BY KATHRYN PETERSON, PHD
Every day it’s the same. You wake up with the same heavy feeling, the same dullness and fatigue. Every day, you think about doing academic work, but you just don’t have the energy. You know you need to work, and you’re even falling behind, but you just can’t seem to do it. If you think about it, there’s not much else you want to do either. Even some of the activities you normally enjoy have lost their appeal. You wonder what is happening. And what’s worse, you also feel a bit anxious – because your deadline is really, really close.
If you’re feeling this way, it is possible that you might be depressed. Certainly, some of these experiences may overlap with depression. But if you feel it’s more tied to your academic work, then you may be experiencing burnout. Burnout doesn’t care if your deadlines are close, or your professors are scheduling meetings. Burnout can happen at any time to anyone, and it is all too common in academia.
Why? Because academia is the exact environment where burnout thrives. It’s an environment with almost constant pressure and stress and little immediate reward. There is little praise, and good work often goes unnoticed and unrewarded. In the academy, the general reward for a job well done is just to keep going. So, doing good work just gets you more work, with little, if any, compensation.
With all of these systemic conditions, it’s no wonder that burnout is rampant. When deadlines are tight, it feels like an impossible situation. You’re burned out, but you don’t have time to deal with it. Or do you? There may be ways to work through the feelings, even if your deadline is really tight.
Analyze the Situation
First, take a moment to think. Is this more of a short-term issue with a crunch or has this been going on for a long time? If it’s more short-term, then you might be more stressed than burned out. The two may seem similar, but they are surprisingly different. According to Bryan E. Robinson, “Under stress, you still struggle to cope with pressures. But once burnout takes hold, you’re out of gas and you’ve given up all hope of surmounting your obstacles.” Either way, it may make sense to pause for a moment and think about what you are facing. Are you working under a hard deadline that is not allowing you to do much else? Is your deadline far enough off that you could stop working for a few days and focus on taking care of yourself?
If you are burned out and your deadline is very close, you may have to renegotiate – either the deadline or the expectations, or both. You may need to ask for an extension from your graduate adviser or shuffle your schedule to make more time for the work and breaks from the work. If there is no wiggle room for any of this, then you might need to rethink your own expectations and accept that what you turn in may not be what you wanted to turn in, and in the case of long-term projects, that’s often okay. Long-term projects are iterative in nature and usually give you a chance to redo something that you’re not satisfied with. Even if it’s the final draft, though, you still may have to make some compromises. You may need to focus on giving a minimal viable product so that you can meet your deadlines and move on.
Take Time Off
Yes, it’s counterintuitive, but it’s still important. Even if you are very close to a deadline, you can still take some time off. If your deadline is within the next 24-48 hours, that time might be 1-2 hours, whereas if it’s in the next two weeks, you might be able to take a weekend or a day off, depending on how much you need to work. But do prioritize some time away from the project. If your deadline is further out than two weeks, strongly consider taking at least three full consecutive days off from everything. If it’s longer than a month out, you may even want to take more time than that. If you are really burned out, you will likely need some time to recover.
Again, this may seem counterintuitive when you are working towards a deadline, and you may feel like you need to be working every single minute. But the reality is that you can’t work every single minute, even if you want to. In fact, when you are stressed, tired, and burned out, you are actually less likely to be productive, and you’re certainly not going to be efficient. Make sure you are sleeping when you can, even if you are in crunch time, and make sure to consider nutrition and exercise. Are there quick, healthy one-pot meals you can make? Can you get nutritious take-out? Can you fit in 20 minutes of physical activity for every two or three hours of academic work?
Sprinkle Little Moments of Joy into Every Day
– even if you must create them yourself. What do you enjoy? What do you look forward to? Is there a way to get micro-moments of joy into your life? Maybe it’s playing with a child or a beloved pet, or reconnecting with a friend over a basketball game or a quick coffee. Maybe it’s using your favorite shampoo and just letting it soak into your hair. Maybe it’s watching a short comedy segment and having a good laugh. If possible, incorporate moments where you can take a mental and physical break and actually enjoy yourself, as opposed to spending your few moments away from the task doing other kinds of work, like household chores or errands (although those need to be done too, of course).
Spend Time in Nature
According to Chester Avey, “nature is a surprisingly effective tool” for stress management and avoiding the malaise of burnout. Avey cites research findings “that people who spend time in nature regularly have optimal nervous system functions and also benefit from a reduced risk of heart conditions.” Even if you can’t go for a walk in the woods or sink your toes into the sand, if you can step into the sunlight for a few minutes, or feel the breeze on your skin, that can still help. If you can work outside even for a little bit, that can be rejuvenating. We are carbon-based creatures who draw our oxygen from our surroundings, from the trees and green spaces around us. Step into those green spaces wherever and whenever you can. Or go to the water’s edge. Go to that creek or the quad on your campus. Just. get. outside.
Make a List of Things You are Going to Do When You Do Have Time to Rest and Recover
If you are really in a crunch and can’t do any of the above, something you can do is make a “when I ___, I will ___” list. For example, “When I submit this chapter of my dissertation, I will go on a hike in the mountains”; “When I submit this draft of my book proposal, I will take a short trip with my partner to the beach”; When I finish this conference paper, I will make plans to meet a good friend in the conference city”; or “When I finish my entire manuscript, I will take a week off completely and do nothing but watch Korean dramas” (okay, that last one was me). The idea is that if your deadline is within 24-48 hours and you feel like you can’t take much of a pause, if any, you can at least take 10–15-minute breaks, during which you can plan things to do to look forward to. Sometimes even the idea of time off is enough to sustain us through a project until we can take the time off.
Recognize What You Can Control and What You Can’t
Not all of what you are going through is under your control, and if you’re behind, you may not even be at fault. Don’t blame yourself for missing deadlines that were unrealistic in the first place, or for being inadequately funded to the point where you must juggle your academic work with a part- or even full-time job. The academy is built from the monastic tradition, which is a very different structural context from where we are now. Some problems are systemic, and you do not have to fight those battles, at least not right now. Focus for now on yourself.
Burnout affects almost all of us at some point, particularly in the academy. It makes sense to arm yourself with strategies for managing it if you do have to work through it and recover from it once you have the time to stop and do so. And once that short-term hard deadline passes, it is important to negotiate with your supervisors about the next ones so that you’re not being set up to fail. You can look at overall patterns and anticipate potential issues so that you can avoid burnout’s more chronic effects.