When Your Passion is “Nothing”: Overcoming Burnout
When you’re struggling with burnout, identifying your values and passions can feel impossible. Peter: Our high school guidance counselor used to ask us what you’d do if you had a million dollars and you didn’t have to work. And invariably what you’d say was supposed to be your career. So, if you wanted to fix […]
When you’re struggling with burnout, identifying your values and passions can feel impossible.
Peter: Our high school guidance counselor used to ask us what you’d do if you had a million dollars and you didn’t have to work. And invariably what you’d say was supposed to be your career. So, if you wanted to fix old cars then you’re supposed to be an auto mechanic.
Samir:So what did you say?
Peter: I never had an answer. I guess that’s why I’m working at Initech.
– Office Space, 1999
InOffice Space – the seminal movie about corporate burnout – Peter finally admits that if he had a million dollars, he would do … nothing. If you’ve ever felt burned out at work, you can probably relate.
It’s hard to answer questions about vision and passion when you’re having to scrape yourself off the couch to do the most basic tasks.
The irony is that one of the most effective ways to move out of burnout is to have a future-focused motivation that aligns with your passions. Identifying the activities that fill your energy tank is the best way to gain momentum that will get you out of the fatigue zone.
When I was in the throes of burnout, I suffered from chronic pain that made it hard to think. A friend asked “if you had all the time and money in the world, what would you do?” and all I could think of was Peter Gibbons. “I would do nothing.”
I couldn’t admit that, so I said “I don’t know”. The classic bullshirt answer when I am too afraid to say something painfully true out loud. It felt too shameful, too embarrassing to have no aspiration beyond sleeping all day and watching tv. I was a high achiever, an engineer, someone who was always the best at things, who figured stuff out… how could I be reduced to wanting to do “nothing”?!
I was terrified at the implication- that my life was meaningless, and that I had no passion or purpose. I couldn’t name a single thing that I liked or cared about that wasn’t some form of book or movie. Was I really that shallow? What did it mean? What was I doing with my life?
If you feel like this right now I want you to REALLY hear me on this:
Of COURSE you would do nothing, because that’s what your whole body, mind, and spirit are SCREAMING for you to do!
You are depleted and need rest. You can’t think of a greater passion beyond the couch or maybe a beach right now because you’re in survival mode. It doesn’t mean that you have no passions or that you’re shallow, or whatever other negative self-talk is running through your brain right now.
So what do you do when faced with the “million-dollar question” when you’re burned out?
What if you can’t take the time off to just do nothing for awhile and recover?
First, examine the truth of this reaction. What is it costing you to push through when you’re depleted? Trust me, waiting for your body to break down and force a time out is going to take much more recovery than taking a pre-emptive break. How true is it that you really can’t take time off to do nothing, to rest?
Next, let’s approach the “million dollar question” in a different manner. In the BLAZE your PATH ebook (a free downloadable), we start by identifying the core BELIEFS that motivate and fuel you. If you’re in that “nothing” state, it can be a tough exercise. Here are some ways to approach it that help to break through the haze:
Think about a past project or event where you felt completely engaged. Some people call this “flow”. If it’s hard to recall a specific event that felt good, think of a specific time that was even a little bit better than how things are going right now. With that time/project/event in mind, go through the list of values and put a check mark next to each one that was being used or honored at that time.
Example: Just before my first major injury that led to burnout in my teaching career, I had led a trip with my students to Switzerland. It was amazing! We had the time of our lives. The values that were honored on that trip included: freedom, adventure, collaboration, compassion, beauty, fun, friendship, humor, joy, leadership, learning, and nature.
Think about a specific project or event where you recognized the burnout starting to creep in. Maybe your productivity started to drop, or you found yourself starting to hit the snooze button more often. What values were out of alignment at that time? What was missing or in conflict?
Example: When I returned to work after maternity leave (so I was already feeling a bit overwhelmed) I returned to an environment where standardization was really coming into the forefront of my awareness as an educator. I remember attending a training on a computerized testing system for students and feeling shocked when the trainer said they even had a version for kindergarten level students. The values that were in conflict for me at this time were: freedom, balance, fairness, uniqueness, creativity, and spirituality.
Doing these two exercises usually opens up enough brain space to start thinking about the future. Even if you’re not sure about the details, think about who do you want to BE while doing your dream job? What values would be at the forefront? What would make you feel excited about your work?
Example: When I was on bedrest after my back surgery, I finally allowed myself to contemplate a new career path. After reflecting on projects where I felt great compared to when I started feeling burned out I asked- what do I really need/want in order to thrive? While I wasn’t sure of the exact path yet, I was able to name the following values: creativity, compassion, freedom, joy, learning, spirituality/intuition, and vitality.
Now look at the pattern. What has the most checkmarks? What stands out? Are these in alignment with who you are when you’re at your best? Bring your list down to the top 2-3 to prioritize.
Example: While learning is very important to me, it does have a tendency to become an obsession or even a time suck when it’s not for a specific purpose. What allows me to make my love of learning work for me is when it’s connected to creating something, especially in a way that honors my intuition (doodling with no “agenda”) or compassion (making things for others). What I noticed about the times that triggered burnout cycles was that they were all connected to a feeling of constriction, a lack of freedom. So my top two are Freedom and Creativity, in the context of Compassion and Intuition/Spirituality.
Make a list of actions small and large that help you to feel aligned with these beliefs. What is something you can do this month? This week? Today? If you’re fatigued, make it something really do-able. Set yourself up for success.
Example: When I was burned out, staring at a blank page and trying to “create” something was too intimidating. An adult coloring book with mandalas was a great option because there was no pressure to make them look like anything, unlike the books with animals or people. I could just pick up whatever marker or pencil I felt like and start making a pattern – or not – with no expectations. I also gave myself permission to daydream and do nothing for an hour. I even scheduled this “nothing” time! These small acts started to put energy back in the bank and create momentum. I started being able to get clarity on where I was going with my career and why.
Make a plan to reflect at least once each week on what went well and what felt the most draining. Continue to dial in to what fills your energy tank and what depletes it. Experiment with different small actions to see what helps you feel better, and make those acts a priority.
When you’re faced with something that is typically draining, see if you can reframe it or tweak it in a way that that highlights your top 2-3 values.
For example, when facing repetitive paperwork that grates against my freedom and creativity, I try to find a way to make a game of it. Just the thought process of gamifying paperwork flexes my creativity muscles and gives me an energy boost.
What are some strategies that you’ve found helpful for gaining momentum when you feel burned out?
I'm a proud jack-of-all-trades. BS Chemical Engineering, MS Bioengineering, 11 years teaching high school science & engineering, mom, solo-preneur, career coach, and women's empowerment facilitator. I'm passionate about changing the landscape for women at work, moving women from burnout to living life on fire.
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