On burnout.

Avoiding burnout in an age of busyness

I’ve had burnout on the brain lately, because the topic is everywhere: in my inbox, in the books I’m reading, in conversations with friends.

A few days ago, I recorded a podcast with Elizabeth Foss for her Restore Workshop, which begins today. When I say I want to be Elizabeth when I grow up, I’m only kind of kidding—even though our lives are decidedly different. She’s Catholic; I am not. She’s devoted to homeschooling; I’m ambivalent; She has ten kids (and a grandchild!); I only have four. But she is so wise, and I hope to grow into that kind of wisdom one day.

The Restore Workshop focuses on burnout, or more precisely, recovering from it. Elizabeth began by asking about a time where I felt burnt out, depleted, and overwhelmed. She said she assumed I’d had a time like that. Of course I have—haven’t we all?

I’ve experienced circumstantial burnout: I’ve gone to bed a weepy mess because I didn’t want to face another impossible day at work. I’ve had whole seasons when the intense mothering was just too much. There have been whole years when I felt pushed to the very edge—when I consistently lacked the rest I needed.

And there have been times I brought burnout on myself: when I pushed too hard, took on too much; when I literally made myself sick with my own unrelenting drive.

Just a few weeks ago, I was flirting with burnout of my own making: I pushed myself a little too hard, and I felt myself teetering on the edge between normal tired and I-need-to-read-for-5-days-straight-to-get-over-this tired. I recognized this in time (that wasn’t always the case) and pulled back, and fast.

After years of honing, these are my essential practices to avoid burnout in an age of busyness.

I don’t love using the word balance in the work/life conversation because it implies that things should be equal, like on a see-saw, or a scale. That’s not the kind of balance most people seek. But I do need to stay balanced in another sense: I need to stay on my feet, metaphorically speaking. Burning out is like falling down, and it’s a lot easier to just stay upright than it is to get back up after you wipe out.

For me, wiping out looks like overwhelmed in every possible way. I’m hurried, frantic, snappish. Things that usually don’t bother me (like cluttered kitchen counters, or the sound of a kid raking through the LEGO bucket) make me crazy. I have no grace for myself or anyone else.

When I fall down, I can’t just bounce back up. It takes days to recover.

I’ve finally internalized the obvious lesson: the easiest way to deal with burnout is to avoid it in the first place.

JoyPhoto source

I just finished reading The Fringe Hours, which was just released yesterday. I know Jessica from her blog and a little bit from real life, and I enjoyed getting her perspective in book-length form. The book’s subtitle is making time for you: its focus is how and why to create “me time” in your life. The “fringe” hours are those limited pieces of time that appear on the margins of a day, but that’s not all. Fringe is also used to make a garment more beautiful, and fringe hour pursuits do the same for life.

I imagine two types of people will read this book: the kind to whom the hows and whys of “me time” are a revelation, and the kind who don’t need any convincing because they’re already making plenty of time for themselves.

Many of Jessica’s tips and insights are second nature to me now, but that wasn’t always the case. It took me a long time—and a lot of falling down—to finally absorb the important lesson that I am not last. My hope is that The Fringe Hours will smooth the path for other women. This isn’t a lesson anyone wants to learn the hard way!

I don’t flirt with burnout much anymore. I’ve learned how to keep clear of the edge, even if my biggest challenge remains actually doing those things.

After years of honing, these are my essential practices to avoid burnout in an age of busyness.

When Elizabeth and I talked, she asked for my go-to practices that bring a sense of calm and rest to days—or a season—that might leave me prone to burnout and depletion. After years of honing, these are my essential practices to avoid burnout in an age of busyness:

Embrace routine. I’ve built regular rhythms of work and rest into my days, weeks, seasons. I stop to read every day at 2:00 (which, admittedly, is often work-related—but it doesn’t feel like it) and at bedtime. I walk the dog to the park. Will and I drink tea or wine and debrief the day after bedtime.

• Take the long view. Because my schedules for work and play vary so much from day to day, I need to plan in weeks, not hours.

• Get out of my head. I often feel overwhelmed … until I get my to-do list out of my head and down on paper. It’s much more manageable when it’s written down.

• Work hard, rest well. I work when I’m supposed to be working, and I rest when I’m supposed to be resting.

• Screen-free rest. It took me a long time to come to this personal rule. Because so much of my work takes place behind a screen, I need a clean break when it’s time to rest. When I’m behind the computer, it’s too easy for me to pop open my email to do one more thing. My eyes need the break, too.

• Plan to relax. I have a standing monthly massage appointment. It’s already paid for; I just need to show up. This felt really indulgent when I first signed up last year, but since I have an old sports injury and I type too much, it makes a huge difference to how I feel.

• Simplify. If I have a tough week, or a busy month, we eat really simple foods. We schedule extra nights at home. We might even skip a few kids’ activities.

• Real food matters. I’m a grouch when I don’t eat protein, and sugar is always bad news for me.

• Consider opportunity cost. When I’m thinking about staying up late to finish a project, or writing when I’m supposed to be resting, I ask myself what it’s going to cost me. Then I may go ahead and stay up late anyway—but I usually don’t.

• Get help. If we have a busy season, we book our regular sitter for more hours (and have her do the grocery shopping), or get someone to clean the house. Sometimes I need a different kind of “help,” like making the time to catch up with an old friend even though I feel like I don’t have the time.

Am I the only one who has a history of flirting with burnout, or just plain falling down? What are your strategies for avoiding it? How do you step back from the edge?


Leave A Comment
  1. Lindsay says:

    Last year, I went over the edge from burnout. A baby who wasn’t sleeping through the night, starting 2 new jobs, a serious family illness, an unexpected tragedy, and over committing at church was a recipe for disaster. Thankfully, the fallout was pretty minimal because I realized quickly what was happening and we made some adjustments. One of the jobs and a few of the church commitments were let go. We worked out a schedule of who would get up with the baby. I took a more relaxed approach to our homeschool. The biggest revelation for me was to start saying no, think hard about priorities, and realize I was a priority too. Hard work for a recovering people pleaser. I think the crucial factor in fighting burnout is identifying the real why. For me, taking on too much was just a by product of internal struggles of trying to please and feeling that busy equaled relevant and successful.
    Now I find my worth in me, not in what I do. I say no to more commitments. We fiercely guard our evenings from over commitment. The baby still isn’t sleeping well, but I’ve learned to accept that’s not in my control. Lastly, I am taking more time for me. Whether it’s reading, staying in bed an extra half hour while the kids watch a show, or finding time to exercise, I no longer put myself last. Thanks for this post.

  2. Jess Townes says:

    We share a lot of practices. I’m a first-year homeschooling parent who also carves out a lot of time to read and write. 2:00 is our “on your own” hour….we give each other space to (quietly) pursue things we love like reading, drawing, writing, constructing, creating board games, etc. I need that with the full-time energy of big kids in the house all day. My husband and I also check in after bedtime to chat or play music together or a boardgame. We rarely watch tv because it interrupts this opportunity to talk. Sometimes we’ll listen to a podcast during the week and debrief on it in the evening hours. I also disappear into my bath at bedtime on really long days and let my husband take the reigns for that hour. I’m a big believer in finding your fringe hours.

  3. Jillian Kay says:

    Learning to skip my kids’ activities was a big one for me. I’m not sure why I started putting so much pressure on myself to get them to everything…

    But there was freedom in finally skipping something and realizing the word didn’t end when my son missed his Pinewood Derby workshop.

  4. Karlyne says:

    You’re so very right! It’s much easier to stay on an even keel when you’re on your feet. Once you fall down it takes a crane to pull you back up, and that’s seriously no fun.

  5. Jenny says:

    I needed to read this today. Or, perhaps more accurately, I’ve needed to read this for months, but, better late than never. Thank you for your transparency, Anne, and for your willingness to highlight what works for your family, and *how* you make it work (babysitters, massage for mom, skipping pint size programs). There’s a lifetime of mothering wisdom in this post…

  6. Anita says:

    Burnout is something that we all need to pay attention to. My whole world has recently stopped because of me burning out from a stressful job that cared too much about. Your health is so important both mental and physical!

    The first thing that helped was to say no more often. Less activities=less stress. Extreme self care is important! What sounds extreme to you or to me may be different but each is vital to our health. Learning to exercise again has been a real life-saver! Find something you love and begin to move your body. Finally, learn to relax. Do some yoga, meditate, or get a massage. It is important to learn how to relax your body and mind.

    I love reading your blog! Keep up the great work!

  7. Tim says:

    I avoid looking at things as needing balance too, Anne. Balance is precarious by nature. Instead I se the imagery of a blend, as in when I have my life stuff properly blended then it all goes together like a nice smoothie. And I do like smoothies.

  8. Sue Stokke says:

    I recently remembered a few years back when I was always so overwhelmed. This came as a reflection on the contrast of my current situation. I have been divorced for 10 years now and my kids are all grown up. I have one evening commitment (book club) per month and the rest of my nights are my own. I watch TV or read but that’s about it. It’s down right boring most of the time. I wish I could somehow swap out some of the hours that I spent so overwhelmed for the hours upon hours I literally have nothing to do. I find myself thinking there must be something I could do for the young mothers out there who are living on too little sleep, with too little time, and too much to do, and probably with too little money. (That’s another subject that used to overwhelm me.) Perhaps I will pursue that in an effort to bring back balance to my life as well as someone elses.

    • Jules says:

      Sue, I was thinking the same thing as I read this. I am married but our girls are grown and living away. We are just transitioning into (early) retirement and how to structure our days is as challenging now as it was when we had small children and limited resources but in thr opposite way. How do we fill our time? I wonder if there is a local church or community group that could put you in touch with young families in the area? Imagine the difference for both of you if you could spend some time with a family, maybe during the after school crazy hour before dinner helping with homework or music practice or doing a craft to entertain the children while Mum prepares dinner in peace? Or you babysat while Mum takes other children to an activity or took an hour for a massage? It could be a win-win situation. You sound a little lonely, as many of us are when the children grow up, and there are so many overwhelmed families perhaps we need an ‘adopt-a-grandma’ programme?

    • Meg says:

      Sue, do you like animals? Fosters (dogs) are always needed for rescue groups and it’s nice because it’s usually a short term commitment and you can choose when you want to have a dog or not. Or, you could offer to be a transporter when they need dogs driven from one area to the next. Do you have any neighbors with young kids? I know how much I loved it when I could send my daughter to a neighbors house for an hour or two! Good luck, I bet you’ll find something great!

  9. Jamie says:

    No, you’re not the only one! I am coming out of an emotionally crazy week. Both my sons were sick and we were pretty much home. This could be a gorgeous blessing to many families, but it was a big challenge for me. I try to get away from the screen, work out at the gym, see people to break up our days – and use the interaction to train my boys. We do intentional things at home, too, but rarely are we cooped up as much as last week. (I like to say if I homeschooled I would be the Field Trip Mom. “Let’s go learn by exploring.”) The other crazy part of the week was just so, so many emotional triggers. My sweet friends struggling, spiritual challenges, and family in town by Friday night. I continued writing, but it wasn’t roses and daisies stuff. He is worth it all, but I felt like I was spinning out by the weekend. When I get to this point, I become what Richard Foster calls a “bundle of hollow energy.” Plus, while I’m pretty much always fairly direct, I, too, get edgy and snappy. My hubs always helps me recognize when I’m there and he put me to bed (on Valentine’s Day no less. Saint.). I wish a disruption in our natural rhythms, lack of alone time, and lack of exercise didn’t affect me so much. But it does. I wish my brain and body weren’t so affected by strong emotional stimuli, particularly surrounding people I love. But they are. Glad I have a God Who holds me. Wow, thanks for letting me use you for therapy. I love your blog!

  10. Laura says:

    I do get overwhelmed sometimes. Especially when I’m all inside my head. Like you, sometimes just getting it out and on paper makes it feel a bit better. I know that I need to do a better job at asking for help sometimes and taking more time for me. I’m turning 30 this year and have dubbed it the #yearoflaura. I’m planning to do more for me and focusing a bit more in that dept. I do a lot for others, I need some of my time too. Thanks for sharing and how can I get a copy of that book?

    .. Laura ..

  11. Emily says:

    Flirting with burnout is a great way to explain having a 4 year old who doesn’t sleep through the night. Thanks for sharing your list of strategies. I love the idea of scheduling reading.

  12. Hannah says:

    I have been burned out many times, while overseas, while homeschooling, etc. I can always tell it’s coming when I stop caring about things that used to matter to me. Exercise helps. But really, knowing it will pass eventually is what gets me through. Nothing is forever, not even burnout.

  13. Breanne says:

    So glad you shared more on this topic, Anne. So much in my life feels out of my control right now and I’ve been forgetting some of the helpful routines I do to keep me healthy and sane.
    Thanks for the real words (more protein, less sugar) and the fact that this isn’t as big as an issue for you because of having good habits in place.

  14. Heather says:

    Spot on, as always, Anne.
    I, too, cling to my routines when life gets crazy. The soaker tub, reading in the evenings, long walks with the dogs. My children are grown up, but life always gives opportunities for burnout. So just stop. Make a list. Breathe. Eat pudding for dinner.

  15. Moira says:

    This post was exactly what I needed today. I actually came back to read it a second time this evening when I felt my stress getting the better of me. You are so right that writing things down makes it all seem more manageable! Keeping the routine of the things that help going during good times to prevent the rough patches is something I need to work on. Thanks for this!

  16. Rebecca says:

    I have burnout right now:( I homeschool, attempt to make real food (I dislike cooking so this is a big deal lol) and clean up after a toddler who likes strewing rooms with books (we have a lot of books). In addition I’m an artist who spends quite a bit of time working but at the moment I’m not bringing in as much money as I’d like and therefore didn’t feel “justified” asking for help. But being able to create is important to me and so this weekend I scheduled an appointment with our local Merry Maids and asked my husband to be more involved with homeschooling. I’m hoping this helps. Even the thought of “someone else will clean my bathroom if I pay them?!?” is relaxing haha.

    • Anne says:

      “Even the thought of “someone else will clean my bathroom if I pay them?!?” is relaxing.”

      This made me laugh! But seriously, I hope those tweaks bring you the margin (and time to create!) you need.

  17. Maryalene says:

    I love everything about this post and appreciate your sharing your tips. I’m especially working on focusing on the opportunity cost of my decisions. For example, I just got my big kids off to school and the baby is still sleeping. I could be working right now, but I’m feeling run down today so I am lying in bed reading and will hopefully catch a few Zzzs in a minute. I’m losing out on maybe 30-45 minutes of work time but I am hopefully (if everything goes according to plan) gaining a better attitude and more energy for the rest of the day.

  18. Sarepta says:

    Whenever I read about burnout or priorities lately, one particular book comes to mind. It was released back in October and I have read and gone through a book group with it. The book is, The Best Yes, by: Lysa TerKuerst. She talks about how to decide what to take on and what to let go. This minimizes or eliminates burnout. Much of what you discussed above is spelled out in the book. It frankly is one of those books that you need to own in print. I convinced our local library to purchase it, so I could read it as soon as it was released. I ended up needing a notebook to take notes and jot down every thought I was having for each page. If I owned the book, it would be filled with notations and highlights!! I would recommend this for those in burnout, those on the edge, or those who wish to completely avoid. Pretty much, everyone 🙂

  19. Alyssa says:

    I feel burnt out when I give and give without renewing myself– spiritually, physically, emotionally, with relationships…. the biggest sign is how grumpy and resentful I feel toward my family. Sometime I forget to have fun in life!

  20. Katia says:

    You are definitely not the only one. Last week was a tough one for me, with my younger son not sleeping well due to croup, a husband who had a bad cold, and an extra class added to my teaching schedule. I wasn’t getting enough sleep and, whereas normally I get up at the crack of dawn to practise yoga, I wasn’t able to get out of bed until two hours past my usual alarm clock bell. The subtle signs were there, but I had a tough time slowing down. I did all I could, going to bed earlier, eating wholesome food, etc., yet, come the weekend, I was down with a bad cold. The burnout got to me. I’m still dealing with that cold, and haven’t been able to take much time to rest, due to a demanding work schedule. I have been doing the best I can, finding Grace amidst the busy days, going to sleep earlier, not pushing myself — physically or mentally. You’re absolutely right, it is so hard to get back up after we fall down!

    I love the list you have outlined, and it’s one that I try to follow. As an INFP and HSP (like you, Anne), burnout is always lurking around the corner. And as a Vata dosha in Ayurveda, my immune system tends to be more delicate than that of others. So, my self-care routine is a lot more stringent than the routine of many other people I know. I need to stick to an almost rigid routine. One late night out can exhaust me for the next few days. I need to plan ahead but stay open to any ‘surprises’ that life throws my way. I write everything down, as I hate having the same thought circulating through my head. Yoga helps me tremendously with that. 🙂 As my husband said to me the other day, I already take good care of myself, but I get sick a lot more often than many others we know who eat food that’s not that great, and those who don’t get much exercise.

    Some people are more susceptible to burnout. I’m one of them. I have finally realized this about myself and am no longer afraid to admit that I don’t like going out late at night with girlfriends, because the opportunity cost is too great. We have to be honest with ourselves and manage our lives according to what works for us, right? I just wish I didn’t have to put as many things — and people — on the back burner while taking good care of myself. That’s something I struggle with, as I have put friendships on hold since becoming a mom.

  21. Anne says:

    This is a great post, Anne. I appreciate its wisdom. I really learned the importance of what you write about this winter. Or at least, I hope I did. It all felt a little more real this winter. Like I had to get serious about it. I’ve turned to books more and have lost count of how many Downtons I’m behind! (I will rectify that, btw.) 😉

  22. Ariel says:

    I think of work-life balance the same way I think of a balanced diet: it doesn’t mean you’re getting equal amounts of everything, it means you’re getting the right amounts of everything.

  23. Ashley says:

    As a first-time mom I’m still trying to figure this out. I feel like I’m learning a lot about myself after having a baby. 🙂 I’ll have to look at the book you mentioned. Oh, and I too, wouldn’t mind growing up to be like Elizabeth Foss.

  24. kariane says:

    It’s so easy to get overwhelmed and sucked into what other people think our lives should look like (which is usually way to busy). I’m seriously undertaking the work of simplifying our lives, and am blogging about my journey (things we’ve already done as well as things I’m working on) at EverydayMindfulLiving.com

    I think any progress in this direction will increase our happiness and health, as well as our freedom to pursue our dreams.

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