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The benefits of burnout

Discovering opportunities within the struggle

By Sheila Tucker

Cynicism. Exhaustion. Frustration. Oh my. 

There seems to be a universal agreement that burnout is dreaded, and you’re doomed to a long, tedious recovery. That you must do everything humanly possible to avoid, prevent and quickly relieve yourself of it.

I think burnout gets a bad rap.

Yes, this is a very different way of looking at the stress that moves you from energized to exhausted, and from sailing along to oh-so-stuck. Just hear me out.

I started studying burnout years ago during a time when I was totally and utterly scorched, fried and toasted to a crisp. Let’s just say I’ve read countless research articles and blogs on burnout. They usually have titles like “How to Recover from Burnout” or “How to Avoid or Prevent Burnout.”

What’s intriguing is very few articles mention burnout’s benefits. What if burnout isn’t as bad as you think? What if the point of burnout is to inform you to consider working and living differently, say, more aligned? An indicator that something’s not functioning or sustainable, much like the display lights on your car’s dashboard?

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, writes, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” This, friends, is the intersection where the flames that once burned brightly begin to fade out, and your indicator lights start flashing.

Throughout my studies and personal experience, I’ve discovered burnout allows you the opportunity to make changes to your systems through restructuring, slowing down, checking in and resting. Let me explain … 

If your display light glows, “monotony.”

Benefit: This is your opportunity to restructure your days with more variety and less “groundhog day.” Personally I’m more productive and aligned when my schedule varies.

If this isn’t you and you desire sameness throughout your week, notice whether you’re experiencing too much variety, and then restructure accordingly.

If your display light blinks, “scattered.” 

Benefit: Slow down. Apply the brakes, permitting time to think and plan. Taking intentional time away has the added benefit of creating momentum to propel you ahead. Think of shooting a rubber band. The further you pull it back, the farther it will fly forward. 

Bill Gates schedules “think weeks,” where he commits two weeks to thinking, reading and planning. Don’t have that much time to spare? Consider dedicating a few hours each week to slow down.

If your display light flashes, “do everything.”

Benefit: Tune up your support systems. You don’t have to do it all alone. Ask for help. I don’t know about you, but there are tasks in my business that I’m not particularly eager to do. There’s relief in offloading those responsibilities while freeing up time to do the enjoyable (or “must do”) ones.

A tune-up could look like hiring an assistant, reshuffling responsibilities among staff, lowering your expectations or intentionally blocking off time to accomplish tasks. I also suggest carving out time to catch up with friends for an instantaneous mental and emotional health booster.

If your display light flickers, “fatigue and frustration.” 

Benefit: Integrate any amount of rest (aka play) into your schedule, allowing you to redirect your focus. In this case, rest is any activity that brings you joy. It can be a walk, run, nap, reading a good book – or transcendental meditation, in Oprah Winfrey’s case.

“Burnout doesn’t have to be a dangerous trap requiring Herculean efforts to free yourself. Instead see it as an indicator light alerting you to the need to reset or adjust something in your system that’s no longer serving you. My challenge for you is to lean into the benefits of burnout by finding opportunities within the struggle.”

Sheila Tucker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Heart Mind & Soul Counseling. She specializes in working with couples and individuals to strengthen their relationships so they can connect more deeply to themselves and each other. When not in the office, she’ll be found walking her pups or planning her next vacation with her husband.

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