whenever I’m doing something fun or relaxing, I often feel guilt. I’m getting better at dismissing it, but once you’re not working, not giving back to society, not earning a paycheck, and you’re just hanging out….well get ready for a guilt shit storm.
I mean my parents didn’t send me to college to spend my day coloring in an adult coloring book right? I’ve had so many opportunities, my job wasn’t even that hard to begin with, other people are burned out and can’t take time off, people are suffering in the world, the Earth is melting……these thoughts will run rampant if you let them.
STOP IT! Bring out the scissors, because this is a conscious choice, this is how you’re taking responsibility for your mental state. It doesn’t mean you won’t work again, give back, help others, and contribute. Guilt helps absolutely no one, especially yourself. Accept this is a privilege you’ve been able to take advantage of, get back to that coloring book, and continue with your day.
5. Trust you can depend on yourself
My coworker told me she was excited to see me put myself in a position where I would have to depend on myself to find some answers. She told me she knew I was a very dependable person and she hoped I would see that.
She’s a pretty wise, kind person who would be the one to point out something thoughful like this, but this is what I struggle with the most.
The thing is, I don’t know what exactly I’m trying to figure out. I know I don’t want to wake up with that knot in my stomach every morning again, but what does that mean, what do I do about it?
There are days when I feel a lot of clarity and excitement and can piece together what to do next, and there are nights when I feel anxious and really uncertain. I can hear the clock ticking down on this mini break, and I’m not sure what I’ll have to show for it.
What I have to keep in mind though is that I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone. I’m not trying to be exceptional, successful, or even happy. I’m simply removing some distractions temporarily so I can remember what I value, what matters to me. After that, it’s up to me to choose how I keep that knowledge from being ignored and getting stale again.
We have to trust that we’ve gotten ourselves this far, and we can depend on ourselves to keep going even when we don’t have a job title to define us or a calendar telling us what to do with our day.
If you recall my previously mentioned panicked sounding daily mantra “you should be grateful, you should be able to figure this out, you need to get it together”, please note it’s been updated to “I’m grateful, and I’ve got this.”