Chances are, you’ve experienced career burnout at some point. It makes you feel listless, unsure of the value of your work. You go through the motions and count the hours.
Personally, I’ve been burned out twice in my career.
Once, I was finishing my medical residency and was unsure if I really wanted to continue in medicine. The second time, I was at the end of my tenure at the biopharma company Cubist Pharmaceuticals. In both cases, I accomplished what I set out to do—and it was time to move on.
All burnout starts with a sense of wanting to move on.
Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer—authors of “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work”—studied that what motivates employees isn’t necessarily the money or the work hours. It’s the feeling of making progress. When you feel stuck, you’re in the wrong environment. You long for something else, something new, and you lose motivation.
Not sure if that’s you? One tell-tale sign of burnout, besides frustration with work, is putting more energy into other areas of your life. People do this because consciously or unconsciously, they realize it’s futile to keep focusing that energy on their job when nothing is happening.
If you’re feeling something similar, here are a few ways to get yourself out of that funk:
1. Understand whether your burnout is clinical or environmental.
I immediately think of burnout from a clinical viewpoint. Depression, weight loss, anxiety are serious issues that need to be taken seriously. If you’re suffering from any of these, get professional help.
But the burnout I’m talking about in this article is environmental.
It’s the type of burnout that can be immediately alleviated just by changing your environment—a new role or new company, for instance. This type is what people generally talk about when they’re stuck in a job and not making progress.
Before you start looking for relief, know what you’re actually getting relief from.
2. Work toward any type of progress.
When I was experiencing burnout near the end of my time at Cubist, it wasn’t because I hated my job. I grew up there. I loved the company and the people.
But I did think it was time to move on because the place had become too familiar, and I wasn’t learning at my ideal rate. So I started looking around for new opportunities. It just so happened that the company got acquired at that exact time I was experiencing a lack of motivation. Immediately, I started thinking about what I could do next. It was amazing how quickly my energy levels spiked when I started considering the future—starting from scratch, new experiences, new environment. It felt like progress.
If you’re experiencing burnout, take some time and examine whether there are ways to get that feeling of progress back in your current role. If you can’t, it’s time for a change.
3. Find the right timescale for your projects
People only stay excited about one goal for 24 months beforestarts to dwindle. I’ve seen this repeatedly, so I almost instinctively think of hard projects in 24-month periods.
If you know a project is going to take longer than that, you need to find metrics and smaller goals that help you feel like you’re making progress. Otherwise, the wait for that long-term payoff will cause burnout. You simply won’t be able to sustain your momentum.
If you can’t find those smaller achievements, then it’s up to you to create them for yourself. You will likely have to look to personal, intrinsically motivating goals such as the acquisition of new skills.
4. Find your place in the big picture
One of the most common complaints in white collar jobs is that people feel like a cog in a wheel, and they’re not really sure what they’re turning.
When you can’t see how your job is affecting everyone else around you (and the company as a whole) in a meaningful way, burnout is imminent. Even the most stimulating tasks become downright tiresome.
Unfortunately, most managers don’t instinctively understand how important it is for their reports to see the value of their work and how it relates to the purpose of the company. If you’re in that situation, map it out. It typically just takes a few iterations and feedback. Often times, you can be re-energized by a single conversation.
5. Motivate yourself by keeping track of the end goal
At the beginning of, encourage yourself by tracking how much progress you’ve made. This lets you look back and think, “Okay, I’ve come this far in a relatively short amount of time.”
Toward the end of a project, your motivation has to switch gears. You’re looking forward to finishing at that point, so you have to start focusing on how little is left to achieve.
I think of it like running a long-distance race. In the beginning, I’m focused on the miles I’ve put behind me. That’s the motivation. But the closer I get to the finish line, the more I envision crossing it—and that’s what gives me the energy to kick it into high gear.
No matter your job, you’ll feel burned out at one point in your career. But if you recognize what’s happening and deal with it in a healthy manner, then it doesn’t have to become a lasting state that drags you down.