So You’re Burned Out…Now What? [7 Ways to Climb Out of the Hole]

If you’re coming to this article unsure of whether or not you’re experiencing actual burnout, I suggest starting with The 7 Red Flags That You Might Be Burned Out. If you’ve already read that article, then you are now familiar with The First Law of Holes:

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

Whether or not you’re stuck at the bottom of a hole you dug for yourself or if someone helped you get there is now irrelevant. The reality is you can’t get out by yourself. And furthermore if you simply accept that where you are stuck is just your new “normal,” we’re all inevitably headed towards believing that Severance is our only option to escape our jobs because what we’re all experiencing right now is as far from normal as you can get.

Below I have provided seven simple and practical steps to help you overcome burnout and slowly climb out of the hole, but before diving right into the steps I think it’s important to understand what I believe to be the root cause of burnout. Without awareness of why we’re all burned out in the first place, we are doomed to repeat the cycle.

The Most Dangerous Word That Leads to Burnout

“Should.”

It’s an incredibly dangerous word that implies so much, leaves little room for error, and ultimately sets us up for failure. And I believe this single word is the root cause of the vast majority of cases of burnout.

No doubt everyone’s story of burnout is different and unique. For some it could be because of long hours at a job they hate, for others it’s long hours at a job they love but that keeps them from their family, and for others it could be a combination of lack of passion for their work, poor lifestyle habits, a shitty commute, a disrespectful boss, inefficiency in your department, toxic co-workers, creating content you don’t believe in, committing to too many major projects at once, sleep deprivation, blah blah blah.

The point is everyone’s story is different and unique, but I believe the root cause is essentially the same.

In my opinion,

The root cause of the vast majority of cases of burnout stems from setting improper expectations.

And the word “should” is dead center at the heart of those expectations.

  • You should be able to work the long, oppressive, and exploitative hours because everyone else seems to be able to.
  • You should be able to handle the asshole supervisors, the toxic co-workers, and the impossible deadlines because “That’s just the way it is.”
  • You should be able to juggle multiple projects at once and multitask your way through everything because that’s how you “pay your dues.”
  • You should be able to do the job well even if you find it boring, tedious, or unfulfilling because “sucking it up” is what it takes to climb the ladder.
  • You should be able to stay focused, energized, and present despite never having the time for exercise, eating properly, or getting enough sleep because getting healthy is what the next hiatus is for, right?

And what I believe is quite possibly the most damaging “should” of all:

  • I should be doing more meaningful work.

Given how our most common form of communication in today’s age of social media is the meme, I think this perfectly sums it up:

working-in-film-burnout

I’m just as guilty as anyone for convincing myself “I just need to survive until the next hiatus” only to realize the next hiatus never really comes. Because there’s always something else to do. If I’m not working, I’m looking for work. If I’m not looking for work I’m catching up on the giant pile of “everything else” in my life that I ignored while I was either working or looking for work.

Rinse. Lather. Repeat.

You Can’t Overcome Burnout Until You Acknowledge That It Exists

I’ll be the first to admit that I often get into a manic state where I’m absolutely convinced that I can do it all!!! And for a period of time I always do, but inevitably the end of the story is the same every time:

I can do it all…until I can’t. 

(Cue burnout and the months of recovery that goes along with it.)

Whenever I have to confront this moment where burnout appears inevitable, the first reaction is ALWAYS denial.

I’ll be fine! I just need a good night’s sleep. Stop worrying about me.

It isn’t until I accept that:

  • Burnout is real
  • I’m burned out

Then I can actually confront the problem and begin making progress. And what I have found is that by resetting my expectations about what I should be able to do, I can actually do it all…with one giant caveat:

I can do it all…just not all at once.

Expectations officially reset.

7 Ways to Dig Yourself Out of the Dark Hole of Creative Burnout

If you’re at a point where you’ve accepted that you’re human and you in fact should NOT be able to do it all (despite the expectations of your boss, your partner, your kids, your IG followers, your Tik Tok mentors, and society at large), but you’re unsure what steps to take to recover from burnout, below I’ve provided seven simple strategies to slowly steer the ship back in the right direction so you can become 1% better every day.

P.S. This ain’t gonna happen overnight. Get ready for a game of chess, not a game of checkers.

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. They 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. Accept that burnout is real, and create space in your life to take a breath

Yeah, this one is so important I’m gonna say it again. Until you accept that burnout is real and that you are in fact burned out, nothing is going to change. If you still believe you just need a good night’s sleep, or you just need to get back to the gym, or you just need an evening out away from the kids, you’ll slowly keep digging that hole deeper. Denial is the shovel, not the solution.

Awareness is everything.

Acceptance is a close second.

One you accept your burnout is real, stop making judgments about yourself – specifically what you should be able to do – based on past expectations. Right now you’re simply not capable of producing at the level you could when you were healthy, focused, and passionate about your work. And that’s okay, because you’ll be back at that level again soon enough. Start focusing on what you can do based on present circumstances (and without judgment).

Then stop everything for a day, an afternoon, an hour, or even just to take a single breath. Or ten. Allow yourself to be present and actually feel what’s going on.

2. Schedule and prioritize AMPLE time for recovery (this is no longer optional!)

Once you’ve accepted that you’re no longer a superhero who can balance it all (and you’ve taken a few undistracted deep breaths), it’s time to relentlessly protect your time from anything that drains your energy. Most likely, the deadly word that got you into this situation is saying “yes” to everyone else’s needs at your expense. Now it’s time to ruthlessly start using the word “no” when someone asks you for your time and energy, and instead begin saying “yes” to your own needs.

Schedule time on your calendar for restorative activities that help you regain your energy, whether that’s taking naps, light exercise, meditation, catching up on a stack of unread books, binge-watching the latest season of your favorite show, or just doing laundry. Keep it simple, enjoyable, and stress free.

And most importantly, a full night of sleep every night is no longer negotiable.

Period. Full stop.

3. Allow yourself double the amount of time to accomplish half as much

I don’t care what you were capable of when you felt great, that’s not where you are now. And if you keep kidding yourself about what you’re capable of and what you should (argh, there’s that word again!) be able to accomplish in a given day or week, you’re still in denial.

For any given activity, calculate what it would have taken you to complete it in the “before times” when you felt passionate, energetic, and human. Now double that amount of time. And then cut the workload in half.

beautiful-mind-meme

Okay I get it, I chose creative work because I’m not so good with the math either. Here’s a simple example:

If it used to take me 90 minutes to write a 1500 word email newsletter, I should plan on it taking 3 hours to write the first 750 words. Hence I will allow six hours to write the full newsletter.

The chances are extremely high you’re affording yourself more than enough time to complete your task. That’s the point. It removes all the pressure and anxiety and helps you refocus on the task in smaller, more bite-sized chunks.

Okay okay, I hear all of you screaming from the bleachers:

“But you don’t get it! I can’t cut my workload in half and slow down, I have too much to do!”

Yup, I hear you. But what got you here won’t get you there. If the way you’re currently working at your job dug the burnout hole you’re stuck in right now, you need to stop digging. You either have to have an honest conversation with your superiors (and yourself) about what you’re truly capable of, or you need to reassess what’s essential.

And if your answer is “Everything is essential!” then you need to redefine what essential truly means to you and the most important people in your life right now because if you don’t things will only get exponentially worse…and fast.

4. Make a list of all the activities you used to enjoy (that you now dread)

One of the telltale signs of creative burnout is lack of passion for…well…everything. A few red flags for me in the past have been:

  • I stop listening to music in the car
  • I stop reading books (unless mandatory for interviews or articles)
  • I stop exercising
  • I stop cooking
  • I stop actively seeking out quality entertainment (and instead watch mindless crap)

Make a list of all the fun activities that brought you joy and re-energized you in the past. It can be anything from exercising regularly to posting fun cooking videos on Tik Tok to attending live networking events or taking your dog to a dog park (instead of just walking around the block).

Now write down why you don’t do those activities anymore. And your answer can’t just be “because I don’t feel like it.”

For example if you don’t exercise, is it because you never have the energy? Or is it because your life is so disorganized and chaotic right now you can never find your shoes?

Did you stop cooking because you no longer love it? Or because the recipes you used to cook were pretty complicated and time-consuming, and you can’t bear the thought of committing so much energy to something so complex?

Without any judgment whatsoever journal about activities that bring you joy and think about why they aren’t bringing you joy today. Then write down a few very simply solutions to make it easier to do one of those activities. For example, if you’ve stopped exercising because you can never find your shoes, schedule time to find your shoes, set them next to your bed with your exercise clothes, and then take a vigorous walk outside in the morning. Yeah that’s right, just a walk. Not a 5 minute run, just a walk. Anything is better than nothing.

5. Choose one item from the list you made above and try it again (but in a much smaller dose)

Now that you have that list of activities that brought you joy, pick just one that you can start again…but break it down into much smaller pieces.

Going back to the cooking analogy, if you used to love entertaining and cooking 4 course meals for your friends every Saturday but it’s been Chinese takeout by yourself for the last six weeks because you just can’t…try cooking yourself a grilled cheese sandwich for 10 minutes. No expectations, no anxiety, just be mindful of the experience of cooking again.

If you exercised regularly 6 days a week at the P90X level, but the mere thought of even breaking a sweat terrifies you, pick your favorite routine, do only the warm-up for 5 minutes, and then sit your ass on the couch and watch the rest of the workout. I dare you. Watch what happens.

When I’m at my best I put in 7-10 hours a week of ninja training spread between a variety of different routines and difficulty levels. When I’m burned out I walk around my block for 15 minutes a day. That’s my entire exercise routine. And I do it without any form of judgment because thinking about the exercise I’m not doing 6 days a week burns less calories than walking around the block.

6. Make space in your life for creativity and inspiration

One of the most depressing and debilitating parts of being burned out is a pretty obvious one…you no longer feel creative. When I’m at my best I can outline and dictate an entire article in a 30 minute walk. At my worst I get lost in my own neighborhood after 15 minutes with zero ideas to show for it.

If you want to get back to being creative, you must allow space for creativity. You can’t fill every moment of your day with distractions, work, interruptions, and everything else that keeps you away from the most important activity that defines who you are: Thinking.

Block out time for walking breaks, or sitting in the grass and staring at the sky, or literally just staring into a pot of boiling water when you begin cooking. No phones, no earbuds, no podcasts, no music. Just silence and your thoughts.

You might not write a symphony, but I promise you’ll quickly rediscover that you do indeed still have ideas, you just didn’t know how to access them until you had the space in your mind to do so.

7. Talk to someone

I truly hope the words I’ve written on this digital page are helpful to you and provide both the inspiration and motivation to slowly dig yourself out of the dark hole that is burnout. But let’s be honest…this article isn’t going to solve the burnout epidemic.

The only thing that I’ve found truly works is to find someone you can talk to about what you’re experiencing. Whether that’s simply a friend, a co-worker you trust, a coach, a licensed therapist, or even a full-blown MD and integrative medical specialist, at some point the only way to dig yourself out of the hole is to stop digging, look up, and accept the hand that’s reaching down towards you.

Motivation Doesn’t Lead to Action. Action Leads to Motivation.

If you’re burned out, I can all but guarantee that motivation is in very short supply right now. So if you’re sitting around waiting for the motivation to begin taking action, it’s not gonna happen. Instead focus on the small, simple actions you can begin taking today that will lead to the smallest spark of motivation…that will then lead to a slightly larger action…and slightly more motivation… (you get the picture).

One of the key principles I share with my Optimizer coaching & mentorship students is the following: Don’t pursue perfect at the expense of good enough.

When you’re in the deep dark hole of burnout, sometimes striving for good enough is good enough. Stop focusing on doing everything perfectly, and start focusing on progression over perfection.

It’s simply about getting 1% better than the day before.

You’ve got this.

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).”