Phantom Burnout

Most of know what burnout looks like.

We know it’s coming when we feel frazzled and over-worked. We imagine it’s brought on by 80-plus hour work weeks while we try to chase the carrot: impress the boss, get that promotion, hit a sales goals, hit a deadline, etc. “Maybe if I work out 3 times a week and do a yoga session on Sunday that’ll keep me balanced”, we think to ourselves. But we don’t do those things, do we? Even if we did, it wouldn’t matter. The type of burnout that comes from over-working yourself – an overall lack of balance in your life – seems unavoidable.

And then for some reason we think the solution is a week or two on a sunny beach to “recharge the batteries.”

Rinse and repeat.

It’s not as if that narrative of burnout doesn’t exist – it does, and it’s no fun.

But there’s another type of burnout that’s much harder to see coming. It’s more subtle, but just as demoralizing. It’s not brought on by a crazy work schedule, not enough yoga, sleep, fun or exercise. It just shows up one day, unannounced. This is what I call phantom burnout.

The symptoms of phantom burnout are the same as normal burnout.

Tinkering. Lack of focus. Epic procrastination. Lack of any routine whatsoever. A sense of futility in the work you’re doing. Feeling worn down and tired. Being frequently and easily distracted. Being completely conscious of the fact that you’re creating distractions for yourself, and continuing to do it anyway.

One day you’re doing your thing, and the next, boom, you’re less useful than a bucket of broken dildos.

Once phantom burnout rears it’s ugly head, it’ll probably be a couple of weeks before you have that “Oh. Well…fuck.” conversation with yourself. But once you realize it’s here, and it’s been crashing on your couch for a few weeks, nip that shit in the bud.

I wish I could tell you what to do next. Here’s some really cliché and possibly extremely marginally useful advice: just be honest with yourself.

What’s plaguing your sub-conscious? Maybe you’re over-extended, over-committed, over-something, at least. Or maybe not. Maybe you’re under-something. Under-inspired, under-exercised, under-challenged. Whatever it is, something’s off, and it’s up to you to suss out what it is.

I really wish I could wrap up this post by putting a nice lil’ bow on the whole thing and offer up some super-helpful holier-than-thou internet advice. Really, I’d love to do that. But I can’t. Because I don’t have the answer. My only advice is to recognize phantom burnout when it happens, and make some changes.

Thanks to Danny Sauter and Jeff Morris for reading drafts of this post.