7 Red Flags You Might Be Burned Out (Or You’re Headed There)

Burnout is at epidemic proportions regardless of what you do for a living. And yes, I dare to use the word “epidemic” given we live in a frightening (almost) post-COVID reality because quite frankly, COVID has a lot to do with the fact that as many as 52% of people across a variety of different industries consider themselves burned out, and over 67% of those same people believe burnout is worse than before the pandemic.

I argue, however, that the number of people currently burned out is far beyond 52% for one simple reason. As bestselling author and productivity expert Greg McKeown states:

“There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who are burned out, and those who know they are burned out.”

I venture to say the number of people actually experiencing burnout is much closer to 100% right now because we’re all just fucking over it.

Nothing is what it used to be.

All of our routines have changed.

If you’re working from home, back to the office, or working ‘hybrid’, expectations are higher than ever, deadlines have somehow become even more intense, everything is more expensive (but we’re not getting paid more), and most importantly, we now possess something incredibly dangerous that will no longer allow us go back to our pre-pandemic reality: PERSPECTIVE.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on where you stand in the “ignorance is bliss” debate), the pandemic allowed us to hit the reset button and experience – even for a brief moment – what is truly important to us (and how much of those things were missing from our lives before).

Regardless of how much we’ve been enjoying our time at the dinner table, or putting our kids to bed, or being able to sleep, or not having to commute anymore (!!!), we’re all just expected to go back to “normal” (which wasn’t working at all, btw), because the megaglobocorporations around the world have decided enough is enough – it’s back to work in the office for you!*

*Given how fluid and changing this situation is, many of these companies may have changed their policies by the time you read this, but the point stays the same. We’re in the battle of our lives for the future of work as we know it.

If you think burnout is an epidemic now, just wait 5 years. Severance is going to be in Apple TV’s non-fiction category if we don’t do something about this. Now.

FYI…Burnout Is NOT Binary

As a self-proclaimed workaholic I’ve battled my entire career with burnout, anxiety, and major depressive disorder. All three are essentially in the “Type-A High Achiever Starter Kit”  that I received along with a special bonus prize of adult-onset ADHD. So what you’re reading about below is not derived from academic research (although much of this can be backed by science and medical professionals), it’s simply from my very own, and very recent personal experience.

What I’ve learned from my many past experiences with burnout is that it isn’t binary, i.e. you aren’t fine one day and then completely burned out the next, it lives on a much broader spectrum. You can think you’re fine one day and continue convincing yourself that nothing is wrong for weeks or even months, and then suddenly you are unavoidably and entirely burned out.

However it is possible to develop and hone a much keener awareness of your mental & physical state such that you can identify the signs much earlier and be more proactive about not letting things reach the point of boiling water. The more awareness I’ve developed over the years, the more quickly I’ve been able to identify when it’s time to slow things down or even take a break. Until recently, it had been over five years since I even questioned whether or not I was experiencing any form of burnout. This is a huge victory being that burnout for me was an ongoing battle occurring almost on a yearly basis. But similar to many other forms of addictions:

I will never be a recovered workaholic.

I will always consider myself a recovering workaholic.

Through my own experiences with burnout for the last 15+ years, this is the list of warning signs I’ve come up with to better manage my mental health as a high performing creative professional.

7 Red Flags That You Might Be Burned Out (Or Even Worse)

Here are what I believe to be seven obvious red flags that you might be burned out (or even worse, battling depression). To be clear: I’m not saying you have to be experiencing all seven of these to consider yourself burned out, but here’s a general guideline:

  • If you are experiencing 1 or 2 of the symptoms below, there’s a possibility you’re walking the path towards burnout.
  • If you are experiencing 3-5 of the symptoms below, chances are extremely high you’re already burned out (or will be soon).
  • If you are experiencing 5+ of the symptoms below, it’s time to admit that you’re probably burned out (or much worse).

Health Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, psychologist, or licensed medical professional in any context whatsoever. The below are simply signs of burnout & depression I have personally experienced in the past as well as my students. These are not a formal diagnosis of any condition. If you feel you need help & support (which I highly encourage) please consult with trained psychological & medical professionals. I am not your doctor, therapist, or guru.

1. It’s IMPOSSIBLE to catch up on rest & sleep (i.e. you are always exhausted)

I’ve been called “Sleep’s #1 Hype Man” more than once, and I have interviewed some of the world’s foremost experts on the importance of sleep. But I know as soon as sleep becomes a chore and I wake up exhausted – even when I’ve slept all night – burnout is waiting for me around the corner.

No matter how much you try to “sleep it off” or how many quick naps you desperately sneak in during the day, you simply can’t catch up. Ever. And even after one (or several) good night’s sleep you’re still in a hole, exhausted all the time, and it feels like you’re never going to climb back out. In short, if “I just need a good night’s sleep” isn’t cutting it anymore,

You might be burned out.

2. You’re losing (or have already lost) passion for your creative work or outside activities that you used to enjoy

I absolutely LOVE the creative work that I do, and time stops when I’m in the zone. Whether it’s editing a kick-ass karate tournament or training montage for Cobra Kai, writing an article like this one, building an online course, or coaching my students to success, I rarely (if ever) experience a “Case of the Mondays”…except when I’m burned out. Once that happens, it even extends beyond the workday where every activity outside of my job – whether it’s training for American Ninja Warrior, spending time with my kids, reading, or even trying to relax – feels like a chore and exhausts me.

If you find that you struggle to complete the kinds of creative work you used to love, and moreover if outside hobbies & activities, time with family & friends, or other passions that you used to enjoy are now simply another thing on your calendar sapping your will to live,

You might be burned out.

3. You stop adhering to your regular routines (even the ones you enjoyed) and instead seek escapism

I’ve spent over fifteen years learning about habit formation from the world’s best, building habit after habit such that through small, actionable steps I can achieve just about any goal I set…as long as I give myself plenty of time for sustainable progress. But I know I’m in trouble when my habitual routines disappear from my calendar. When I forgo my morning routine for sleeping in as long as humanly possible, when I consistently skip exercise, and when my evening routine becomes a wasteland of “just one more episode” on Netflix (usually accompanied with a glass of wine), I know I’m slowly sinking into the quicksand of burnout.

Whatever your daily routines might be – whether you run three days a week, hike with your friends every other Saturday, read your favorite science fiction before bed, write five pages in the morning before you start your day – if you find that you’re skipping some (or all) of your favorite routines, and more importantly if you avoid those things by instead escaping into your phone, mindless television, food, alcohol, drugs, or other unhealthy distractions,

You might be burned out.


4. Very doable, seemingly simple tasks now feel overwhelming (and you’re constantly in “survival mode”)

When it comes to being productive and Getting Things Done I don’t consider myself an “expert” (I hate that word in its most commonly used context), but I can roll with the best names in productivity. Let’s just say that I manage a pretty badass calendar that rivals some top Fortune 500 CEOs. I’m both extremely efficient and effective with how I use my time, my energy, and my attention…except when I’m burned out.

I know I’m burned out when EVERYTHING becomes a thing, and I feel like I’m living in what I call “productivity survival mode.” Seemingly simple tasks (that take as little as 2 minutes) feel overwhelming, and when I’m constantly bombarded with them one after another through my day, I seriously JUST. CAN’T.

It’s as if the only reason I’m alive is to put out other people’s fires (most of which I didn’t start), I never get any time for my own creative work, and I’m just OVER IT.

If you’re staring down the barrel of a to-do list that’s causing you to reconsider your life’s work, if seemingly simple tasks feel like pushing a boulder up a mountain, or if every simple request from co-workers, your boss, or your spouse conjures up one simple thought, “I simply cannot take on ONE. MORE.THING.” then,

You might be burned out.

5. You become irritable, short, or even downright rude with everyone around you (and yes, this includes Slack)

I work from home 98% of the time now, so family interruptions have simply become a part of my regular creative routine. I accept them, I expect them, and I plan for them. But even so, when my kids need help with their homework (the whole reason I want to work from home in the first place!), or my wife wants to tell me about her day or needs help with something and I suddenly become overly anxious, irritable, or downright rude, I know something isn’t right.

Whether it’s your co-workers, boss, friends, family, spouse, kids, dog, or cat… if it has become a common pattern that any interruptions, simple requests, additions to your daily to-do list, or even just pleasant conversations cause you to grump up and push everyone away with your sour attitude and snappy replies (even over Slack or Microsoft Teams),

You might be burned out.

6. Your health deteriorates (and your personal hygiene completely goes to sh*t)

This one is embarrassing to admit, but one of the most obvious red flags of burnout for me was realizing that I would routinely forget to brush my teeth every single day. Thanks to working from home (and masks), it was easy for me to come up with (what I thought were legitimate) excuses for why brushing my teeth was no longer necessary, but the most obvious excuse I would use to skip it was because I was just “too busy” and always felt rushed.

Furthermore, as an amateur athlete I routinely monitor my general health, heart rate variability, weight, and body fat %. For me, when the number on the scale creeps up despite my training, that’s a huge red flag that something isn’t right. (When I was younger and burned out or depressed, I would lose unhealthy amounts of weight quickly, so keep in mind this one is very personal to each individual).

To put it simply…if you’re not taking care of basic hygiene enough that other people might notice, or if your weight, body shape, or general energy levels rapidly deteriorate beyond what is normal fluctuations for you,

You might be burned out.

7. You can no longer summon creative ideas or solve creative challenges (and if you’re forced to do so, it’s agonizing)

Here’s the biggest red flag of all for me: I’m being paid to be creative and solve complex problems, but I just can’t. Staring at an empty timeline, a blank page, or a Trello board literally creates a bowling ball-sized pit in my stomach, and it feels like I’m standing at basecamp looking up at Mt. Everest.

I know I need to approach my work just one small step at a time, but I simply can’t see the forest for the trees. I stare at the sky for creative inspiration and all I come up with is a desire to take a nap. I’m no longer able to hear the best music choices in my head for an epic montage while watching raw footage, so I end up doing nothing and feel like a total failure.

If performing the complex creative tasks at the job you worked so hard to earn now feels like drudgery, and moreover, if you feel resentment towards your work (or even worse your co-workers) for stealing the passion you used to have for your craft,

You’re probably burned out.

The First Law of Holes

If you’re not familiar with The First Law of Holes, it’s pretty simple:

“When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

If this is where you find yourself as you read this post, and you’re pretty convinced you are experiencing creative burnout, what’s next?

In the following article I outline The 7 Ways to Dig Yourself Out of the Hole of Burnout, but the first and most important step to start with is…acknowledging that burnout is in fact real.

You are not making this up.

You don’t just need to “get some sleep.”

You absolutely don’t just have to “suck it up and get the work done.”

And most importantly:

You are not broken. It’s the system that’s broken.

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).”