What is ‘burnout’?

People I know describe experiencing ‘burnout’, but I can’t relate to them. It seems like ‘burnout’ is when you run out of some finite quantity of long-term effort juice. It happens after weeks or months of working on something that takes a lot of effort. (Maybe replace ‘effort’ with ‘stress’ in that last sentence.)

Sometimes when I work hard on something for a few hours, I feel like I can’t focus anymore, and I have to take a break. I’m always reset to a chipper state the next day, though– I’ve never had an effect that seemed like it built across days. Theories for what’s going on:

  • I’ve never worked hard enough to experience burnout. This would be cool, because it means I have a lot of potential.
  • Related to above, maybe I’ve never been stressed enough to experience burnout, because of some combination of:
    • I find work inherently less stressful than other people.
    • I lucked out and have been in low-stress working situations.
      • Pretty sure this is not true?
  • I experience burnout but don’t notice it happening somehow.
  • I am a special and unique snowflake who doesn’t experience burnout.
  • No one really experiences burnout, it’s just a lie people tell themselves so they have an excuse to take vacations.

A better person than I would go check out if there’s any psychology literature on burnout, but that’s not what this blog is about.

6 thoughts on “What is ‘burnout’?

  1. I tend to think burnout isn’t really about how many hours you work and is more about tricky feelings stuff like feeling valued, feeling like what you do matters, etc.

    See this EA Forum post: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/NDszJWMsdLCB4MNoy/burnout-what-is-it-and-how-to-treat-it

    which talks about stuff like clear roles, feedback, and management as being important for preventing burnout.

    Also I just wrote a tumblr post mentioning this: https://worldoptimization.tumblr.com/post/188700866994/some-thoughts-on-productivity-and-motivation


  2. Also, re: “I’ve never worked hard enough to experience burnout. This would be cool, because it means I have a lot of potential.”

    I kind of weakly recommend that people who feel like this try working extremely hard and see how it goes, just to find out what their limits are. I’ve found this pretty interesting.


  3. My model of burnout is that it’s less about working too hard in general and more about forcing yourself to work on meaningless bullshit for too long. So maybe your work has always been sufficiently important to you? (Hooray?)


  4. I think maybe burnout is when people are are lying to themselves about some aspect of their work, “oh, I’ll get recognition later”/”oh, I don’t need recognition”/”working this hard is fine” (but implicitly) with the hope that it will somehow work itself out. As they do the job they get evidence that its not going to work itself out but they quash it because it would interfere with motivation. But eventually a bunch of it gets processed and their mind is like “fuck you, we have needs” and they lose motivation. But its all S1, and not very transparent to the, so they use words like ‘burnout’.


    1. Oh I should add that under this theory you won’t experience ‘burnout’ if instead you just realize ‘I think I really need a job/project that gives me X’. Burnout is the name we give project realizations that we can’t explain.


  5. Looks like having a slow moderation queue has the unexpected benefit of getting multiple people to chime in at once with different angles on a similar idea :).


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