The difference between exhaustion and burnout (and my dirty little secret)

A couple weeks ago during one of the weekly ‘Hot Seat’ sessions I offer to my coaching & mentorship students, I was asked the following:

“What is burnout? I feel like I’m at a place in my career where I just don’t feel like putting any energy into it. I work on these shows that are just frustrating because they cheap out and cut a lot of corners. I want to work on something easy.”

This was a student who just a few months ago had done another Hot Seat asking about whether or not she should take an upcoming job “opportunity” that would be steady, pay well, and she’d be doing work she was familiar with. If I recall correctly, I had advised her to think hard not only about the benefits of taking that job but also the costs. And what she discovered is that the cost of taking a job that didn’t fulfill her, challenge her, or most importanty respect her contributions far outweighed any short-term benefits. Not only was she exhausted at the end of every day, and not only did she simply feel like a janitor cleaning up everyone else’s messes, most frighteningly she no longer had passion or drive to pursue things outside of the job that she was previously excited about.

As she candidly expressed just a few minutes later:

“I just don’t feel energized and inspired in my life.”

Which brings me to this week’s question:

Do you know the difference between exhaustion and burnout?

If you don’t, don’t worry about it. You’re not alone. I’ll get to how you can figure out this very important distinction in a bit. But first…

Here’s My Dirty Little Secret

Whether you’ve been following me for a few days or a few years, you might assume I have boundless amounts of energy. I mean that must be the only possible way to balance being an editor & associate producer on a hit show like Cobra Kai, building an online educational business, raising two kids, and training for American Ninja Warrior, right?

But here’s my dirty little secret…I’m exhausted.

All. The. Time.

Most days of the week I struggle to get out of bed, it takes me an hour to really get moving, and I wonder how I’m going to make it through another 14 hour day of coaching calls, meetings, editing, multiple sets of pull-ups & push-ups (not to mention full ninja training sessions), family time, and getting 8 hours of sleep which is non-negotiable.

So you might be asking why in the world do I keep doing it all if I’m exhausted all the time?

Because I love every minute of it.

Just this weekend I ran my latest “Tough Mudder,” a 10 mile trail race in the hills with over 30 obstacles where you climb through trenches of mud under electrified barb wire (not exaggerating), swing 15 feet over cold water on slippery monkey bars and spinning wheels, and literally have to submerge yourself in ice water (that one is called “Arctic Enema.”)

Here’s a shot of me swinging like a monkey without a care in the world:

Zack on rings obstacle

What you don’t see in this picture is the 3 days of exhaustion that always inevitably follow.

The soreness. The groans. The limping on a partially sprained toe. The torn skin. And my son seeing my scraped up forearms and asking, “Oh my God what did you do to yourself Daddy?”

So why would anyone put themselves through all of this just to constantly be exhausted? Because there’s no place I’d rather be than living outside my comfort zone inspiring others to realize their fullest potential along the way.

Regardless of the long hours, the difficult creative challenges, the physical exertion well beyond what I thought were my limits, and the relentess hours day after day in front of screens, I feel my work has a purpose, and my contribution to every facet of my world is valued and respected by those around me.

I live for every Monday morning knowing I get to repeat the cycle all over again.

And therein lies the key, friend…

When Monday morning rolls around are you excited about the week to come?

Or on the contrary are you dreading every minute until you can clock out on Friday night? (or even worse, ‘Fraturday’)

To be very clear, I didn’t used to look forwards to Monday mornings. For over a decade of my career I had a perpetual “Case of the Mondays” because I knew I would have to face excruciatingly long hours doing work that I wasn’t fulfilled by, that bored me, and even worse doing jobs I hated in toxic work environments where my time & expertise were completely taken advantage of and disrespected.

I’ve even worked for people who have gotten so mad at minor mistakes that they literally threw dangerous objects at me such that if they had hit me, I would’ve gone straight to the emergency room (or even worse).

I have experienced firsthand that God-awful pit in your stomach knowing you’re wasting your hours, days, and even decades giving your life away to someone else for mere numbers added to a bank account.

And that’s often when burnout kicks in.

First of all, I hope that none of this rings true for you and you love what you do for a living, friend. But if any of this hits home more than it should, I want to help you determine if the lack of energy or passion you might be experiencing is exhaustion or burnout.

3 Questions to Ask Yourself to Determine if You’re Exhausted or Burned Out

1. No matter how exhausted you might be any given day or week, are you able to fully recover in such a way you can repeat the cycle again?

There’s a saying I recently read from bestselling author Greg McKeown in his new book Effortless that has stuck with me since the moment I read it:

“Only do today what you can fully recover from by tomorrow.”

Yeah my days are long, but I always wake up the next day ready for another round. Can you say the same for yourself? Or do you feel like each new day is digging a hole just slightly deeper than the previous day, and you worry the deeper you dig the harder it will be to get out?

If it’s the former, you’re probably just testing your limits and experiencing the growing pains that come with those limits. If it’s the latter, you might be edging towards burnout (or you’re already there).

2. Even if you lack energy at times, do you still feel passion for your work? Or have you lost all emotional or creative fulfillment with what you do all day long?

While many believe exhaustion is a surefire symptom of burnout, I disagree for all the reasons I’ve already stated. Instead I believe the most obvious red flag that you’re burned out is you completely lack any passion whatsoever doing something that you used to absolutely love. If you’re worried (or even resentful) that your current job has stolen your passion for your craft, that is a massive red flag that you’re either headed towards burnout or already living there.

3. Do you find yourself withdrawing from life outside of your job? Does your situation feel hopeless? Are you experiencing symptoms of depression?

All of the above are once again massive red flags that you have long since crossed the threshold from exhaustion to burnout. It’s one thing to feel stressed out when you’re in the trenches of a crazy job. It’s yet another when you wake up every day feeling like you’re walking on a treadmill to hell. If a weekend of solid sleep, a night out with friends, or an afternoon hike in the mountains aren’t enough to slowly get you on the road to recovery, it sounds like you might be burned out.

I’m Just a Guy With a Newsletter

Let’s be super honest with each other right now – I’m not a trained therapist or psychologist, I’m just a guy writing an email newsletter. While I may have no formal knowledge or education in any field whatsoever pertaining to mental health, I have plenty of wisdom to share on the subject. (Two decades-worth, in fact.)

I’ve lived in so many dark holes inside my own mind I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve wanted to quit because I didn’t think I could handle another day.

As I recently stated in this article in Variety magazine, I’ve found myself in the fetal position more than once repeatedly saying, “My family would be better off without me.”

No job, no credit, and no paycheck are worth living this way, friend.

Which is why I’m here to ensure you wake up every Monday morning with the purpose of loving what you do for a living…without having to sacrifice your health, your relationships, or your sanity in the process.

If you’d like to dive deeper into the subject of burnout, I’ve left a few of my favorite resources below.

Be well.
Zack Arnold
Creator, Optimize Yourself

Want to Dive Deeper Into the Subject of Burnout?

Below are just a few of the many resources I have available to help you diagnose, manage, and overcome burnout. If you have unanswered questions after reviewing the below, never hesitate to message me directly. I read every message I receive and do my best to respond when I’m able.

→ A Classic Case of Post-Production Burnout (the article that started it all!!!)

→ Understanding the Link Between Creativity and Depression | with Dr. Edison de Mello

→ The Science Behind Success and Creative Burnout | with Eric Barker

→ How to Rewrite Your Own Story | with Dr. Steven Isaacman

→ The Darker Side of Creativity | with Daniel Arnold

Zack Arnold (ACE) is an award-winning Hollywood film editor & producer (Cobra Kai, Empire, Burn Notice, Unsolved, Glee), a documentary director, father of 2, an American Ninja Warrior, and the creator of Optimize Yourself. He believes we all deserve to love what we do for a living...but not at the expense of our health, our relationships, or our sanity. He provides the education, motivation, and inspiration to help ambitious creative professionals DO better and BE better. “Doing” better means learning how to more effectively manage your time and creative energy so you can produce higher quality work in less time. “Being” better means doing all of the above while still prioritizing the most important people and passions in your life…all without burning out in the process. Click to download Zack’s “Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Your Creativity (And Avoiding Burnout).”