Cold coffee next to the laptop, the Algorithms lecture in one window, and trying to fix production bugs in another. This used to be my normal day at one point.
I undertook much more activities in the past couple of years than most of my peers. I was juggling a lot of stuff simultaneously, and all my engagements were doomed to fail if I didn’t get my shit together. I felt weak and started doubting myself. On top of everything, I also had a social life to take care of!
I’ve always struggled a lot with burnouts. I was at my lowest in my second year of college in 2020 where I felt exhausted and just done with everything I was doing. My work-life balance was a violent seesaw, and my social life was nothing short of a dumpster fire. That is when I decided to become more proactive in dealing with my stress.
I implemented a host of tiny, subtle changes in how I balanced my work, academic and social life. The improvements, both in the short and long term, slowly became noticeable. In retrospect, it was one of the most potent growth phases that I went through.
Now that I’m in my third year, I still feel burned out sometimes, but I can cope with it much better. I have a lot more on my plate than last year. I’m leading more projects at work, taking more challenging courses at school, participating in more extracurriculars than ever, and expanding my technological skillset independently as well. Despite all that, I feel better than before!
Here is thorough documentation of my experiences, struggles, and learnings with burnout.
We must understand what burnout exactly is before we can think about mitigating it. This talk by Dr. Christina Maslach is an excellent introduction to burnout, its symptoms, and its consequences.
Dr. Maslach is a social psychologist whose research in burnout is very well-known. She describes burnout as a product of unavoidable stress. The causes can be a range of factors, such as long and exhaustive working hours, repetitive tasks, blurred work-life balances, lack of social support, etc. She theorizes that burnout ultimately boils down to three main components: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and (lack of) personal accomplishment.
What particularly resonated with me the first time I heard about her theory was how accurately it described my feelings of being burned out. A lot of the time, one of these three areas felt problematic to me. Most of the time, it was some combination of these three.
I was either too exhausted from working and studying every day, too detached from who I wanted to be, or just felt that nothing I did mattered. I felt like I was living an extremely monotonous life, was nowhere near my ideal life, and accomplished nothing.
Once I understood my symptoms better, I began noticing most of the little cues and triggers that resulted in feelings of distress, laziness, and failure due to being burned out. It was easier to see which tasks at work felt boring and repetitive. I noticed what part of my classes felt disengaging, and started thinking about ways of making those experiences better. Even though I couldn’t solve those problems immediately, I could at least understand what was going on better.
It is hard to self-diagnose burnout. You may be burning out pretty bad and still not know it. In my case, it was the buildup of tiny things that kept piling up little by little before I could even notice that something was wrong.
The increased frequency of oversleeping and undersleeping was annoying, but I often brushed it aside. I didn’t pay much attention when I barely found any time to attend parties or travel plans with my friends. I also downplayed literally everyone who told me that my eyes looked tired or that I wasn’t that talkative anymore.
In my opinion, the most significant symptom of burnout is the feeling of not being able to catch up to anything. I felt like I was far behind my peers in class despite taking on more classes. I also found it hard to keep up with all the progress we had in the Development team at work. The piled-up merge request reviews, the features we added every day, and what was deployed every week…
In hindsight, I probably spent a lot more time resigning to the problems than actually trying to solve them, regardless of how easily manageable they may have been.
This led to increased anxiety, consistent procrastination, lack of motivation, and just a feeling of being unable to start anything at all. I also stopped taking care of my body and had poor eating and sleeping habits. I lost creativity and confidence in my abilities because I created a negative feedback loop in my head. The reason was that I worried more about how daunting my problems were instead of trying to solve them.
I simply cannot stress this enough. Listen to your body and always put it first!
Just like the negative feedback loop of reinforcing yourself into more burnout, there’s an opposite positive feedback loop when you start taking care of your body. Yay!
For me, the most pressing problem here was sleep. I even remember sleeping as little as only three to four hours a day for the entirety of two weeks at one point! That’s when I saw a doctor and started taking more melatonin to regulate my sleep cycle. As soon as I gave myself at least seven hours of sleep every day again, the results were evident.
I felt much more energized, confident and productive in my work. I felt like I could take on more tasks and produce better results. The ideal amount of sleep is seven to nine hours each night. If you feel burned out, make sure the first thing you look at is whether you sleep enough and see enough sunlight.
Eating well enough and working out are also vital! Although I wasn’t consistent with gym during the pandemic, I still tried to play enough sports. I started playing football at least once or twice a week each.
At the same time, I cut out sugar from my diet (super important!) and tried to follow a more and more balanced diet.
Another crucial thing I invested more effort in was grooming myself. I went ahead and invested in clothes that I felt much more confident in. I also learned a lot about skincare and purchased products that I felt were generally great for taking care of my nails, hair, and everything in between. If you’re interested, check out body care products that worked great for me.
The immediate improvement in body image worked wonders for me! This was a big, big thing for someone who has struggled a lot with body image. I felt more confident in myself, and it gave me a much-needed sense of accomplishment. All of this reduced my stress and alleviated my burnout.
There is a direct correlation between organizing yourself and productivity. There is also a direct correlation between productivity and active engagement in whatever you do.
That’s the first thing I learned when I decided to focus on organizing the little things. It started with organizing my room, changing its layout, and making sure everything was where it was supposed to be.
I no longer had the last day’s spaghetti, an alarm clock, CS notes, and my work laptop, all within a 2-meter radius. I made my bed more often than not. Just because my room looked cleaner, my head also felt a bit more unclogged!
Then I tried to digitize my life more. I came across Notion, a stellar productivity tool that has helped me organize a good chunk of my life. I shifted from physical notebooks to Notion for notetaking wherever possible.
I also used it to track books I was reading, new skills I was learning, and even video games I wanted to play! This way, I did not have to tuck away my notes, to-dos, or ideas into scrap paper or old forgotten memories. I had everything on Notion.
Lastly, I started putting everything into Google Calendar. From the All Hands meetings at work to my studying schedules and even laundry times, everything was on Google Calendar. Color-coding events is also a great way of organizing your engagements.
You can strike a rough balance between work, studies, and social life just by eyeballing the spread of red, blue, and green on your calendar!
Staying organized had a lot of benefits. My life felt a lot more hassle-free. It gave my daily routines a much more meaningful structure. I spent a lot less time finding out where my resources for the task on hand were because I just knew where everything was.
I also alleviated my burnout because my pending tasks suddenly did not feel overwhelming anymore. I had a stronger grip on my schedules thanks to Google Calendar. Those tasks started feeling easier and manageable just by looking at everything from a high-level perspective each week.
You can also look at more tools I use to organize myself and be more productive.
Prioritizing is nothing but organizing and ranking your tasks based on their importance and urgency.
It’s okay to think that you have so much you have to do, and so much more you want to do. The important part is to make sure you know how to prioritize stuff. You’ll find that navigating your tasks is much easier, and you burn out much less when the roadmap to your goals is laid out right in front of you.
It’s super important to pay attention to first things first, and they can be first for multiple reasons. There could be pushing deadlines. It could be something that came up on short notice but must be completed ASAP. It could also be something that’s not urgent but would give you the most value, such as completing an online course.
On the other hand, you should also know which tasks hold little value and should not be pursued. This includes all sorts of distractions, like social media, binging Netflix shows, or playing League with your friends all night.
Remember that you know your goals best! Be honest with yourself and devise a plan for what to tackle first.
I love the Eisenhower Box, something I came across when reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey a long time ago. It’s a really simple way to form a high-level overview of all your tasks. All you have to do is make a list of your tasks, and divide them into four quadrants based on two factors: importance and urgency.
After dividing tasks into their respective quadrants, it’s only a matter of devising how to approach them.
Complete everything in the “Do It” quadrant immediately. Deal with the “Schedule It” quadrant strategically by thorough planning and scheduling.
Tasks in the “Delegate It” quadrant are a bit tricky. They are necessities that hold little meaning. Try delegating them as much as possible, so that you have space for more valuable tasks. Maybe you can have your friend take your dog out for a walk. Perhaps you can order your electronics online instead of going to stores. How about investing in a dishwasher instead of doing dishes yourself after every meal?
Lastly, the tasks in the “Delete It” quadrant have to be mercilessly eliminated. They are tasks that bring no value to your life, and not doing them would have little to no consequences. These distractions only move you away from your goals.
Once you start cutting these out, you’ll acquire more freedom and feel more productive. The “Delete It” tasks occupy valuable time that could be spent being productive. If you spend a lot of time on social media and entertainment, you leave no room for work that you should be doing instead. This sets you up for burnouts faster than anything.
Sure, some entertainment is healthy and also necessary! The important thing is setting limits for how much time you assign to them.
Speaking of entertainment, it is essential to give yourself a break. It’s okay to pause your fast-paced life for a while and just do whatever relaxes you. Make time for activities that are enjoyable at all levels.
Go out for a brief walk. Watch that new movie everyone’s been talking about. Hang out with friends and laugh! Even from a zoomed-out perspective, taking breaks is vital. This could be anything ranging from traveling on weekends to full-fledged vacations. All these activities help freshen you up, reduce stress and fatigue, and help improve your performance when you continue with your work again.
For me, my breaks came in the form of sports and yoga. The latter especially gave me much-needed mental clarity and peace during my jam-packed days. Can’t go out? No problem! I have a list of cool apps and websites you can use solely to relax and have fun.
It’s always better to talk to someone about your struggles and feelings when you’re going through burnouts.
It’s hard to self-diagnose burnout, and even harder to tell if you need professional help. Don’t be afraid to go out and talk to a therapist, your school counselor, or even your friends and family. You’d be surprised to find out how many channels of help you have in your life if only you reach out.
I used to be very hesitant about sharing my struggles because I did not want to feel judged, especially by those I considered close. When I finally mustered up my courage to talk about my struggles with my close friends and family, I felt like a heavy weight was lifted off my shoulders. All I did was simply share my feelings. When people I talked to shared their own burnout experiences, I sort of felt comforted in realizing that I wasn’t alone. It made me feel a bit better to know that other people could relate, too.
It’s also okay not to feel comfortable talking to people about it in person. There are many resources online where you can stay completely anonymous and still share your feelings with other people and get help.
The most important thing is to keep believing in yourself. Life can throw all sorts of lemons, oranges and grapes at you, and you can Fruit Ninja your way through them!
I know exactly what it feels like to think that some days it’s just too much. You may be in a bad situation right now, but it won’t stay like this forever. Try doing your best and invest in improving yourself one day at a time. Every little change counts. You’re strong and you can do this!
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