ask the readers: how do you bounce back from burnout?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

After a fair amount of looking and much encouragement from concerned friends and family, I left a thoroughly ridiculous job in late 2018. (Even though I had come from a similarly sized institution in the same field, I was doing the work that 2.5 positions did at that previous institution.) The burnout was pretty severe: I worked on nights and weekends, and I don’t think I ever had a true vacation up until the last year I was working there. Even on nights when I didn’t have to work, I would go home and just mindlessly watch TV until I went to bed and did it all over again the next day. And despite all of that, the feeling I got from my supervisor and others in leadership positions was that it wasn’t enough, and I was still getting more and more added to my plate. It was bad.

Thankfully, I found something great in a similar field with a far better commute and work-life balance. (It also pays about 25% less than the last job, but my sanity is worth it.) For the first few weeks there, I was in a bad state — I wasn’t sleeping or eating well, which does seem to have gotten better with time, and I’m finding ways to fill the hours of free time I have now.

The professional problem I’m facing three months in is that I don’t seem to remember how to work in an environment where I don’t have five deadlines staring me down and people bugging me all the time for help on their projects. I sit at my desk (in a corner cube where no one can see me) and mess around on the Internet until mid-afternoon, when I tackle my to-do list in a rush — because that’s what I’m used to doing. A normally paced workplace is completely foreign to me now. It feels so unproductive and I’m often clicking away from a web browser when someone does happen to come to my desk, and this is not a pattern I want to continue.

I know that things will probably get better with time, but I’m wondering if you or your readers have any tips on how to bounce back from burnout and get acclimated to a regular job again. My new boss heard from my references about how overworked I was at my last job, and they’re wonderfully kind anyway, so I’m not really worried about that. It’s just that this job is a step that I wanted to take in my career, and I want to do it well, but that’s not happening right now. Any ideas?

Readers, what’s your advice?

{ 190 comments… read them below }

  1. Spouter of Gibberish*

    Set aside time int he morning to review what needs to be done, and create a schedule to do it. Because it is easy to fall into the trap of waiting for things to be on fire before you tackle them. In your old job, fighting those fires was necessary! exciting! stressful! In your new job, you shouldn’t have (m)any fires. Success in your new job is fire prevention.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      Also, build in things like “First I must complete the first three things on the list, then I can read AAM, then I must complete the next three before I take another break.”

      1. Less Bread More Taxes*

        I use AAM to structure my breaks too! For me, it’s sit down and focus and get as much done as possible, then you can have a tea and visit the site.

      2. Busy*

        Yeah I really like this. It is like doing a goal replacement. In last job, goals were [horrible things] because reward was [getting yelled at less]. In new job, goals are [XYZ ways to improve my skills] because rewards are [recognition at less toxic job].

      3. Roz Doyle*

        +1 and I need to build this into my day. Thankful for the LW’s post today. I feel similar to many of the posters here today. I have the same job but we have intense waves and lulls, last year was super intense for us all because of a very high profile project. And structuring it around reading AAM is great, because these days I read it first , before any item on my list, clearly not an effective approach.

      4. Marie*

        Yes, lists!

        I have ADHD, and lists *usually* work, but sometimes even that becomes overwhelming — tasks can tend to become fractal if my ADHD is working hard.

        So I sometimes also utilize a list or time management app/software to target what piece of the attention puzzle is giving me trouble today. Skedpal is for eliminating the transition space between tasks where I have to choose what to do next and get weighed down by decision fatigue. Pomodoro is for pulling me out of huge time-consuming tasks where I’ll get hyperfocused for hours and lose most of my workday. Todoist is for categorizing by project so I can put aside several hours knocking out half a project with multiple moving parts instead of several hours jumping knocking out 7% each of twelve projects with moving parts. Evernote is for when I have projects that require a lot of documents, and I keep getting distracted by how to organize them. A piece of paper and a pen are for when I literally need to go outside so I can think bigger picture without getting sucked into all the things on my desk.

        Considering the habits you had to develop at your last workplace, you may be looking at your burnout like something you have to bear down on and overcome, no matter the cost, or face the consequences of being a Bad Worker. Try looking at it as a temporary disability that requires accommodation, an issue that can be worked with and worked around instead of something about you that must be eliminated.

    2. Whatever*

      This. And maybe use an extension on your web browser like Block Site to keep you from browsing the internet when you’re not supposed to be. You can set up a schedule and list of sites you want/ don’t want. This way the bad habit doesn’t become ingrained and you get a better routine going early on.

      1. LawBee*

        I use SelfControl (for Mac, idk if there’s a windows version) and this cute little app on my phone that grows trees if I leave my phone alone. Very effective.

          1. Jadelyn*

            It’s called Forest. You can pick how long you want to stay off your phone and it will grow a tree or bush depending on the length of time, and over time you grow a little forest for yourself.

          2. VictorianCowgirl*

            It’s called “Forest”! It’s great, and the more trees you grow and points you earn, the more types of plants you can include in your forest.

            1. TreesPlease*

              You guys just saved. my. life.

              My job is very dysfunctional, so I’m 1) A bit checked out and doing the minimum to maintain my job and 2) supposed to be job searching, but I have mostly just been avoiding job searching.

              This app might help me with both since I’m a super big collector of arbitrary points in any form. THANKS!

              1. LondonBridges*

                Dittoing saving my life! I’ve been putting off so much of my classwork… and trees make me happy!

            2. Bekx*

              AHhh this is awesome. Just installed it and got a bunch of stuff done and 3 little trees! I spent the $1 of google play credit to upgrade, too, the ads were annoying.

    3. Teapot analyst*

      I agree with this one a lot. I cope by writing up lists.

      Oddly enough, the OP’s new days (spending time on the internet in the morning, and then working harder later in the day) sound a lot like my new days. Yet my experience just prior to this was a dysfunctional workplace where I wasn’t given what I needed to do my work, so I spent most of my time on the internet and any work time was spent trying to find data (I have had a good workplace previous to this, so I have had good work habits).

      So these bad habits may not be solely because of burnout, they may be due to a legacy of bad habits. I think that makes them harder to resolve, as they may be more of a fundamental part of human nature, but in my case I’m starting to acknowledge that it’s not a huge personal flaw, and the fact that I manage to get my work done well despite my couple hours spent online… makes this a problem that I want to improve on over time, rather than something which needs to be addressed immediately and creates added stress.

      Also, I don’t think as creatively or reliably earlier in the day, so my most productive mornings are ones where I develop a To Do list at the end of the previous day. This is something I have always tried to do.

      1. Busy*

        Ahh its like you’re me!! I have now been moved to a new department and I actually have work, but still the old bad habits of the last two years. I have instead started booking times on my calendar of when I am going to work on XYZ. So its like making a list.

    4. Emily K*

      I found that what makes lists most effective for me is if I write down not just the task and its due date, but an estimate of how much time it will take me to do, and a tentative day I plan to do it. I rewrite my to-do list every day or two and make adjustments as needed to compensate for things that took more or less time than expected or things that popped up unexpectedly.

      I found that it really helped me break the cycle of not working on anything until a day before it was due because “I still have so much time!” and inadvertently giving myself these artificial feast-and-famine periods. Now I see on Monday that I have five things due at the end of the day Friday, but two of them are at least 4 hours of work each, which means I’m going to need to plan on getting the other three things done no later than Wednesday so that I can devote all of Thursday to the two big projects while leaving myself Thursday after-hours and Friday morning as a spillover buffer in case they take even longer than expected or something else urgent pops up while I’m working on them.

      If I finish everything on my to do list early and don’t have anything else pressing to do, I use the time to clean up my inbox and desktop folders or read whitepapers, watch webinars, etc that are related to my professional development. (It’s also great for your professional reputation to occasionally forward or share with your team something interesting that you read – in my experience people are very impressed to see that when you have free time you spend it working on skills development instead of balancing your bank account or browsing Amazon. It not only conveys that you’re industrious, it also conveys that you have a genuine interest in your field and want to be the best you can be at what you do, and encourages people to see you as a subject matter expert.)

      1. SparkyMcDragon*

        Agree with everything above but also want to say that I’ve used the practice and method of Bullet Journaling specifically to do this. The core method on the website without all the distracting color coded pinterest variants.

          1. Jadelyn*

            Amen to that. I like actual bullet journaling. I tried the Pinterest variants and got totally overwhelmed and couldn’t make it work for me. AVOID PINTEREST FOR BUJO!

            1. Media Monkey*

              i love pinterest style BuJo for personal, but for work, i just have a normal Bujo. you can customise it to work for you as well – i tend towards weekly rather than daily lists as it suits the size of tasks/ style of my work better.

      2. MsSolo*

        I do something similar, but block time in my calendar (I find if I start writing lists down I lose several hours to making a pretty list, which doesn’t help!). It gives me a sense of when in the week I expect to get to stuff and how flexible I can be with moving stuff around if priorities change. I adjust the blocks after I’ve finished the task to make sure when it comes up again I’m realistic about long long it takes, and include ad hoc stuff so I can demonstrate that if A did it right first time I wouldn’t have lost over a day’s worth of work redoing the same tasks. Last two weeks have seen a lot of tasks get pushed back repeatedly, which if why when someone threw a meeting into my diary a couple of days ago for something they’ve decided they’re ready to do right now this second I had a very visceral NOPE reaction, because I knew how much prep time that would take and I physically don’t have the hours between now and then. So now we’re having a meeting about how long everything takes, so the diarying is coming in handy!

    5. Res Admin*

      All of this. I left a job like you describe–and a few years out I can still have trouble focusing without a list.

      Keep a list or lists (whatever makes sense for your work).
      Review daily and update regularly.
      Attach timelines/prioritize if that makes sense for your work.
      Set yourself goals for the day/week–ex. cross off these 3 tasks today and these 10 by the end of the week.
      Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet your goals. ;p
      Look for ways that you can streamline your current work. Sometimes we get so busy “getting it done” that we don’t have time to find ways to make getting it done easier/faster/more accurate. Enjoy having the breather to do that.

      Your body gets used to a certain type/amount of brain activity/chemical release from constant stress. It is going to take awhile for everything to reset to a more reasonable physiological level.

      I will also argue that it isn’t so much “burnout” as being totally worn down by a work environment that was a really bad fit (and would be a bad fit for many people).

    6. Salamander*

      I tend to use internet surfing as an anesthetizing thing I do when I’m under stress. It can get pretty compulsive.

      One thing that helps me is to get an appointment planner…a planner with two pages for a week and the time broken out into fifteen-minute increments. I block off a specific amount of time to work on a specific task, then take a break, then go back to it. If I only have a break of fifteen minutes, and sometimes I set an alarm for that, it gets me back to work. At home, I use Freedom to keep me off the internet.

      If I just use a list or bullet points on a smaller planner, I put things off because…hey! It’s only ten items and I can do it later. Looking at how long it should realistically take to complete a task really helps.

      1. Kay*

        >>I tend to use internet surfing as an anesthetizing thing I do when I’m under stress. It can get pretty compulsive.

        Very true!!! I mindlessly browse when I’m stressed. Very numbing!

      2. Tongue Cluckin' Grammarian*

        >>I tend to use internet surfing as an anesthetizing thing I do when I’m under stress. It can get pretty compulsive.

        This explains my current work habits so much.

        1. Jadelyn*

          *looks at this thread, looks over at 200 unread emails from me being gone for 2 weeks, looks back at this thread* Hmm. Yeah. That sounds…familiar.

      3. Elle Double-U*

        LW here, and absolutely. I had a tendency to do that at Old Job when everything was on fire and I just couldn’t deal. At New Job, I think I got into a nasty cycle of surfing the Internet/mentally beating myself up for surfing the Internet/dealing with that stress by surfing the Internet that’s hopefully broken now.

    7. Sara, A Lurker*

      Co-signing lists! Also reminders. This is a tip from cognitive behavior therapy: post-its wherever you’re most likely to look at them. At my old hot mess burnout job, my post-its all said “Breathe!” (Well, and my officemate and I also hung up signs that made us laugh, like “Let’s mustard through this” with clipart of a hot dog.) At my new, chill job, my first post-it note said: “WAIT A BIT before you submit!” Because I was so used to working on impossible deadlines, I was sending work to my supervisor as soon as it was ostensibly finished but before proofreading. At my new job, there is time to walk away from something and then come back to view it with fresher eyes, but I needed to recondition myself to take that time.

      It helped me to name the behaviors I had developed to survive in a dumpster fire–rushing through work, putting my grandboss on an information diet, triaging tasks ruthlessly–and to be gentle with myself for having developed those habits while I took the time to undo them.

      1. Sara, A Lurker*

        Oh, specifically pertaining to time management: Pomodoro method. You can even get a little browser plugin (called, adorably, Marinara) and set your own time limits for web browsing versus working. I use it especially when I have lengthier writing assignments to do, because there is a very permeable membrane between “reading up on the topic” and “reading the whole entire internet.”

        1. Jaydee*

          I am familiar with that membrane and pass through it regularly on my way to learning all the things the internet has to offer.

    8. Jane*

      Or split your day into sections – have a list for the morning that must be done before lunchtime, and a separate list for the afternoon. Or into four sections, with before coffeee break, before lunch, etc.

  2. Spouter of Gibberish*

    And fire prevention may seem boring at first. But that is part of recalibrating your workview.
    Figure out what success should look like at your new job (rather than what it should feel like, as your feelings will be a bit off as you recalibrate your work feelings), then create a plan to make that you work and trust that completing your plans is success (even if it feels anticlimatic).

  3. Squeeble*

    OP, how’s your life outside of work? I think work can be so much easier to tackle and really care about when the rest of your life is full and fulfilling, in whatever way that means for you. Take an art class, meet up with friends, go for hikes, go to concerts, whatever–so that life isn’t just an endless cycle of work and not-work.

    1. wittyrepartee*

      This! I joined a choir. It makes one of my days really long, but my soul is nourished.

    2. Peaches*

      Absolutely agree. My husband and I are in an adult kickball league that plays every Thursday. Having that just makes me feel complete.

    3. Birch*

      Agreed. Feeling burned out IMO often means you don’t do anything fun for yourself because everything in your week is just work that never gets done, so what’s the point of going to your class/hike/cycle/dinner etc. if it just means more work to come back to later? When you actually have the space to do other things you care about, make a point of trying to work efficiently (because now, efficiency will be rewarded!) and use the fun things in your life as a reward.

    4. knitter*

      Great question. Having been in the LW’s position a few years ago, once work/life balance got out of whack, my out of work life wasn’t super fulfilling. When I felt motivated to do something for me, I did it, even if it meant doing it during work. I told myself that this would make me feel better and I would be more productive afterward. Often what this looked like is I went into the website spiral and left still feeling unfulfilled and worse that I wasn’t productive.

      What helps me is having a defined goal for the work week and one for my life. During the work day, I make sure the majority of my tasks relate to the goal. This helps me feel successful in two ways. First, I did something, yay! Second, I would often sabotage myself by setting unrealistic goals and thus end up in the self-defeating “look at websites during work to make me feel like I have a life so I will be more productive” cycle. When I simplified my goals, I was more focused.

      For making lists, I found the Best Self Co Weekly Action Guide really helpful. When I analyze my motivations for doing or avoiding something, I can set up situations that will support my follow through (planned rewards, scheduling an update meeting, scheduling a time to complete the task.)

    5. Spreadsheets and Books*

      This is so important. It’s not easy to find an hour 4-5 times a week to go to the boutique fitness center I joined but it’s so expensive that I do it anyhow. And with a $28 late cancellation fee, I basically force myself to go. Giving myself a phone-free hour of self-care most nights after work and on the weekends has been so wonderful for my mental health.

    6. Rosaline Montague*

      I just made a similar change and I’m also finding the purposeful life balance helpful. I also had to retrain myself to make reasonable day-to-day deadlines and goals because my life before was governed by urgency and stress.

      If you’re looking for some reading, try The Four tendencies by Gretchen Rubin

    7. cleo*

      This! Came here to say the same thing.

      One of the ways I came back from a serious case of burnout a few years ago was to deliberately develop my outside interests and to commit to more robust self care. For me that meant a daily meditation practice, taking art classes and doing volunteer gardening at my park district (so satisfying – invasive plants don’t talk back or require paperwork).

      I did all of that for my own well-being but it had the pleasant side effect of helping me be a better employee. The year after I made this change, I earned “exceeds expectations” aty annual review – the highest option and my first (but not last) time earning it.

    8. Elle Double-U*

      LW here, and I’m definitely working on that! Part of my personal adjustment was coming to terms with the fact that Old Job had basically eaten me alive and I didn’t have much of a life beyond it. As I mentioned below, New Job started at about the same time that Daylight Saving Time ended, so it felt like a double whammy. But after turning inwards for a bit with stress-relieving hobbies, I’m now trying to be a more social human being and getting out of the house.

      1. Cat Herder*

        Good to hear. I’m in a semi similar situation. I’m wondering if some of it could be grieving my old job and what I lost by staying in a dysfunctional environment too long. Trying to be kind to myself and do some fun things outside of work now that I have time , but not doing too many yet. I don’t want to get overextended or overscheduled again and am easing my way back to my normal. Sending solidarity and support.

  4. LRB*

    Time definitely helps, but so does setting up good routines outside of work to help you recover from burnout. (I say this as someone who spectacularly burned out in 2015 and I’ve been working hard for four years to get back to a good baseline). Getting up a regular times of day, going to bed at regular times of day. Getting outside every day for a bit of time. Journalling. Exercise. Hydration :). Slowing down and giving yourself permission to slow down. Eat dinner with other people. Limit TV time. Intentionally use your vacation days, take random days off to explore your city/town. My job is usually pretty intense, but has waves of very slow periods, and it’s hard to adjust when the swing happens.
    Good luck!
    [NB this all sounds trite, I know. I was super resistant to all of this stuff until I realized whatever I was doing to get through my burnout wasn’t working, and now I have to admit that meditation and journalling and regular walks and eating healthier have helped my personal resilience a TON- and it’s made me better at work.]

    1. Snack Management*

      Totally agree! I go through cycles of burn-out in my job, chaos and constant stress where all I want to do is watch TV at the end of the day and spend weekends recovering from the week. I hit a real low about a year ago and started prioritizing exercise. It was what I needed to get me out of my funk (mentally and physically) and allowed me to set boundaries where my personal health became a priority. I just went through another spring stress cycle in this year and while it was difficult, it was nothing like last year because I had well established routines outside of work that supported me.

    2. Jack Russell Terrier*

      Yes – to all this. You’re were totally beyond fried so perhaps it’s something that will change over time. I know that when I’ve been feeling burned out and it finally lifts, my body and mind basically go on strike. They say to me ‘ok, we were there for you, now you’ve bloomin well go to listen to us’. At least, that’s how I see it, because I Just Can’t Seem to Get Anything Done. After a while, this changes. Some of it, I’m sure, is due to having a positive work environment – but perhaps it’s also part of recovery from the burn out??

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Right on, LRB!

      OP this is some great advice here. Understand that there is a physical component to this. Your body is probably running low on certain nutrients. (Stress is a thief, it steals nutrition our bodies need.) Did you know that dehydration can cut into our ability to think and process? Lack of sleep can also go into problems with processing thoughts but it can cause weight gain, too. We have to get energy from somewhere, our choices are food or sleep. If your plan is coffee, you can work on shifting away from coffee and going towards sleep and good foods.

      Exercise does not have to be a killer. It can be a 15 minute walk at night after dinner. That short walk will make a difference in how you sleep and how you feel the next day.

      When a person’s basic needs are not covered it’s almost impossible for that person to prioritize helping someone else, be it a friend or a workplace. We have to make sure that our self-care is in place.

  5. HR Lady*

    Schedule. You have your to do list, so clearly mark when everything has to be done. So let’s say your “to do” list for the day is llama invoicing, llama form, llama wrangling, llama cuddles. Ensure that you have llama invoicing done between 10am-11am, llama form between 11am-12noon, then have lunch, then wrangling and cuddles between 2-3pm.

    It gives you those deadlines back whilst ensuring that you retain control over your situation and your brain gets used to the idea that you have a sensible workload again. And ensures you still have some wriggle room for any new work that comes in/people coming over/llama crises.

    Hope this helps and good luck in your continued recovery from your toxic job!

    1. league.*

      This. I use my Outlook calendar to schedule my to-do list, setting up time between meetings with specific items on the list. I have told my staff/colleagues that if they want to schedule a meeting with me and see that Outlook has marked me busy, check on what specifically I’m doing at that time (I have shared full details of my calendar to all) so that they can feel free to schedule me during, say, “run monthly statistics” but not during “one-on-one with Joaquin).

      1. Blossom*

        You could mark those appointments as “free” in Outlook instead of “busy”, which will make it immediately clear to others that it can be scheduled over. Outlook puts a white stripe down the left hand side.

      2. Emily K*

        I do the same, and I mark those kind of appointments as “tentative” so that when people are using Outlook’s scheduling assistant to find a good time for 8 people, the “suggested times” will weight my conflicts less heavily, and the meeting scheduler doesn’t have to hover over to see what the appointment is. Even though I do make the full details public I find that nobody takes the time to look, and I’ll just get a chat saying, “You have something tentative at 3 – can that be moved?” (And most of the time I say, “Sure!”)

        I also block the last 30 minutes of every day on my calendar for general time to wrap everything up, tend to my inbox, and rewrite my to-do lists before knocking off for the day. I’ll come to your 4:30 meeting if that’s really the only time available for everyone but as a rule I prefer not to be in a meeting right up til 5:00 (or later if it runs over!).

        1. league.*

          And for me, it’s anything before 10am or I GUESS 9:30 that I want to avoid! I’ll do it if that’s really what’s best, but it’s not what I want to be doing.

  6. StaceyIzMe*

    I think you need to decide who you want to be in your professional life and get yourself the support that you need in order to successfully, sustainably and productively align with your own values. You might consider a therapist to help you recover from the trauma and a coach to help you with forward momentum. It’s common to work with both and therapy often is covered by your insurance. When you select a coach (if you do), get one that does “pure coaching” and is certified through the International Coaching Federation. You don’t want somebody telling you what to do, you want somebody who will hold space for you as you attain balance and set your own course for the future. You can meet with a therapist one week and your coach the next. (You’re looking for a Certified Professional Coach, ideally, who has experience working with clients who have burnout.)
    Otherwise, you can also find one or more activities to help you balance out your day that are creative and enjoyable to you. Writer’s group? Yoga? Art class? That will help you to get connected with other aspects of yourself. You need to take your own self-care much, MUCH more seriously, which will help you to get back in the groove in every area of your life. Good luck! Hope you have a LOT of success ahead!!

    1. CastIrony*

      There’s work coaches?! I may need to get one myself, and someone who doesn’t tell me what to do like a therapist is perfect for me!

      I agree with you entirely, StacyIzMe. If OP can’t afford a class, they can start with doing DIYs (do-it-yourself crafts). An easier craft would be getting a plastic vase from a dollar store, painting it, and then cutting shapes out of magazines to make a sort of picture to glue on with Mod-Podge (or diluted white glue).

      Source of idea: I’m staring at one my sister made last summer that has clouds surrounding the top of a blue-painted vase, and mountains surrounding the bottom. It holds my combs and brush.

      Good luck, OP! I’m rooting for you!

      1. StaceyIzMe*

        Coaching can be a great tool to consider! The down side is that it’s not covered by insurance and there are a lot of people who call themselves coaches, but who are actually consultants (“I’m the expert, so I’ll tell you what I did to succeed.”), mentors (“I know how to get you where you want to go, so follow me!”) and metaphysical gurus (tarot readers, practicing witches and many other similar folks). A coach is focused on listening to the client and supporting the client in attaining their goals. The client does the work, the coach does the listening / reflecting/ mirroring and offers accountability. If you find someone you’re interested in using as a coach, they should have CPC (Certified Professional Coach- they went to school to learn this), or one of the following- ACC (Associate Certified Coach, they have practiced 100 hours and met ICF requirements), Professional Certified Coach, (they have practiced 500 hours and met ICF requirements) or MCC (they have at least 2500 hours and met ICF requirements).
        Some therapists, pastors, management, and leaders in education,medical and military people have advanced coaching skills developed as part of their repertoire, too, and are practicing privately. As long as they have an established clientele and can articulate a process for you that doesn’t sound like therapy/ mentoring/ consulting- they may also work well.

  7. SaffyTaffy*

    In the words of Vera Farmiga in The Departed, “change something. Change everything.”
    So I change the exercises I do at the gym, or the type of art I’m working on. I go to a different supermarket, drive new routes to work, move my furniture around, change the decorations at my desk, stuff like that.
    New stimulation renews my interest in being alive.

    1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      This is really great. I was reading it and thinking how it sounds good, but no, it’s not really necessary for me…and then I realized the idea makes me a little nervous. I think it’s time to shake things up.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Excellent advice. I have used this one myself and decided to add it to my life habits. I try on a routine basis to change something that I am doing. Be deliberate, chose slowly and wisely. Do one thing at a time, so you can see how that change is working or not working.
      Using Saffy’s examples, I would try a new route to work for a few days and figure out how I liked that. Once I had made a decision about the drive route, then I would move on to trying that new-to-me grocery store. None of these changes are big. The key is to KEEP doing this. I changed most my parts of my life doing this. Yep, it took a while. Then I realized, NO, I need to make this a life habit to seek out new and better ideas.

      To shorten your learning curve, chat with friends and perhaps coworkers about random things. Perhaps you are considering taking the side roads to work rather than the main highway. Ask one or two well chosen people what they think of the side roads as a regular route to work. Again, with the grocery store scenario, ask someone else if they have used X store on Y street and did they like it? People love to give their opinions on stuff. Listen to their reasons WHY. That will be the most telling thing for you. If someone does not like a grocery store because it seems dirty that is info you can use. If they don’t like that store because one of the cashiers is mean, that may not matter to you because you decide to just avoid that person.

      Once in a great while you might decide to do a big change. In between all my modest changes, I refi’ed my house and had 16 months of dental work done with a new dentist that I had picked out. It’s in this modest little changes that we learn/grow ourselves into confidently making bigger changes that impact our lives.

  8. Amber Rose*

    Oh man, are you me? I also sit in a corner cube where nobody can see me and slack off too much until someone comes by. -_-

    Email reminders are what I use to guilt myself into not wasting so much time internetting.
    It’s hard to put off that thing I wanted to do before lunch if my email is popping up reminders at me constantly that I decided to do that TPS report at 10 and it’s now a little after 10, hint hint.

    I also stick sticky notes to my computer monitor so my tasks are constantly staring me in the face.

  9. Lurking Tom*

    This will sound glib, but I mean it sincerely – find a therapist that deals with anxiety. I had pretty much exactly the same work scenario as you, except I left my industry altogether & started a completely unrelated business. The business failed after 2.5 years & now I am stuck job hunting with out of date skills & that much older in a field that skews young.

    Somewhere in this whole thing I found a therapist that specialized in anxiety. Talking with her has really helped me reset my internal expectations of things like “normal” & “productive”. Before her, I was sleeping about 4 hours per night for more than a year due to waking up with what I call “work brain”. I’ve managed to get myself to sleep in the 6.5 – 7 hour range now, which has cascaded into having more energy & a more positive outlook while awake.

    So don’t do what I did – find a therapist much sooner! It will really help your new job and your life in general.

    1. cleo*

      Agreed! Reframing my procrastination as a way of coping with anxiety rather than a character flaw or lack of willpower or motivation really helped me. As did working with a therapist to both manage my anxiety and work on processing the root causes.

      1. Loubelou*

        Agreed re therapy. I was in exactly the same position as you, OP, and therapy helped me work through the trauma (and yes it was very much trauma) of my precious job and leave it behind so I could focus on my new job with a completely fresh mindset.

        I do still get a little anxious when I make a mistake or my boss makes suggestions for my work (I was so used to being responsible for EVERYTHING with only criticism to keep me going). But it has subsided and I am able to see things much clearer now I’ve processed that awful experience and ‘recalibrated’ my brain to normal work life.

        You can get through this, OP, and you’ll come out stronger, but there’s no shame in getting professional help to deal with all the baggage you’re still carrying.

        1. Lupin Lady*

          When I was facing burnout I attended counselling and was surprised at how few sessions made such a huge difference. In case OP or anyone else is worried about the ongoing cost and time, I wanted to highlight that even a few sessions with the right counsellor can make a difference.

      2. Liza*

        …Lightbulb moment over here! Thanks, cleo, for mentioning that procrastination can be a way of dealing with anxiety. I think that’s going to be extremely helpful!

    2. Thany*

      I’m a little late to this discussion, but I agree about the therapy. I started my new job after a really traumatic job, and after a year I was still struggling in my new role. I started therapy and realized how much baggage I was still struggling with. I wish I would have started it sooner.

  10. ProcrastinatorByNature*

    If you are not the kind of person who likes to schedule every task, I recommend the pomodoro technique ( Basically you work for 25 minutes and then take a 5 minute break. But it’s really flexible, you can do 50/10 or whatever works best for you and the type of tasks you have.

    1. LadyByTheLake*

      I second this! It can be really difficult to work on stuff when the schedule is “regular” instead of “incendiary.” A good work friend and I remind each other “time to Pomodoro this sh*t” when we’re getting stuck in the cycle of not getting the work done because it isn’t frantic.

    2. KTM*

      I just found out about this recently and I love it. During the 25min I don’t look at emails that come in, I don’t check my phone, and I don’t get distracted on the internet. But then I have a schedule time that I do get to do those things! It hits a double combo for me of not making me feel guilty when I’m browsing online (since it’s short and planned) and I work way more effectively in those 25min.

      If you’re on Windows 10, they have a (clunky) desktop app called ‘Focus 10’ that sends you reminders on your desktop. I’m sure there’s others out there.

      1. KTM*

        Also, as others mentioned, I make a list and kind of plan out my Pomodoro tasks (I’ll spend 4 Pomodoros on Task A, then break it up with Task B, and then go back to A).

    3. Noah*

      I would add: this is a good idea even if you’re not a pomodoro kind of person. I’m really not, but when I was in a similar position to OP, I used one for a little while and it help me re-set my practices. Then I dumped it.

    4. MoopySwarpet*

      I’ve recently started this to help focus on my overwhelming number of tasks. I recently discovered the Pomodone app. It’s free and available on all platforms (even Linux!). You can customize your “sessions,” which are a string of 4 sets of 25 minutes with the first 3 followed by a 5 minute break and the last followed by a long break. The default is 4 timers with a long break of 20 minutes. I changed mine to be 5 timers with a 30 minute long break. This basically means the first session gets me to lunch then the next session gets me to about 3-3:30. I’m exempt and don’t leave the office for lunch so splitting it this way works well.

      I also love todoist for task management (very robust free version). The two integrate, but a large number of my tasks are pretty short in duration so I have general categories for Pomodone (email, llama research, teapot design, etc.) unless it’s a long task.

      I have found that I am a lot more productive when I’m time tracking. I really like Atracker for general time tracking (free, but the free version is pretty limited), but don’t currently want that level of detail for my time (and no one else here cares how I spend my time).

      I doubt if I’ll pomodoro it forever, but it does really help me with focus right now. Otherwise, I tend to wander down the interwebs of researching something that really does not need to be research today. Or I’ll start some good, but random project instead of working on the regular things.

  11. CatCat*

    Oh, I relate. I burned out hard and then went to a job where I didn’t have things to do at every moment during the workday and beyond. There were busy times, but not crushingly so, at my new job. But there were also not busy times where I really only needed half a day to do my work and found myself tooling around on the internet. This was totally foreign to me and felt off!

    I had a chat with my boss about how I felt I was being unproductive and whether there was more I should be doing. She told me to enjoy the down time when things were slower, they would inevitably pick up (it was sort of cyclical), and that my work product was good. This actually helped me tremendously because this helped me accept the new normal. My boss cared that I was getting my work done and that it was good quality. She couldn’t give a rip about what I was doing with my time otherwise. It also gave me the chance to avail myself of more training opportunities when they came along. Not that I had training to do in all down periods (not even close), but I took advantage of the opportunities when I could.

    So when you say you are “feeling unproductive,” maybe look more closely at that. Are you, in reality, unproductive? If you are meeting expectations and your boss is happy with your work, you actually ARE productive. You don’t necessarily have to be busy busy busy on work tasks at all times to be productive.

    Part of bouncing back from a situation like this is retraining your mind about what is normal and to align your feelings about productivity with reality.

    1. Blue*

      I think the definitions of productivity thing is important to keep in mind. I was recently in OP’s exact position: new job while dealing with the after effects of massive burnout. I felt like I was wasting so much time and being super unproductive, because I was comparing it to the pace I was accustomed to. In reality, my boss was really happy with what (and how much) I was producing, especially given my newness. It still felt really off to me, and I had to keep reminding myself that it was ok that I wasn’t getting through a page-long to do list every day – I’d found a new job specifically so I wouldn’t have to do that, after all.

      Things have gotten better with time. I’ve recovered a bit from the job that ground me into dust and have a bit more energy to interject into my work. I’ve had time to become more invested in my projects and to establish myself as someone coworkers seek out for help solving problems, both of which help. Gradually, the need to do things quickly and only under serious pressure has waned. Am I operating at peak? No. But I’m getting there.

      1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

        Interestingly, when I was training teens in a jobs program, this was the hardest thing for most of them to understand, too. That sometimes working meant playing on your phone for half an hour while you wait for the boss to come tell you to do something else.

    2. ch77*

      Very similar situation happened to me.
      In 2016 I left a very very busy job that had turned toxic, and I was burned out. The next job I had was much lower passed – it was not unusual that I had 1 thing to do on my to do list all day. Honeslty it was rough going from 1 extreme to the other. It helped to have a lot going on outside of work and to make those priorities. Also, after a few months, I reached out to my boss and he added to me to some other special projects which was great. Got a lot better around the 5 month mark. Then, at 6 months, my dream job came open and I jumped. Now it is back to being busy, but in a great supportive environment that really values work life balance. The downtime was really worth it – I focused on my personal life, activities, etc (I second all the recommendations on classes, kickball leagues, regular friend meetups, etc). All of that was still in place and really supportive when work did get busier again.
      During the day – I’d recommend lists like others have mentioned. The 50/10 minute rule works well for me (I have a pedometer that buzzes at the 50 minute mark if I haven’t taken 250 steps – so it makes me go walk around and take a break). Lists, lists, and more lists. Do that for a few weeks, and if you’re finding that you still have a lot of extra time, maybe approach your boss about how you are feeling and see what happens – maybe they would be open to the training opportunities are, or give you special projects or something else great.
      Overall – BE KIND TO YOURSELF. Recovering from burnout takes time. You took a great step by getting out. And congrats on this job!

  12. Akcipitrokulo*

    It might help to put timed reminders on your to-do list – if you put them in outlook, that’s simple to do – and then act on them when you get the reminder?

  13. wittyrepartee*

    When you’re having trouble doing work- consider actually leaving your desk and going for a walk or doing some jumping jacks, or just sitting not in front of a monitor and thinking about what you’re up to. A good job will let you do this, and it’s good for your productivity overall. Also, figure out what times of day you work best, and then make sure you block those times off for yourself.

  14. Lynca*

    I know the feeling, especially the “putting off the to-do list until mid-afternoon.” I’m currently in the middle of fighting these behaviors because they are my classic burnout symptoms. One thing is making sure you are taking time to do things to recharge off the clock. At this point I know I need a vacation even if it’s just being at home doing chores or hobbies.

    The other is mentally fighting the urges to continue the behaviors like the one describes. I make myself get up and go get water at least 2 twice a day. I make sure I do one item on my list when I get in. I limit my internet breaks. Have a schedule- not just a list.

    1. TardyTardis*

      One thing I did at old ExJob was taking advantage of being in a building with more than one floor–if I was currently on the ground floor, I would go upstairs for my coffee and water, and if on the second floor (we moved a lot) I would get my water and coffee on the ground floor (the elevator was old, clunky and smelled weird so that helped). I got a lot of stair time when I worked there…

  15. theletter*

    I used to have a daily calendar appointment at 10:15 that was basically “GET TO WORK!”. That gave me at least an hour in the morning to read emails,review reports, do a little internet browsing, consume a warm beverage, and catch up with coworkers.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      Yes! Rituals are key. I used to feel terrible about my slow morning warmups, but honestly my mornings are always bogged down I deal with all the emails that came in since the day before. My compromise is that I try to turn my email notifications off entirely after the “get to work” time and don’t check them again until the afternoon because otherwise they consume the whole day and I don’t get anything else done.

  16. Jimming*

    If you feel isolated in the corner cube, maybe make an effort to take breaks/lunches with your new coworkers to get to know them better. Talking with your coworkers about work (or really, anything) will help you feel like you’re actually out of the toxic environment. That also gives you something to do as you space out your work day – if you know at 3pm you’ll take a short walk with someone you can’t push off all your work toward the end of the day.

  17. Canadian Public Servant*

    It took me a long time to recover/recalibrate from a job that burned me out, so give yourself some time and space to rebuild good work habits and adjust to the lack of constant stress hormones.

    Agreed with all the comments about lists, and building a new routine. I also found it helped me switch mindsets to start doing important things I’d been neglecting – in my case, signing up for training, and (re)building my network. I started making sure I had one or two “coffee dates” a week with new colleagues, to get to know my new company, and reaching out to former bosses and colleagues. I also started physically leaving my desk every day for a walk or to eat lunch (which also gets me away from “all pleasure and entertainment during my day comes from the computer). All of this eventually reset me to a more healthy expectation of what productivity and good time management at work looks and feels like, though I backslide regularly (helloooo, workaholic tendencies!)

  18. hiptobesquared*

    It honestly took me 6 months to get used the new normal – I am finally able to see the point to free time and not just want to hoard it. I still burn myself out occationally but it not anywhere near as bad. I have my summer evenings free for the first time in years and I am excited!

  19. AnonGoodNurse*

    I was in a similar spot two years ago. I think it took me about 3 months to get to where it sounds like you. I spent that first few months in a very confused and burned out state. Then it was like I woke upon one morning and was finally mentally ready to make an adjustment. That said, I still think it took me another year to really get adjusted to the expectations of my new work place. I don’t know that I have any words of wisdom except that it’s a process. Give yourself some time and be open with your boss about how you are dealing with culture shock. If he (she?) is a good manager, you some guidance on how to navigate it.
    FWIW, I just had my second annual review at the new job. It’s the first time I haven’t had extreme anxiety going into it. It just takes time.

  20. MuseumChick*

    It fascinates me how a toxic work place can stay with you for so long after you leave. I quit a toxic job six months ago and still tense up when I hear someone in my new office cough. The head Super Toxic Manager at my old job had a perpetual cough so you could always hear her when she was approaching your desk.

    Others have given some great advice and how to move forward. Make a list and a plan for the day. You are doing to to do A and B in the morning, C after lunch and if you have time D.

  21. cierta*

    Things that sometimes help me

    – External commitments. You don’t have to go all Agile Stand-up every morning, but if I have a gentle chat with a coworker saying ‘today I hope to…’ then I am more in the zone.

    – Music. It might not be your style or work in your office, but I find I can get on gently with things better if I’m listening to music, and in the times when I’d be tempted to click a webbrowser I just listen to the song for 30 seconds and then get back to work

    – Having a feel of which parts of my job I lose myself in flow in, which bits I find hard, which bits I find dull… I find it very easy to procrastinate starting something I think might be hard, even though once I’m doing it I can get very into the flow. So if I spot this and say ‘today I’m going to make a start on X this morning, and so long as I spend 30 minutes on it it’s ok to then do something else’ I will often get into it and do the whole of X, rather than dribbling around the edges and checking the internet a lot.

  22. Karo*

    This is me, but with social media specifically. I recently started using Habitica, which is an app to gamify habits, to break myself of this. I give myself a negative mark every time I visit social media while at work, and a positive mark every time I find myself about to do it but stop before I actually pull it up. It’s made me become much more aware of how much time I was spending on social media, and has made me a more consistent employee.

    I’ve also made it a point to take actual breaks every few hours where I step away from my desk with the express purpose of playing around on my phone for 5-10 minutes. I could just as easily do it from my desk but I think that leads to perception issues – no one else that comes by knows that I’m on a self-designated break.

  23. alwaystheories*

    If you can afford it and it’s accessible to you, I highly recommend therapy. After my own experience of burnout, I had some pretty destructive thought patterns and weird emotional reactions to work. While it wasn’t to the level of clinical depression or needing medication, a few sessions with a therapist to develop constructive ways of managing these reactions was soooooo helpful. Also, it was validating to hear from someone outside of my family/friend network that my last job objectively sucked.

  24. AKchic*


    This was so me nearly 3 years ago. I was so burned out that I dreaded going in to work every day, I was overweight enough that it was affecting my bones (stress fractures), my depression was terrible (granted, I’m bipolar, but that is another story), my insurance was so bad that I couldn’t afford to see a doctor to treat any of the issues the job was causing, and was going further into debt for the other conditions I already had, not to mention supporting four kids and a husband. We were living paycheck to Monday after paycheck at best and hoping we survived until the next payday. For 8 damned years. We lived in a place that should have rightfully been condemned. It was terrible. All because I appreciated the mission of the non-profit I worked for. I was stupid.

    I was offered a cake-walk job at 3x my then-salary with amazing benefits. I planned it all out. I kept it secret. I told absolutely nobody. I did all the testing, the interviews and waited. I knew I could put in my notice, take two weeks off to “clear my head”, and still be fine.

    Reality was much different.
    It took me 3 months before I was finally working in the new job. My notice was 4 weeks, and I still worked after that because not only was my start date delayed, but the old job “needed” me and to be frank – I was desperate not to need to borrow money (again, we were broke and I needed medical insurance). I still took two weeks off, and then when I started the new job, I literally had nothing to do for 3 months. I got paid to sit around knitting/crocheting and bringing in a portable dvd player to sit in a spare office for 8 hours a day. Once a week, I filed for 30 minutes. Once a week, I got to spend 5 minutes making a quick spreadsheet for someone. We finally got me a computer and I got trained up. With my skills and experiences in more hectic/fast paced environments, my actual work only takes 3 hours a day.

    My advice? Schedule it all out. Do your assigned work as it comes in. Don’t leave off the filing for another day. Schedule a specific time every day to do it (last hour? last 30 minutes?). Don’t rush. Be deliberate. You had to work to make those work “skills” of rushing a habit, so now you need to work on making new skills. It will take some time. You may need to take a vacation and decompress and “start over”, and that’s okay too.

  25. Ama*

    I have struggled with this from time to time — I don’t know that I’ve ever reached full burnout, but I’ve had several separate instances where due to my department being shorthanded, I had to work basically two jobs for a period of several months, and when things calmed down I would find myself trying to remember how to structure my day when I wasn’t in crisis mode. For me when nothing is urgent, it becomes very difficult to choose what to prioritize, and when I get overwhelmed about choosing I just end up doing nothing. After a really difficult 2017 (where in addition to being shorthanded at work and then training a new admin for several months, I also had a number of personal calamities wearing me down outside of work), I found myself in the beginning of 2018 having far too many work days where nothing got done — until a project got close enough to deadline that I could push myself into crisis mode again.

    One thing that has helped me is to do a pre-plan at the end of each day. I write down three or four tasks I want to accomplish the following work day (they don’t even have to be big tasks either, I quite often have sending email responses on the list). Then if I get to work and find myself having a “I don’t know what to work on” day, I can always look at my list and make sure those things are done. Usually working through my list kick starts my brain and I can get going on other projects — but if it doesn’t, I have at least accomplished SOMETHING in my day and moved projects forward so I don’t have to go back into crisis mode so often.

  26. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    It took me a year or so to recover from a toxic work environment which was burning me out … (basically the year that our civil service rules make it possible for even the most poisonous of employees to return to their former position).
    I made a point to clear my desk and make it look different. I brought soft and lovely things into my space so that I could remind myself of beauty and peace (where before I didn’t want to relax).

    And I gave myself time to zone out … as long as I was looking at my lists and getting my things done … which took a lot less now that I didn’t have to be paralyzed by the panic of nerves.

    Once there’s a baseline, you can always assign yourself growth and/or distraction projects. I like taking a piece of every week or so to think through a process improvement or filing project or something which gives me control back and also lets me use my energies. And can be my “down time” without actually being “off line.”

    1. LizB*

      I love finding tasks that are “down time,” but are still productive. For me, they tend to be: organizing my desk, filing paperwork, and laminating things — and, extremely specific to my job, refilling small play-doh containers from my large classroom-pack tubs. (I work in childcare.) When I finish them, I’ve been able to decompress a bit, but also a thing got accomplished that needed to get accomplished. Best of both worlds!

  27. Not One of the Bronte Sisters*

    I have been there and I think these are all wonderful, thoughtful suggestions. Two things stand out to me: you are making 25% less and you are no longer working on weekends. So I would suggest that you consider using some of that weekend time to do things in your community that you never had time to do and that don’t cost a lot. What about going to the library and checking out some books or DVD’s? Taking the time to prepare healthy meals for yourself with fresh ingredients? Perhaps visit a museum or art gallery? Some of these things will refresh your body and your soul.

  28. Stixx-and-String*

    I’m sorry you’re having such a tough time! The one time I burned out, I waited too long and ended up in the ER with a bad anxiety attack. I never went back to that job or that industry. Instead I got a retail job, and talked the PT working from home job I already had into giving me more work. Over time, my at-home job has turned full-time, and now I work at home exclusively. It’s difficult, especially the part where I have nobody watching me and can find myself accidentally playing online too long. But I also love the perks of working from home, and I’m much happier than I’ve ever been at any job in my life. I think just making such a drastic change in work type and environment is what did it for me.

  29. Flower*

    I’ve been reflecting recently how I don’t remember what it’s like to not be burnt out (second year PhD program, did the pre-k thru phd route) and I feel this question deeply. Also interested in responses.

  30. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I was just in this situation a couple of years ago. Time is absolutely key and also use this time to readjust. Change your habits now that you have time to focus on that with so much less work holding you down.

    Lists worked well for me. I also dialed into the new position, learning as much as I could about the new company and my new surroundings. A lot of organization of my office and reading old files to feel ‘caught up’ but also being engaged with the company again, after I had to flip my “don’t give a ef” switch at the last place.

    I wasn’t completely out of the fog until a year deep because you’re still learning who you can trust and what your place is, which takes longer than three months!

  31. Snickerdoodle*

    This is so me right now, most people think I’m an overachiever and super on top of my job, but if I’m not under pressure/deadline or have to present and uphold my reputation in a visible way, I find myself lacking in motivation and slow to start. Lists aren’t enough for me, so I have to proactively schedule meetings to review projects I’m working with with my boss (or anyone on the team, really) so that even if they are pretty chill about the timing of projects, I set some rigor for myself. I think a component of it might also be a bit of imposter syndrome mixed with perfectionism – when I have quick deadlines I just have to dive in and get it done, but if they are longer out or more arbitrary deadlines than I spin and get caught up in all the ways I should be doing some perfect, magnificent approach and end up caught up in the idea phase or scrolling the internet instead of making tangible progress.

    1. Yup Burnout*

      Hi, are you me? Especially the difference between other people’s perception and what I actually do. I also have to make myself put things on the calendar in order to get them done before “on-fire deadline” hits. I may not be able to make myself work on X right now, but I can put it on my calendar for 10am tomorrow and then it gets done.

        1. Flower*

          Me too, only my difficulty with these is starting to catch up to me/be noticed by others. I started therapy trying to deal with it, because it’s reached the point that I’ve cried probably 3 of every 4 days in 2019 so far and I beat myself up all the time.

          1. Snickerdoodle*

            Flower, I’ve been contemplating therapy too because I think it’s anxiety related. If I cared less about being perfect/how others saw me than perhaps I wouldn’t fall into these procrastination habits as much. The problem is just exacerbated in my new job because I have so much more time to get things done than in my fast-paced, uber competitive old job. It’s odd how my performance can vary so much by the demands/and people in the job. To relate it back to the OP, proactively setting meetings with my boss so I create my own “mini deadlines”, surrounding myself with go-getters in the office so I have above average norms to align to, and signing up for activities in my personal life like team events or classes that I have to be accountable for has helped me better stay on track and not fall into inactive slumps. Flower and all, I’m rooting for you! Stay strong :)

    2. atgo*

      This, yes. I feel this so much. I used to love big, nebulous problems that I could work through. And over the last years at my job things have been tough and I’ve stepped back to where I really am only excelling with stuff that’s urgent and straightforward. It feels like a demotion of my skills and is contributing to my imposter syndrome. Just recognized this cycle recently, which has been helping.

      I have a daily journaling practice, and in it I’ve been focusing on writing up my skills/strengths/accomplishments regularly to try to build myself back up (since I’m clearly not going to get it from my manager).

    3. booooooop*

      This is so me it’s scary. Setting meetings for projects also helps me because I don’t want to look bad in front of my colleagues, so I’ll actually get work done to prep for the meeting. I struggle with long deadlines because I, too, want it to be the most perfect approach and wind up going in circles instead of just moving it forward.

  32. Alexis Rose*

    Agree with all about considering therapy, and also maybe talking to your doctor about some of the continuing sleep issues and other physical/physiological symptoms. There might be some things that could help that you haven’t considered/didn’t know about. I did both of those things and am now doing much better after my very similar experience.

    I think you’ve done the most important step, which is acknowledge that you’re not completely OK right now. In the midst of a burnout or toxic situation, its easy to get into “survival mode” and just put your head down, get stuff done, and try not to think about it too much. But now, you have space and time and mental energy to tackle this. Be kind to yourself, take care of yourself, seek out whatever external help that you personally are drawn to, and recognize that this will take some time.

  33. Hey Karma, Over here.*

    I am a big fan of Pomodoro, or as I call it, the Karma’s Mom method. “Just spend 10 minutes cleaning up and then stop. Even if you are in the middle. Take a break and do 15 minutes.” Like that thing, if it takes two seconds to do, do it?
    But if you are not finding yourself engaged in the morning, try taking a couple of afternoons off. It’s drastic, but you will train yourself to get the adrenaline going first thing. And then look forward to down time in the afternoon. Or time to work on a fun project that is not critical. Only let yourself work on it when you’ve completed the morning. Even if the morning work isn’t done, work in the morning, fun stuff in the afternoon.

  34. Manders*

    Oh, I needed this!

    Readers, does any of your advice change if a person’s job is reasonable but their personal life caused the burnout? I went through a hellish 4 months (major injury, weird dental issue requiring multiple surgeries, then mom died) and even though I’m 3 months past the worst of it, I’m still struggling to figure out what should feel normal because it’s been a long time since normal was an option.

    I have a lot of great support at work and outside of work, but I specifically took this job because I was looking for a place that would be flexible about remote work while my mom was dying, so I feel like I don’t really have a baseline to return to. I’ve been told I’m doing very well here but I don’t feel like this is my A game.

    1. 8DaysAWeek*

      So sorry for your loss and all that stress. I was/am still kind of in a similar boat. Counseling…I went to a year of weekly counseling sessions. It was so nice to have an objective 3rd party I could bounce my new, weird life off of. I still struggle from time to time because there are no rules to navigate after a personal crisis. But I use the advice of my counselor all the time to keep me on track/sane. Setting small goals for yourself will help and taking one day at a time.

    2. Jay*

      Grief is a whole different level of distress. It’s more than burnout. No matter what the situation and no matter the details of your relationship with your mom, that’s a huge loss. If it was less than a year ago (and it sounds like it was) then you’re still in the thick of the grief. There’s a reason that many human cultures have mourning rituals that last a year.

      I left a toxic, burn-out-inducing job in 2016. My mom died in August of 2017, and in the following year I had major surgery, both my husband and I changed jobs (he retired), my daughter applied to college and graduated HS, and we cleaned out and sold my family home. When we dropped the kid at college in August of 2018, I thought life would be good. Objectively it is good – it’s great – and it’s only now, ten months later, that I am really enjoying it rather than waiting apprehensively for the Next Bad Thing. I’m a hospice/palliative care professional and I didn’t seek out any support for the grief around my mother’s death. I really wish I had, because it bubbled under the surface of everything else and I didn’t really deal with it until a year after she died.

      Be gentle with yourself. Consider seeking out grief counseling or support groups – the local hospice will have programs open to the community if you don’t want to go to faith-based program. I agree with the comments above about regular sleep, exercise, and good nutrition – not a deprivation diet but plenty of fluid and protein and fruits and veggies with dessert (or whatever you love) sprinkled in regularly. I’ve recently realized that keeping my personal spaces organized and nice-looking is a piece of self-care for me and I invested some time and money in that. I love my closet. I love opening my dresser drawers. I have a cute garbage bag in my car so I don’t have trash all over (I work out of my car) and I have a tissue dispenser clipped to the visor so I always have a tissue. Tiny little things that have made a big difference in my day.

    3. Amber Rose*

      3 months is a very short time period to be expecting yourself to be back at your A-game after all that. I lost my mom 8 years ago and I’m still not over it. For now, set your goal for yourself at “meeting expectations” (which it sounds like you’re at) and let yourself stay there while you heal. Then do what you need to do to heal. Maybe therapy. Maybe climbing a mountain. You know best.

      In the meantime, setting down some routines is a good way to establish a normal baseline, as is picking up a hobby or two that you enjoy.

    4. Jenny Next*

      I am so sorry for your loss.

      You have gotten great advice on grief, to which I would only add that it’s very helpful to understand what grief can do to you, mentally and physically. For me, effects included very slow mental processing, brain fog, lots of anger and resentment, loss of meaning in my work, and so forth.

      I’m not the kind of person to do counseling, more’s the pity, but journaling helped a lot; I followed Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” technique, but there are others that are probably equally helpful.

      Your comment that you don’t have a baseline to return to is very perceptive. Losing someone who is that much a part of you changes you. It’s now necessary to create a new baseline — but this can be viewed as an opportunity in its own way, albeit one you didn’t want to have.

      1. Jay*

        So much this. I worked at about 60% for six months after my dad died ten years ago, and that took everything out of me. I came home and barely interacted with my husband or my kid. I was lucky that they let me back off my hours for a while so I could function. It’s also not uncommon for people to have serious physical illnesses in that first year – my mother landed in the hospital twice in the year after my dad died. She hadn’t been hospitalized in over 30 years previously and wasn’t again for the remaining eight years of her life.

    5. cleo*

      I’m so sorry for your loss.

      I think a lot of the recovering from burnout advice applies to your situation, but with added gentleness and self-compassion.

      For me, following my general self-care routine helps during grief and emotional upheaval. As well as being gentle with myself on days when I just couldn’t.

    6. Asenath*

      There’s lots of good advice – I’d reiterate, give yourself time. There’s a reason many cultures have prolonged mourning periods, and many people advise not making major changes for a year. On looking back, I think I was almost sleepwalking through the last days of my mother’s life, and the period right after her death. I had support from my siblings and friends, and I clung to some of my routines to help get through the days. But things got gradually better, as they do for most people. After another death, I went to a public session on grief provided by my local health care group. I decided I didn’t need further counselling, but it was very comforting to hear from an unbiased source, the speaker, that so many things I felt were perfectly normal – and what sort of thing to watch for that might mean I needed more help.

    7. atgo*

      Ohh I feel this comment, too.

      My last 6 months have been a marathon of Difficult Life Stuff (lost a parent in a very complicated way, another parent has cancer, got out of a long term partnership, bought a house, and then some). Just before that, I had taken a 2 month sabbatical in order to deal with some serious burnout from my current job and returned with the understanding that I would be having career conversations with my manager about what I want and how to resolve the issues that lead to my burnout.

      It’s been so hard to figure out how to surf all of this, and whether to try to heal and stick around to keep something stable, or if it’s better to cut and run from the toxic work environment. I can’t figure out my baseline and the burnout is causing a lot of imposter syndrome, and looking back I can’t tell what normal is.

      In my experience with grief, some feelings of disconnection/dissociation are normal, though it can be hard to detangle that from engagement at work (I always feel more competent when I’m engaged). Maybe right now you need more reassurance from colleagues/management than you might otherwise. I wonder if you might be able to structure your checkins or frame your work relationships with that understanding. If not, maybe there are ways (like lists as others have suggested) that will help you see your performance positively, as your coworkers seem to. I’ve been journaling daily for a long time. Lately I’ve been trying to write up my accomplishments and successes every day to ground me. It seems to be helping.

    8. Not So NewReader*

      People have made some very wise comments here, I agree with what folks are saying.
      Fortunately, you don’t have bosses saying your work has taken a hit. This is good to keep in mind, you are still doing okay in your bosses’ eyes. Hang on to that thought.
      It sounds like it could be that YOU are feeling adrift at sea here, with no focus point for your day. Or at least a focus point that matters to you. (Grief can take away our give-a-damn.)
      You may want to consider restructuring your day in some manner. I think you are used to the work being centered around your mom’s needs. Perhaps you would like to join a grief group that meets mid-day so your workday would be centered around going to the grief group.
      OTH, perhaps you get four hours into your day and realize the brain fog has set in and the screen is blur. With something like this going on maybe a good choice would be to go for a walk mid-day. Then come back and work your remaining hours.

      I hope you smile a tad. One thing I did when my give-a-damn got up and left was to tell myself that Future Me will once again start caring and really appreciate not having to clean up Current Me’s neglect. I looked thought about the future where life would settle into a new normal and I tried to do things so that the future would be better even though current time really sucked. In some instances that is the best we can do.

  35. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

    A few ideas:

    – Have a work buddy or friend help you out, whether it’s by giving you reminders, checking in on you, or physically helping you with a task;

    – Have friends and family around you in the off hours to make sure you are not thinking about work but are instead nourishing yourself;

    – Try to do the thing you want to avoid most first thing in the morning;

    – Be really, really nice and compassionate to yourself. Put yourself first as much as possible. You’ve been through a very rough time and will need time to heal. It sounds like your situation has improved a lot, which is wonderful. I hope it continues to get better! Update us if you can, we’d love to hear from you.

  36. Adminx2*

    I know you’re new- but take a real vacation! Reset yourself that it’s ok to take SOME time to plan just for you. Then you come back and can restart a new routine that’s healthy for you. All the other advice on task lists and chunking tasks are great once you come back with fresh eyes.

    1. LilyP*

      Even if you don’t have enough PTO to take time off — set aside a full weekend to do something special just because. Could be going on a short trip or spending a day sightseeing around your town or locking yourself in your house to read three good books and eat nothing but cake. Take some of that free time and breathe!

  37. Penguin*

    If you want more possible approaches to helping your productivity, you might check out the podcast Productivity Alchemy (available via iTunes, Podcast Addict, etc. or simply by adding a .com to the name) by Kevin Sonney. He interviews all SORTS of people including authors, artists, tech folks, students, librarians, and park rangers about how they manage their productivity. Anxiety and other mental illnesses are discussed without shame or stigma.

  38. Officious Intermeddler*

    This was me! Recommend you change your routine as much as you possibly can. I can personally vouch for a few tools that can help:
    – Pomodoro timers (Focus Keeper is a good app for this)
    – Bullet Journaling
    – A living, interactive to-do list (ToDoIst, Asana, Wrike all good)
    – Plan the entire week’s tasks on the Friday before. Schedule them throughout the week. When you’re brave and good at this, tell your boss on Friday and then follow up with things that are and are not done on the following Friday (if appropriate for your workplace).
    – Check in with your boss on a reasonable, but regular, schedule. For me, it’s 5-10 minutes every day. It might be less with you, but make it a part of your routine.
    – Schedule monthly big-picture check-ins for yourself.

    These are just the tools and techniques–the real issue was learning that my workplace was a normal, healthy one that sometimes had lulls, and was rarely on fire or populated by toxic, demanding, and unreasonable people. You have to actually remind yourself of that from time to time by interacting with the good people around you and building your outside interests into things that nourish you.

  39. Kat*

    First off, congratulations on getting out of an unreasonably demanding job! You really deserve to give yourself many pats on the back for that because it’s so easy to get sucked into thinking you’re not good enough for not being able to keep up when the reality is the job is just demanding more than it should from any person. Your physical and mental health is worth so much more than a higher salary so good for you for being able to make that a priority for yourself.

    I have a few suggestions: lists/schedule, breaks, rewards, and filler tasks.

    When I had a job that didn’t take up all my time I stuck to a schedule where first thing in the morning I’d tackle the more tedious/boring tasks that were a regular part of my job that I tended to procrastinate.
    Then I’d make a list of priorities for the rest of the day and I’d make sure I kept the list short so I wasn’t trying to pack too much into a day.
    I’d save the more “fun” tasks for later in the day as my reward for finishing the more boring ones.

    Your reward could be spending 10-15 mins browsing after working for an hour.

    I’d also take breaks away from my desk to stretch my legs, get a coffee, say hi to a few people, etc. Taking a break helps your mind reset and if you have a lot of down time it’s good practice to regularly get up from your desk since I imagine you probably didn’t have time for that at your last job. If you don’t have enough work to fill the whole day then it also helps spread out your work and you’ll probably feel less awkward about stretching your legs/refilling your coffee/water than you do about surfing online.

    If you need help pacing yourself in this new way you can set a quiet alarm on your phone/watch to help chunk out your time too.

    The other thing I’d suggest is to see what kinds of administrative or filler tasks you can do instead of browsing. Things like photocopying, filing, organizing your desk, etc. Eg if you have filing/copying to do you could save it up and do it at one time rather than doing it for each individual file/task you’re working on. I liked saving my copying and filing til I had a bigger pile of it so I could spend 1-2 hours at the copier and the filing cabinets. It got me away from my desk and it was more efficient than making a few copies every time I switched files I was working on.

    If you’ve tried these things and still feel like you need more work, that’s ok too! You can always go to your boss and ask if there’s something you can help with because you feel like you could use more work. Some of us work faster than others and if you’re one of those people that feel best about yourself when you have enough to do, not too much and not too little, it’s ok to try to find other work you can take on or assist with.

    Good luck!

    1. Elle Double-U*

      Ha, thank you! The moment I realized that it wasn’t me, it was the job was…transcendent.

      Your advice is very much in line with the kinds of things I’ve been implementing, which have helped! It was also great when they replaced my desktop computer with a laptop so I could go out and about on campus and work in different locations. Now that the weather’s getting warmer, I’ll need to do that more often.

  40. foolofgrace*

    About the to-do list: I find that it helps me to break down each task into its small, manageable bites. Then it feels more do-able: You can tell yourself that you’ll do items 1 and 2 before rewarding yourself with a break; the tasks seem less onerous; and, my favorite, you can check them off your list as you accomplish them. Often I tell myself I’ll do task-breakouts 1 and 2, and by then I’m in the groove and just keep going. This works for me at home too, like when I have a sink full of dirty dishes — I tell myself I only have to wash some of them, or give myself 10 minutes to work on it.

  41. Secretary*

    Something that works for me: I pretend my day ends at 11am and work on all my work to get it done by then. I reward myself with a break, then I can add work to my plate.

  42. C*

    I’m finding myself in a not-entirely-dissimilar situation, where a big project with lots of fires just finished up and I’m in a bit of a lull period and doing a bit of “now what?” Are there any small projects or cleanups that you can do when you find yourself without immediate tasks? I agree with commenters who have suggested lists and being organized about tackling your tasks, but if you don’t yet have enough tasks to keep you busy or you find yourself just waiting for the next fire, it might be helpful to get through some of the more mundane or grindy-type tasks (even if it’s organizing your inbox or files or whatever).

  43. Uhdrea*

    One thing I found particularly helpful in coping with the residual anxiety that took quite awhile to shake after I left my worst job was the short mindfulness exercises on the Headspace app. They have several specifically for work and productivity that are short as a minute long. They worked as nice little reset buttons that I could easily do at my desk without drawing attention.

    (There are also exercises for many other things — including sleepcasts that have definitely helped me sleep better — that are well worth checking out.)

  44. Lauren19*

    I’ve totally been there! My secret sauce is accountability. Where possible, schedule check-ins with someone else so you’ll have the motivation to give them a great update. These are also good for getting excited about the task again, as someone else is invested in it. This isn’t always possible because you do NOT want to monopolize other people’s time, but where it is possible, it helps.

    1. Kay*

      I do something like this!

      Most of my work usually involves meetings with other people – so I just schedule them in advance so I’ll have to get them done anyways. I always schedule meetings right away as I’ll forget if I don’t.

      For tasks that are individual contributions and not Team effort, I paint myself into a corner / throw my hat over the fence i.e. I commit for certain things delivered at certain time such that I have to do it anyways. I schedule prep time in my calendar and I also schedule review (for that task) with others in the calendar, so I have more accountability.

  45. Crossfunctional*

    I have a few dotted-line managers in my new-ish role, and as a result often don’t have a clear direction for what I should be doing day-to-day. Something that I’ve started doing that I find really helpful is sending all of my managers (together on the same thread) a bi-weekly update on what I’ve accomplished in each of their areas. The work that I do for each of them is often really foreign to the others, so it’s helpful in the sense of giving them a realistic picture of my workload, but I’ve also found that the little bit of pressure to have progress to report keeps me motivated. On the weeks where I’ve had to say “I didn’t get much done in this area,” even though my managers are happy with my performance, I feel a little pressure to achieve more the next time.

  46. Rose's angel*

    I agree with everyone about the importance of lists. Sometimes though a list isnt practical or (for me) its easier to see how many tasks I have to do so I use post it notes. Once Ive done the tast on a particular post it I recycle it and see hiw many I have left. My job is such that I naturally have periods of too much to do with hard deadlines and not enough to do so the post its help me keep on track and space out tasks when necessary.

  47. Lp2*

    This is all great advice. I’m currently working my three month notice period for a job that rapidly turned into a nightmare. I’d developed severe sleep problems and waves of anxiety. This was due to 3 senior members of the team being on mat leave at once ( I’m in the UK so it was a full year). Myself and another team member had to pick up the slack, no viable cover was provided. The stress and pressure was unbearable at times.

    I secured a job at a competitor and quit…my stress levels dropped instantly! I’m finishing off projects and finding myself with more time on my hands but not really sure what to do with it. My new company is known for being more relaxed and focused on quality rather than quantity so I’ll try to use some of these tips in my new role. Thanks!

  48. dumblewald*

    The timing of Alison’s threads continues to be impeccable. I’m currently trying to recover from burnout so I will be tuning in throughout the day ! I fortunately have days off scheduled next week, but I could have used a holiday weeks ago.

    1. I have all the questions*

      I am so glad I’m not the only one that feels this way.

      I put in all my time off at the beginning of the year because I know when I hit my burnout periods throughout the year and this is only my second full year. I’m taking a class now so I can maybe move on before the year is out but then I feel guilty for trying to move on and this post comes out.

      I meet with my therapist about things like this but there is something about seeing other people facing the same issues that make me feel better.

      Good luck, OP! And everyone else!

  49. Susan*

    One thing to remember as well is that at three months in you are still learning new things. Your work load might pick up as you get more into the job. It definitely will be a good idea to practice setting the work/life boundaries now so that you aren’t trying to set them in the midst of juggling more work.

  50. Burnt Out of Love?*

    Related sort of question: Anyone have tips for repairing relationships that have been negatively impacted by burnout?

    I’m thinking of my romantic relationship, which has really suffered due to professional burnout on both sides. I’ve changed jobs and been in therapy and I’m coping much better professionally. My wife is still very much in the midst of her toxic work environment, but is looking to get out too. But I do worry that the strain of prolonged burnout-related neglect has done some permanent damage to our relationship.

    I can see how other kinds of relationships with friends and family could also be negatively affected.

    1. Amber Rose*

      Or with coworkers? I yelled at/insulted a coworker the other day. I’m so burned out and frustrated that my self control on my temper is basically gone. -_-

      I think for personal relationships, if you recognize the damage and talk it out, it doesn’t have to be permanent.

      1. Not Gary, Gareth*

        I would argue the same goes for professional relationships. Not quite in the same way, of course – but having been on the receiving end of burnout-related yelling and insults, I can attest that a sincere apology will go (or in my case, would have gone) a LONG way toward mending fences. Something like, “Hey, I’m really sorry I yelled at you the other day. I’m dealing with some serious frustration and my temper’s been really short. It wasn’t right of me to take it out on you, though. I’m working on it and I’m going to do better in the future. I hope we can move past this and continue to work together comfortably.”

        The best thing you can do for yourself and your coworkers is to address the burnout before it gets any worse. Do your best to repair the damage, and do everything you can not to inflict more. Everyone deserves a workplace where they are neither yelled at, nor feel the need to yell at others.

    2. Rose's angel*

      Talking it out has worked for my husband and i. The two of us are in a toxic environments at our respective jobs. We talk it out and then we have dinner and usually watch episodes of The Great British Baking Show. It helps us unwind and remember us and gets the focus off how stressed we are at work.

    3. Little Pig*

      Maybe this would be a good time to start a new hobby with your wife? Learning to swing-dance or something might be a good way to rebuild your connection in a fresh way, without any connection to former issues.

  51. Punctuality is key*

    I’m in a similar situation although it has been a few years at a more moderate workload now. One thing I would say is get your to-do list done FIRST. Even if you can get your to-do list tasks done by 10, at least they are done for the day. I do this regularly and then the rest of the day I can devote entirely to any customer service or other needs that pop up. If you know a big task will be due in 2-3 weeks, start it now and create your own timeline to get it done. If you have 30 days to turn in the last quarter’s reports, get them done on the first or second day. Ultimately, train yourself to be ahead of the curve not frantically scrambling to get things done. When I browse the internet (and I do), I try to spend some of that time still looking at things that are relevant to the job. News, employment resources or even learn about a new program or feature on excel or something.

  52. Little Pig*

    The internet is so so addicting, especially when you’re using it to distract yourself from unpleasant feelings (and after your last experience, I bet you have some pretty strong emotional reactions to work). I have a similar problem.

    First, I’ve found it super helpful to redefine how I take breaks. Specifically, I tell myself that if I’m going to take a break, it cannot involve the internet. I can go for a walk, make a cup of tea, or sit in my chair and look out the window, but I can’t go online. I’ve found that (1) this allows me to give my brain a rest when I need it, (2) these breaks are super refreshing, and (3) I can only stretch them out so long. Eventually, I get bored and I have to go back to work.

    Second, I cannot – absolutely, with no exceptions – cannot use the computer for anything until I’ve done one hour of work in the morning. One hour is a reasonable ask for my poor brain, and I find that starting the day with good focus and productivity often sets me up to roll through the rest of the day easily.

    1. Rezia*

      “The internet is so so addicting, especially when you’re using it to distract yourself from unpleasant feelings ” — wow, lightbulb moment for me. Thank you!

      1. 404 fox not found*

        Absolutely agreed re that last comment. It’s a thing I wish I’d had spelled out years ago to much younger me!

  53. jonquil*

    I have been in a similar kind of situation– a job where every time someone left (often) my boss would give me that person’s work instead of rehiring. In that kind of situation, where you are set up to fail, it can be easy to start to feel like if you’re failing, it must be because you are a failure. In my experience that results in both self-talk and behaviors that reinforce that (very wrong) idea. Short of therapy, here are some ideas for breaking that cycle:

    If you have negative thoughts about your work and abilities (i.e. “I never finish this kind of assignment on time,” “I always flake on getting back to people about X”), write a positive script for yourself and repeat it when the negative thoughts come up. “I plan ahead so I can complete my assignments on time,” “I get back to people on X requests within an appropriate timeframe,” etc.

    Hopping on the internet instead of doing work could be another way of reinforcing that feeling of being a failure. Similar to the above, when you catch yourself avoiding work, you can use a script to reinforce a more desirable behavior with positive self-talk. “I’m going to make myself proud today by doing X before I take a break,” or whatever feels right.

    Finally, one of the reasons friend of the Ask a Manager podcast Jolie Kerr of Ask a Clean Person recommends making your bed in the morning is so that no matter what happens the rest of the day, you will always have one accomplishment you’re proud of every day. And a made bed can lead to other cleaning– i.e. straightening up the nightstand, throwing socks in the hamper. What is the “making the bed” of your particular work? Can you try to do it every day for a month?

  54. Noah*

    Pomo timer. I am REALLY NOT a pomo timer kind of person. I find them annoying and, actually, pretty distracting. But when I was in a similar situation, I tried one and it really helped. I dumped it as soon as I was used to pacing my day normally. It helped me reset.

  55. Rezia*

    OP, just wanted to let you know you’re not alone. I went through the exact same transition about a year ago, felt a similar frustration about wasting time when I had less work to do, and it’s taken a time to adjust and reform good work/internet habits.
    I hope you recognize this is going to be a process and don’t get too negative on yourself. Experiment with all the ideas thrown out here and see what works for you!

  56. AccountantWendy*

    I use a planner from a company called Ink & Volt. The way they have for organizing your days and weeks we really helpful, and I use their Daily Task Pad too. After trying many things, this is the one that worked for me.

    I also listened to music. That’s not something I had ever done before, but I was in your exact same situation and was getting desperate. Someone (I think her on AAM) suggested I try, and I was surprised how well it worked. If you can wear headphones at your job, I would give this a shot, even if you aren’t normally the type to listen to music during the workday.

    Don’t discount therapy. Short-term therapy helped me out a ton in the last few months of toxic job and burn out and you might find that discussing the new challenges with a therapist can be helpful. My primary care office was able to connect me to an in-house provider because when you’re tired and burned out, finding a therapist is often more of a challenge then actually seeing one, so your PCP may have resources for you.

    Good luck!

  57. NoLongerBurning*

    I only spent 11 months in a job that left me with pretty bad burnout…. But what helped me the most was figuring out (at the end of that job and in prep for a new one) what my career values and goals were, so that I could spend time at work and on side projects (in preparation for feeling bored) that helped me move toward those goals and satisfy those values.

    I tried hard to identify:
    What would make me excited about going into work?
    What helps me feel validated or appreciated at work?
    What is my working style, when it comes to working with people?

    And I also (not a podcast person) listened to a bunch of podcasts that opened up new perspectives for thinking about the issue as well for me. Both of these episodes helped me consider how I could transform my job from within into something more enjoyable:
    You 2.0: Dream Jobs
    Finding a new job may be the solution to your woes at work. But there may also be other ways to get more out of your daily grind. This week, we talk with psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski of Yale University about how we can find meaning and purpose in our jobs.
    You 2.0: How To Build A Better Job
    Finding a new job may be the solution to your woes at work. But there may also be other ways to get more out of your daily grind.

    And separate from work I defined my personal values by doing a card sort exercise similar to this: and that helped me think of what I could be doing outside of work to be fulfilled, useful when all of a sudden I had way more free time!

  58. Jaybeetee*

    Are podcasts feasible at your job? I’ve come out of a different high-stress situation, and between that and ADHD, motivation can be tough. If I’m doing more tedious tasks that don’t require a ton of reading or focus, I listen to podcasts while I work. That way I’m still doing the “entertainment/information junky” thing, but also getting things done at the same time. For me at least, it seems to hit a lot of the same buttons as surfing the internet, but in a format that motivates me to work at the same time (as I can’t read websites while listening, so I may as well get to these clerical tasks I need to do…)

  59. TiffRaff*

    I was in this exact same position. I had a fulfilling life outside of work, but still wound up staring at my computer and feeling really disassociated in my new role because it was just so different than the place I came from. What wound up snapping me out of it was taking on a stretch project that I was also personally really excited/passionate about. It reconnected me with my sense of purpose, drive, and skills – those same traits that allowed me to function well in draining environments with high workloads – only I was applying them in a healthier way.

    Long story short, I reconnected with myself and rocked the heck out of that project. Four promotions later I’m now in senior leadership in my organization – which was not a track my original position would have led to – and I honestly credit that project and being able to harness the skills and work ethic I learned in crisis-burnout mode for helping me get here. You’re a badass for having made it through that, and you’ll find a way to get back to yourself. Some of it takes time, and some of it is just finding that thing that makes you speed walk to your desk in the morning. You got this!

    1. Lucette Kensack*

      Yes, I was going to say exactly this.

      What has worked for me, aside from basic self care, is to consciously choose something to reinvest myself in at work. A new project, something I’d been wanting to do but didn’t have the bandwidth for, a goal that I can work toward, etc. The idea is to have something that gets your mind engaged and excited about work; something about that kind of engagement trickles over to the day-to-day stuff, too.

      1. Lucette Kensack*

        I should add that I came through a very similar situation: a crazy-making job (literally crazy-making; I had a breakdown close to the end of my time there), took a big pay cut (40%, ouch), and landed in a good job with way more open time than I knew what to do with.

        An important point (for my situation, although perhaps not yours): my new job wasn’t actually easier. I didn’t really have less to do; it was just a different culture, with a different time horizon. I wasn’t running down projects that had to be finished yesterday; I was working on projects that we would spend two years building toward, and at first I didn’t know what to do with that. Learning to think and plan for the medium- or long-term was a skill that I had to develop, and I chose a forward-focused project to engage in.

  60. Quinalla*

    Having a loose routine to my day helps with this a lot and making sure there are planned short breaks in it where I will read one or two website blog posts, etc. and then get back to work. If I plan the breaks and make a conscious choice I am much less likely to get sucked into the internet rabbit hole. I do weekly planning and make lists in one note (I use GTD myself, but that’s overkill for many folks) so I always have a nice backlog of things I could be working on.

    Also, sometimes I just need to push myself a little or offer to help someone and other times when I start getting too busy (not your problem yet, but could be) saying no more and asking for help. It’s honestly a pretty fine line sometimes between bored and unchallenged and overwhelmed, the sweet spot can be hard to hit! Also, when work is slower, I will try to catch up on personal things because when work is busy again, I know I’ll slack off in my personal life. So maybe add some personal to-dos – call your doctor for an appointment, run an errand that isn’t urgent but you’d like to get done, etc. This doesn’t work for everyone, but if it will work at your place, I recommend it. Then you can get your days more comfortably full.

    Is there a project you can tackle at work that isn’t urgent, but that you could work on an hour or two here and there to help fill you work days a bit? Something like that might help too!

    I will also say that only 3 months in, you may just not be at job saturation quite yet. For me, it has taken 5-6 months to get back to it when coming back from maternity leave and when I switched jobs about 5 years ago. Really depends on your workflow, but that’s been my experience.

    And I do think changing your framing of the situation will help too. Instead of putting out fires 24/7, you are now preventing or pre-mitigating those fires before they start. It’s actually a much healthier way to work and better for your clients/team/etc. If you can change the way you look at it, it may be easier to get motivated on things that aren’t OMG URGENT. Same with setting your own internal deadlines for smaller chunks of your work. Helps you reframe it.

  61. JessicaTate*

    When I’ve shifted from periods of high-intensity, multiple deadlines crashing down, working as quickly as possible because there’s NEVER ENOUGH TIME [Jessie Spano moments]… into more normally paced periods, making the shift in working style has been challenging. It’s not necessarily tied to burnout for everyone, just that these periods require different ways of working. Like you, when I enter the “normal zone,” I have been prone to procrastination followed by rushed work. I know some people say, “I can only do good work if I’m under pressure.” And I promise you, that is BS people tell themselves for all sorts of reasons.

    My best advice is really explicitly reframing the work context, and see it as an opportunity. So, in Intense Work Zone, I have to move quickly and get things done as quickly as possible, and that sometimes means acceptable, but less-than-stellar work. In Normal Zone, I have the opportunity to take the time needed to feel great about what I’ve created. Step 1 is: I should tackle each thing that needs done as soon as I have space in my schedule after it arrives (so, maybe right away). Step 2 is: I should enjoy being careful, thoughtful, and intentional about the work. I can take longer now! If it would help to do some reading or research to find a better way to do X, I can do it! You never would have been able to invest that time in Intense Work Zone; but you can in Normal Zone! Try to think of it as a perk, rather than an odd foreign custom.

    And sometimes, when I’ve been in Intense Zone for a while, I start to think that there’s something shameful in addressing work promptly when it comes in… like it signals that you’re not busy enough, because your culturea has been that we should be SO BUSY all the time. Unless you have evidence that IS the culture in your new place, try to beat down that reaction as ridiculous. Most co-workers are pleased to have prompt attention, and think you’re a super-star for it. (And when you are in a weird environment where that is actually the perception of others, the “Delay Delivery” function in Outlook is fantastic.)

    Good luck!

  62. CAA*

    You may be addicted to the adrenaline rush and the feeling of achievement you got by working under pressure and multi-tasking, so now you’re artificially recreating that by doing all your work at the end of the day. I also had a hard time with this when I switched from a crazy environment to a more sane one, and it took me a while to figure out what I was missing. There’s no instant cure, but just recognizing the problem and making a decision to deal with it did help somewhat because then I knew when I was backsliding.

    My main problem was too much multi-tasking, starting one thing and then jumping on the new more shiny thing before the other thing was done; so I made myself a rule that I had to focus on one thing for at least 30 minutes before I could even think about anything else. I used to be the person who had a kind of hyper-focus and would get so deeply immersed in a project that I’d forget to stop and eat, so it was shocking to realize how hard it had become to stick with something for even a half-hour. Anyway, it didn’t really take long to get those old skills back, maybe two weeks, then I kept following the rule for another month or so, and then I didn’t need it any more. Your rule might be something like making a to-do list first thing in the morning and dividing it into sections for before lunch, before the afternoon meeting, or whatever would help to spread the work throughout your day.

    Good luck with whatever you decide to try!

    1. CAA*

      I forgot to add: OP – if you are a woman, I recommend the new book: “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” by by Emily Nagoski PhD and Amelia Nagoski DMA. I’m finding it fascinating and it’s making me think about some things that I’ve gone through in new ways. I don’t agree with them on everything, but mostly it’s a great book and definitely worth reading.

  63. Elle Double-U*

    Hello, all! LW here. Thanks for all of the great advice — I haven’t had a chance to read everything yet, so I’ll be back.

    I sent in this letter in late January, so time has obviously passed, and things have improved quite a bit since then. The biggest thing was realizing that it was OK to take time and space to adjust. Intellectually, I knew that I couldn’t just go from one job to the other *likethat*, but the perfectionist in me was like, this is what you wanted! Why aren’t you thriving already?! So allowing myself to be a human being and, for lack of a better word, FORGIVING myself for it made a big difference.

    It also didn’t help that my job change happened just when Daylight Saving Time ended, so everything was new *and* it was dark super early? Blah. So I turned to a certain British reality show (involving cakes and puddings and such) and pulled out some puzzles and coloring books to keep myself occupied at home. That definitely helped, and now that the time has changed again and the weather is warming up, I’m getting out more in the evenings after work, on my own or with friends.

    Since writing the letter, I went back to a method on the job that worked for me in high school, where I’d say — for example — that from 10-11 a.m. that I’d work on teapot cataloging and then take a break at exactly 11 even if I wasn’t in a good place to stop. I also broke down bigger long-term tasks into small things that I could do in 15-20 minutes, so I’d get the project going in a way that didn’t feel too high-pressure. I also took the opportunity with the extra time to read up on and get some training on the new parts of this gig that I’m really excited about, which helped in terms of motivation.

    It’s still not all rainbows and puppy dogs, but it’s getting there. Now that I’ve seemed to accept that I’m a human being and not a machine, shifting that mindset was the biggest step. Thanks to AAM for publishing my letter!

  64. Daphne Castle*

    I’m in the process of recovering from burnout. I left close to the holidays, so I took that time off. I’ve been working sporadically, basically freelancing, and it took me a while to get to a place where I can say that I’m okay, but I’m here now. Here’s what I’ve found to really help me:

    -Taking the time to retrain your brain that this is the new normal. It is going to feel weird. I went from working long hours and even on weekends to basically just working when there’s work. It’s taken a while (it’s been five months since I left the old place) for me to get used to the new pace. I mourned what I lost, I did, because I was there a while and I loved my old workplace.

    -Investing in myself. During the holidays, I took an online course. I’m also in the middle of this leadership program. There is a lot of self-confrontation and honesty and vulnerability involved, all that Brene Brown stuff. For me, it helped me get to the root of some things, including why I procrastinate. It sounds new age-y and touchy-feely but it has helped me see myself in a different way, realize that I could change my own story (which is not as easy as it sounds when you’ve learned to feel a certain way about yourself), and link me up with people who are on a similar journey to work on themselves. I gained a support group.

    If you need to get therapy, do. For me, investing in myself was about learning how to cultivate self-compassion and now resilience. These are not skills that are easy to teach, learn, or apply. But I’ve learned to take things day by day and to be more responsible for myself.

    -Committing to creating a distraction-free zone. I know I work best with a certain playlist. Things that could take me all day, I can knock out in an hour or two (or three) with that playlist, so I listen to it. I also stop myself when I engage in counterproductive behavior (I have a timer that blocks certain apps in my phone so I can stay on task and sometimes I just pause for a bit and then go back).

    -Spending time with the people closest to me–family and friends both. Burnout has not just been a test for me, in a way it was also a test for the people around me. The people who stuck with me through the burnout and all it entailed are the people I spend more time with. I realized that when I was going through the worst of it, I was taking a lot of those relationships for granted.

    -Do one thing that’s for you that you don’t need to be an expert in. I find that it frees you from judgment, both from yourself and other people. I started working out twice a week recently and it’s really helped me get into a more positive frame of mind.

    -Get organized. Lists help. I Konmari’d my stuff at the beginning of the year. It’s true what they say that sometimes the outside reflects what’s really going on inside.

    -Knowing that some days will be bad days and it will be okay. Being able to sit with myself and think, man, that day was not as good I wanted to be, and knowing that I can make new choices, better choices, in the next hour, day, week, month, was helpful.

  65. Anax*

    Ancillary question: Folks, does your advice change when the cause of burnout wasn’t work?
    I burned out hard about two years ago, largely because I was taking on a really tough non-work task, and it affected both my work and my personal life pretty strongly. Because my situation didn’t involve a toxic work environment, I’m not sure whether that changes the tactics I should take to claw back from burnout.

    (Tl;dr, I was unofficially “foster parenting” a traumatized queer kid, through some major drama with his parents. Emergency situation; I ended up having to ask him to find somewhere else to be after about nine months because the burnout was hitting me really hard, and he needed both more support and more of a parent than I could provide. He’s doing well now.)

    (It does not help that literally all I have to do right now is ‘reading a boring technical manual’, I’m dying. @_@ My manager is trying to get me more to do; I’m two months into the job and still learning, and the other tasks I have are waiting on other folks’ feedback or availability.)

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Grief is not just for funerals. Sometimes we grieve and everyone in the story still remains alive. You may benefit from learning about the grieving process, the stages and symptoms of grief and all the various things we grieve.

      I am not sure how long ago your immediate pressing story ended, you say you burned out two years ago. I assume the story ended two years ago, but I could guess wrong here. If you had physical, financial, or psychological injury you may benefit from counseling to talk about it.

      That does not help you get through your workday this week, though.
      Decide how long you will put up with the boss’ excuse of looking for things for you to do. These scenarios always make me wonder why they hired a new person.

      Next, look around and see if there is a project you can take on. This would be something that is not necessary right now but helpful to the process in the long run. This might look like organizing a file drawer that makes everyone cringe or creating a spread sheet that some find helpful. Talk your idea over with your boss before starting. He may suddenly think of something that makes your project more relevant and you end up making a super-good impression. As you go along, you may be able to work into conversation, “Boss, I really cannot read manuals all the time. I have to have something to do.” GOOD bosses do not mind if their employee pushes for more work to do.

      Okay so let’s say you can’t think of anything to do. Find one cohort you respect and who you KNOW will answer you in a respectful manner and ask them if they have a non-urgent project on the back burner that you could do. Anyone who has been at their place for any length of time usually knows where those projects are hidden.

      FWIW, my friend also has a sad story about a foster. It’s been years and she still thinks of her kid. Well, the kid is an adult now. Unfortunately, it is not wise for her to be in contact with her person. So the story ends there. No relationship is without some level of risk. If we don’t put ourselves out there we never get hurt. As part of your review of this whole experience you might want to think about what you will do next in light of what you learned here. In other words, find new ways of putting yourself out there where you can have a positive impact and feel positive about the experience. It’s in the moving forward that we can sometimes reframe the past and allow our tired minds some rest from the past.

      I know a bit about what my friend’s road was like. I am very sorry for your sad experience here.

    2. Jennifer @unchartedworlds*

      @ Anax – thanks for being there for that young person. It’s really hard being the champion of someone in that kind of position, I’m not surprised you were burnt out after a while, but I hope you can appreciate the difference you made in that time.

  66. Eukomos*

    Related question: after you leave the crazy job, how long does it take to recover from burnout? I’m almost done with grad school and very much looking forward to getting a job with a normal workload, but I’ve heard horror stories about people struggling to focus on anything for months after graduating. Which is just great, given that you need to find a job and publish articles and such at that point.

    1. Cedrus Libani*

      Depends. It took me ten months before I could look at my thesis work without crying. I couldn’t exactly give a job talk in that state, so I couldn’t apply for work in my field. But I was burnt to a cinder. I did get it back together, and I’m fine now.

        1. Cedrus Libani*

          I graduated at the end of 2016. I started applying for real jobs in November of the next year, interviewed at a few places in December, and started my current job in January 2018. Fortunately, I am in a high demand field, and I’d worked before grad school, so I had both the financial reserves and the references to get away with basically taking a year off.

          (If you ask me, I disproved a key result from my advisor’s earlier work. If you ask him, I can’t even handle basic results from the literature. Trying to convince him…it was like Groundhog Day, but with differential equations. My PhD was a little rough.)

  67. Slovenly Braid Cultist*

    I had a period of bad burnout followed by an internal move, and it messed with my head a bit because I know for a fact I’m getting less done on a day to day basis- and I’m still around the same people so it must be obvious.

    What helps me is remembering that I’m doing better work, more interesting and skilled work, and that what I did before was not sustainable. This, at least hopefully, is, and that should make it worth while.

  68. happymeal*

    Am I now writing letters to AAM in my sleep??? I am living OP’s scenario and I’m thankful for all your guidance.

  69. MH*

    Burnout often leads to the unholy trinity: stress, anxiety, and depression, and you’ll need treatment for them: meds, supplements, rest, therapy, exercise, a good diet, a support network, and patience. You can’t undo the causes and resulting symptoms of burnout overnight; be kind to, and take care of yourself.

    Read the book Play it away, it’s wonderful.

  70. AnotherSarah*

    I would like to suggest the recently-released book Burnout by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski. I’m reading it now, as I am also trying to re-calibrate my attitude towards work and life, and finding it helpful and well-researched. It is SO HARD to slow down. One thing I find helpful is to limit scrolling–I spend a decent amount of time reading online, but scrolling is something else, and I think it’s a bit exhausting for me. Is there a way to choose a few things to read, and read them in designated breaks? That’s helping me a lot.

  71. Micklak*

    LW, I think you’ve already done some of the hardest work, which is identifying the burnout and finding a new job. I was burned out for months without realizing it. I just thought life was getting a little harder and I was in a bad mood and making more mistakes. Even after some changes were made and I wasn’t working so much, I didn’t really bounce back like I thought I would. Without the constant urgency to run from one thing to another I couldn’t motivate myself to get things done. It took me months to start to function normally again and it wasn’t until I finally changed jobs that I started to recover from some of the shell shock.

    The way I was able to recalibrate and be productive again was to go back to really basic time management skills I learned in college. I would write a list of things to do, prioritize them and then start with the most important one. I would block out time on my calendar to work on specific tasks and track deadlines. It took a while to develop good work habits again.

  72. J.J.M.*

    I had a job I excelled at and loved until it became a mess after my (amazing) boss left. I ended up doing the work of multiple people for a sustained period of time, worked a ridiculous number of hours and had no personal life, and found myself putting out fires constantly as I ended up unofficially supervising and delegating the work of the entire team (including my new boss, who could not figure out what he was supposed to be doing each day unless I told him), because my grand-boss was miserably failing at managing us. It was terrible and stressful even though I got everything done.

    I left it for a job that paid the same amount and nothing there is as urgent or stressful, which were the pluses, but a lot of the position was still to be developed. Two years later my micro-managing non-delegating boss has not handed over much of the work we had agreed I’d take on, so I blow through the few things on my plate and end up with down time. I’m overqualified for the small amount of responsibility I have, and nobody seems to care that I don’t have much to do. It’s not the best role for me, but I haven’t found a new job yet that pays as well. I feel like I have a lot in common here with the original poster in terms of how I handle that down time sometimes.

    Here’s what I do that helps: I had to identify bad habits and break them. I mess around with my free time, but I get all my other work done first so I know for certain I’m not going to mess up and leave something out. I also took the time to re-examine my former role and what I did miss out on because I worked very fast and efficiently and constantly put out other people’s fires – one of those things is that I didn’t get to be very creative. I was always praised for my work and reliability, but I could never afford to take the time to be super thoughtful like a lot of my colleagues were about their own work, which I was actually jealous of at the time. I also saw how having great, trusting, collaborative relationships with colleagues and contacts served my work better, but I didn’t have the time to put into building those stronger connections, even though I really looked up to others who did. I also noticed that a lot of that praise I got was based on my ability to work fast and meet deadlines while managing more than anyone expected of me. But that’s not what I want to be known for! And that’s not what I want to project about myself, because I don’t want those skills to get me other jobs where I’m again managing that level of stress and putting in that many hours. So although I complete my current work very quickly, I have to force myself to slow down sometimes, so I’m hitting those areas I used to miss out on by being too busy. When I have down time I take some time to think about what I want to be recognized for, and figure out how to shine in those ways, or how to get those skills if I don’t already excel at them. I’ve also found that I need to get a little bored in order to think hard and get super passionate about stuff. So when I find myself browsing stuff online during work hours that I don’t really care about, I force myself to take a break and go for a walk to grab coffee to break it up and re-set, and spend it focusing on one thing. Or look up some kind of professional development opportunity I might like. Because why waste that valuable time?

    I don’t know if any of that makes sense or helps, but I’ve found it helps a lot to think about your next job after this, or the way you want to work and what you want to be good at and start being that worker now. If you want to be appreciated for inconsistent use of time yet performing well under pressure and close deadlines, OK. But that will just get you more of that kind of work. Is that what you want? Is there something else you want that you’re missing now? Take your free time and get it.

  73. Disconnected*

    Oh boy. I have those feels. For me it was switching between roles as I temporarily took over a night shift TL role part time until 9pm (getting home at about 10:30) and kept my 7am start for the other two non consecutive days (leaving home about 6am).

    So it sounds like your energy levels are approaching normal but if you’re still feeling a little draggy I’d suggest taking up the habit of napping for at least an hour or two when you get home from work and see if that perks things up a little. The only other thing I can think of is get busy. I’d start with making to do lists and see if you can fill up your day that way leaving some time for minor emergencies if that’s a thing in your job or “I need a cup of tea” breaks. If you’re coming up with something like half a day of tasks talk to your manager and say that you appreciate her dialing back on your old workload but ask for one or two extra tasks if they’re available and go from there.

  74. NextSteps*

    Cheering you on, OP. I’m recovering from a difficult departure from my last job. It might sound crazy making to add more to your day, not less, but the way I’m recovering is getting back in touch with other sources of identity, not just my professional identity and work. For example, I enjoy going to a language exchange Meetup.

  75. The Analyst formerly known as Burntout*

    This letter really resonated with me, and I’ve found some amazing advice in the comments here – change something, change everything being the biggest – I’m moving around my desk layout today so that I can come in fresh on Monday to an updated physical space and hopefully headspace.
    I’ve coped recently with a very similar situation by focusing on setting myself up for success later, which is something I never had time to do in my old job. For example, I determined which reports I might have to provide most frequently and spent a HUGE chunk of my recent downtime creating/recreating these reports to be as efficient as possible (creating templates, Excel macros, etc). I’m still paranoid about the eventual future where I’m swamped and won’t have time to fiddle with things or re-learn something. The great upside of this is that I’ve learned new skills (macros!) and created some beautiful templates that are hopefully also going to save my co-workers time in the future. I derive a huge sense of satisfaction from making processes more efficient and sharing the things I’ve learned with co-workers, and I think (hope!) it’s shown that I can use my downtime efficiently. This makes me feel much less guilty when I spend too much time on Buzzfeed or spend an hour talking to my office-mate about comic books.

  76. moneypenny*

    This happens in small steps, first with to do lists and making connections at work (instead of sitting in your cube), then with eventually figuring out what kind of load is challenging but still comfortable. If your bosses are going too easy on you, ask for more work. If you’re procrastinating, make a to-do list before you leave at night and structure your days evenly and effectively.

    The larger challenge is overcoming a toxic environment for a solid, hopefully good one. I left a verbally abusive boss after a year and when I moved onto the next job, found myself walking around braced for a blowup that never came. The stress was so much worse in my head than it was in the room, and once I got hold of that, I was in a far more receptive place to see where I was and work with it. It was a real relief, I hope you can get there too.

  77. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    What I have done in situations like that – the previous evening, I make a list of things —

    – at the top are little easy tasks that need to be done and I know I can get through them quickly
    – next, top priority items – two or three
    – next, low priority ones
    – next – things that can wait
    … and attack the list.

    Examples –

    – complete expense report from trip to New York
    – note to boss on upcoming vacation
    – tell partner about upcoming vacation
    – make dentist appointment
    (short tasks get them out of the way)

    – call customer A about his problem; want to talk about defects in his chocolate teapot (big)
    – begin outline on training course
    – write proposals
    (big stuff, high and medium priority)

    – new problem opened today, customer B – send e-mail, plan discussion
    – have talk with manager in other group about the project that will start next month
    – introductory calls to two new customers
    (this stuff can wait if need be)

  78. M*

    I’ll be the first to admit that when i’m in a work lull i’ll fall into internet browsing, current event reading, maybe even a quick round of a game on my phone if im stressed.

    But, one thing I try to do if I think I’ll have really large chunks without work is see what’s live on CreativeLive or do a quick Facebook Blueprint course or work on Hubspot courses. This way, if anyone comes up and is concerned as to why im not “working” I can easily and truthfully say I’m working on improving skills for this job that I could use an update or refresher in, or that im learning a completely new skill to better my effectiveness in the role.

  79. P. McKenna*

    I find making myself a list works well. Since you are out of practice with pacing yourself and working at a reasonable pace, put time-frames on your list too. It will help you to envision when work should be done and give your mind time to realize that you’re not being time-crunched to death.

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