burnt toast smiling

It’s Happy! It’s Burnout! It’s… Happy Burnout!

I love the controlled chaos of entrepreneurship. I love writing, marketing, scheming, reaching out to people. I’m a pop-outta-bed kinda girl, always looking forward to the big adventure.

Except lately.

Lately, there are days when I just can’t muster up the energy to choose what to tackle. Lately, when I sit down to write, it feels like a funeral dirge, not a jig. Lately, there are days when I can’t stomach the idea of adventure at all.

The confounding thing is, everything’s going so well. I could barely ask for more. I’m electrified, joyful, and glad… and very clearly burnt out.

Yes, folks, that’s right — I’ve got a bad case of Happy Burnout. Burnout caused by, as it were, an excess of awesome.

Happy Burnout Happens

As a stoic workaholic, believe me, I know burnout. Burnout knocks me on my ass, makes me wanna scream “screw you!” to the world, drop all obligations and go into hiding.

But not Happy Burnout. Happy Burnout looks different, and feels different.

car doing a peel out vs car damaged and smoking

Any questions? (cc mike9alive, curt deatherage)

Burn yourself out on things you love, on intrinsic motivation rather than external obligation, and the core symptoms will be similar — listlessness, disinterestedness, lack of creativity. But the psychological icing is a different flavor altogether.

With Happy Burnout, there’s no rotten, spiraling self-talk. You don’t hear that venal little whisper to damn it all to hell. For me, at least, that voice only appears when I’m doing work I shouldn’t be doing in the first place.

Happy Burnout hard to spot, for that reason, and these:

  • Happy Burnout lacks vicious and destructive thoughts
  • Happy Burnout can arrive one hour, and leave the next
  • Happy Burnout leaves you very functional, most of the time
  • Happy Burnout sneaks in, rather than announcing itself with a crash
  • Happy Burnout leaves you puzzled why you don’t want to do the things you love

Happy Burnout is different.

Happy Burnout is a sneaky little bastard

Regular old familiar burnout is like a game of One More Thing KABOOM!

Suddenly, a client asks for one more thing… one more thing goes wrong… one more thing piled on… and it all comes tumbling down. Kaboooom!

Happy Burnout is One More Thing — hold the Kaboom.

You can imagine how this change in pattern disrupts your coping strategies. Or, at least, disrupts mine, because typically, I skirt burnout, waiting for that big kaboom, feeling it build up. So I’ve been chugging along happily, taking on big, lofty goals — and when things went well, with no blow-up pre-shocks, I took on more.

No kaboom. Never a kaboom.

I was waiting for an advanced notice, but it never came. Even my stress level didn’t seem noteworthy. I was enjoying it.

Entré the sneaky little bastard.

Happy Burn-Out looks (and feels!) like great success, like everything’s going just right… up until the point where it isn’t. But then it can get better again. Until it isn’t (again).

I’m in it now, and I can tell you that it sucks. I’m overjoyed one hour, and totally whatever the next.

That’s nothing like Angry Burnout, where I was furious at all the external obligations, and the people associated with them. It’s nothing like Rebellious Burnout, where I want to tell the whole world, “Fuck you — I want off!”

And it wasn’t even Constant Burnout, where I was totally incapable of getting into anything, ever.

Happy Burnout can come in waves, alternating even minute by minute.

I didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late.

A Recipe for Happy Burnout

Here’s a foolproof way to create Happy Burnout, a recipe I can guarantee since it’s worked so well for me:

  • work late into the night
  • work on weekends
  • crash every few weeks and veg — instead of taking true breaks
  • withdraw from friends because you are busy and/or apathetic
  • travel a lot
  • take on a lot of different types of projects at once, e.g. building a new product and also remaking your apartment
  • take the “I’m sick!” messages from your body literally — you have an infection, not a stress problem

And, finally, the last, most critical step:

  • really love what you’re doing

Because it’s this last one that changes

Rebellious Burnout, Angry Burnout, Constant Burnout into Happy Burnout.

Happy Burnout can only come about when you really enjoy your work. When your work fires you up — and burns you to a crisp.

I’m not special, and neither are you

I thought burnout was a thing of the past for me, because external obligations that made me sick were a thing of the past for me. (Well, except tax prep.)

Heck, we’d even just hired an intern — and a crackin’ good one at that. We had help. I was different. I wasn’t making the mistake that other entrepreneurs make. And I was only doing what I loved.

Yep… my work has been passionate, autonomous, intrinsically motivated, emotionally rewarding, and aligned with my Core Values.

And therefore, I thought I was immune to burnout. I thought I was different.

Bet you’ve never heard that one before.

What to do about it

Well, I’m not totally out of the woods yet, but I can tell you what’s helped me so far:

Not working all the damn time… Or working all the time, and spending all of the rest of the time with friends, or on other projects, or consuming media.

… Even if you love it.

I started taking weekends off, almost by accident, and wow, what a difference. I can feel the Happy Burnout symptoms fading away, and I’m excited to write again, and scheme again, instead of throwing up my hands.

Tearing yourself away from work you love is hard. Trust me, I know. I’m great at avoiding work I don’t love, and very, very bad at avoiding work I do love.

But you know that phrase, “Find the work you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”? Clearly that’s not the case: Work is work. It uses up our ability to think critically and manage ourselves… even if we enjoy it.

I’ve certainly learned that even if it feels like I’m “never working a day in my life,” I still need to take the weekend off.

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