Navigating Burnout

Eli Megibben, Writing Consultant

Hi, my name is Eli and I am burnt out. I hear my alarm go off in the morning and I say “no”. My loved ones ask me how much work I have to do before the end of the semester and I say, “I’m not comfortable answering that question right now”. As much as I want to lay down right this very minute and take a big fat nap for five or six or seven days, that’s not really an option right now. Instead, I have to write. I like writing. I’m good at writing. As a general rule, writing brings me joy. At this moment in my life, writing has become a chore. My joy from and talent for writing are still there, but I’m having a hard time sifting through the stress and exhaustion from a particularly rough semester (both academically and personally) to find them. As much as I don’t want to write today, but I have to. It’s nonnegotiable. In the spirit of this, I thought I’d take this blogging opportunity to share three ways I try to manage my own burn out and get writing done even when I don’t feel like it:

  1. Pace yourself with structured work time and break time.

 When I’m staring down the barrel of a very homework-y day, I organize my time in 20- or 30-minute chunks. 20-30 minutes of reading for class, 20-30 minutes of reading for fun. 20-30 minutes of writing an outline, 20-30 minutes doodling. 20-30 minutes of writing a blog post for the University Writing Center website, 20-30 minutes of taking a walk. Pacing myself and strictly limiting both my work and break time helps me keep my energy up for the day. Also notice that I didn’t say anything about “20-30 minutes on Facebook reading about that person from high school’s really messy breakup” or “20-30 minutes of looking up ‘how long until they finish cloning that Wooly Mammoth they found in Siberia last year?””. I know that once I start goofing off on the internet, then all of the nice discipline I’ve observed throughout the day will go out the window and suddenly four hours will have elapsed, and I’ll still be texting my friends screenshots of articles quoting arrogant biologists claiming that we shouldn’t try to bring back prehistoric mammals with the caption “can you believe this chump?’” And then I will wonder where my day has gone and why I haven’t gotten anything done. Maybe you’re better than me and know how to use the internet in moderation when tasked with something you don’t have the energy to do. Or maybe you and I are more alike than either of us want to admit.

2. Establish physical boundaries between you and your work

Ah, “boundaries”. My second-favorite “b-word”. I don’t know about you, but I love a good boundary. Whether its boundaries with work, friends, or even the cashier at CVS who felt compelled to tell me about what life was like leading up to her most recent colonoscopy, I use boundaries to protect my (waning) energy and (frail) emotions a lot these days. Unfortunately, this this current cultural moment doesn’t really support my affection for boundaries. And that pesky plague we’ve all been surviving for almost 25 months has made the issue worse. Possibly the most effective boundary I have with work is determining where I do my work. I let myself work on the computer or read wherever I’m comfortable –in my office, in my yard, at a coffee shop, even on the couch if that’s what I need that day— while also establishing a few spaces as “no work zones”. My bedroom is one of those places. By making my room a “rest only” area, it is easier for me to shift out of work mode and have more meaningful and effective rest. I know some folks don’t have the luxury of being able to spread out enough to make their entire bedroom a “no work zone”, and when I was in that position as an undergraduate, I made my bed the “no work zone”. Even in a cramped dorm room, I made these boundaries work by dropping $30 on trampoline chair that I could fold up and slide into a corner when not in use. Separating work spaces from break spaces is a trick I have employed since I was in high school and it has helped me to make the most out of my rest, even when I am not getting very much of it.

3. Let yourself be kind of a smart aleck

The other two tips are pretty general “navigate burnout” tips. This one is specifically for writing. Have you ever found yourself staring glassy-eyed at the blinking cursor of a blank Microsoft Word document wondering how the hell you are going to write a paper about an assigned reading that you absolutely despised? A reading that made your stomach spasm a little? A reading that made you question if learning how to read was even worth it? I know I’ve had plenty of those readings in my life as a student and they usually leave me with nothing nice to say. And in those cases, I let the bitterness out. I write the snarkiest intro paragraph I can muster. And by the time I have something vile written down, I’m not staring at a blank Word Document anymore and I’m able to proceed with the paper. Being a smart aleck during the preliminary writing stages doesn’t necessarily get you any closer to hitting your page count, but it will help you exorcise some of your frustration and can help you power through and get it done.

*Please note that your smart-aleck interludes should not be included in your final draft. Do not turn in something rude and unpleasant to your professor. It’s not cute and they are not paid enough to deal with that.


Burnout is a monster. It is also transient and won’t last forever. When I am at the very end of my rope, I like to remind myself (or, more often, let someone else remind me) that being in school is a blessing. An education is one of the few things in the world that nobody can take from you. It is an investment in yourself. This experience is stressful and overwhelming, and we are all so tired. And it’s manageable. Pace yourself, make you physical spaces work and rest-friendly, trust the process and don’t be afraid to indulge in some silliness along the way. Friendly reminder that you’re here for a reason, even if that reason isn’t clear yet. Read your readings, write your papers, and manage your burnout the best you can. I’m right there with you, and I’m rooting for you.

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