What causes burnout?

by juliawise1 min read27th Dec 201116 comments


Personal Blog

When I try to figure out how to balance personal happiness with saving the world, I think a lot about burnout.  If I make a major change - e.g. changing careers - what are the chances I'll burn out and become a lot less useful as a result?

I've never burned out, so I don't know where that edge is for me (plus I suspect the edge moves around depending on circumstances).  I'm obviously biased on the topic: there's the temptation to tell myself "This will prevent burnout and make me more effective in the long run" every time I want to do something.

Some things people here have described as causing burnout:

Going through the motions of a religion you don't believe in

Training yourself to feel guilty whenever you relax

Pursuing altruism too exclusively  (That post suggests Bostrom's parliamentary model as an antidote).

Do you have more examples?  Have you burned out?  Are there things that you think have kept you from burning out?  

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[-][anonymous]9y 10


Since you went from 2 to "output mode", you probably did 1 first. If so, you also probably would not have benefited nearly as much from 2 without having gone through 1. In fact, from my own experiences, 2 sounds like what I think of as a "consolidation phase" where you integrate things you learned earlier.

[-][anonymous]9y 0


Wrote a post about this topic before.

I have this huge text file that lists all kinds of activities, rules, problems that need to be solved and things I want to accomplish etc.

There is a category of activities that's labeled 'necessary'. One of those activities in the necessary category is 'having fun' which links to another category of things I labeled 'beautiful'. The activities in the 'beautiful' category depend on the the item 'having fun' in the 'necessary' category. And 'having fun' is called whether I want. Yes, you read that correctly, when I want it. Because after countless burnouts that made me to want to abandon any rational behavior I noticed that it just doesn't work not to do what I want when I want it. So I just do it and hope for the best. Most of the time I can quickly return to follow activities that I deem important on a more reflective level.

And regarding the rules, here is how the rules and heuristics section starts, followed by about a hundred other items:

Rules and Heuristics

// Priority (most important).

Doing my best -> Reflective Equilibrium of Level #1,2,3,4

  • Level 1: Rationality (doing the right thing (conscious, reflective high-level cognition)).
  • Level 2: Instinct, intuition and gut feeling (doing my best (emotionally)).
  • Level 3: Satisfaction of elementary needs (doing what needs to be done because its necessary (this includes having fun); recognize what you can cope with, recognize your limits;).
  • Level 4: Doing what I want based on naive introspection.


The list of rules continues with items like 'concentrate on important things and ignore everything under a certain threshold' or 'ask yourself what's the best you can do right now'...

Do you have more examples? Have you burned out?

What's mainly pushing me towards the risk of burning out are problems loosely associated with expected utility maximization. I always had those problems long before I knew what 'rationality' even means. Most of those problems seem to be computationally and conceptually intractable. At least for me.

It simply seems impossible to even decide when it is adequate to use computationally expensive decision procedures and when to trust my intuition. If I think too much about that, e.g. if it is worth it to go out or play a game or if it is either too risky or other actions have a higher expected utility, I am on the road towards a burnout.

I can really empathize with the last two paragraphs -- I tend to not emotionally feel so well when I'm trying to optimize hard, because I won't know for a while whether I'm optimizing hard enough. Maybe this is where the whole 'goals' thing comes in -- it seems to be setting up a feeling of 'I will be satisfied if I achieve X', where X is something that you know whether you accomplished.

I'm interested in the structure of your file, as well as the contents of your 'Rules and Heuristics' section -- can you give any more detail on this?

A very timely topic. Burnout was exactly what I was thinking about when I opened LW minutes ago.

Three major burnouts here. Two of them were caused by creating and running startups. I'm still going through the third one, but I think I'm on my way to recovery.

The longest burnout, which I went through in my early to mid thirties, was about two years long. The cause was a five-year long software project where I was the lead developer and the CEO. The burnout was pretty severe -- I couldn't bring myself to work, so I had to force myself -- which, of course, sustained the burnout. The key ingredient of the cure, I believe, was a 45-day vacation (yes, forty five full days away from work and without any computers).

(I know a guy who went through a similar burnout -- he's also a startup founder / CEO, here in Russia. He couldn't bring himself to work for several years.)

My current burnout, about five months long so far, was also caused by creating another startup from scratch (inexperienced team, unfamiliar tech, new areas of expertise, full administrative and creative load). The peak was about two months ago, but I think I'm recovering.

As for the root causes, I think I just set the bar too high and compare myself with the leaders way too much. Another contributing factor, I think, is my social obligations, mostly to co-workers / employees -- I take this too seriously. Plus, perhaps, a chronic decision fatigue -- it's not easy to find people to delegate some of the tasks I work on.

Also, I never burned out when playing with stuff, as opposed to working on stuff. If the thing in question isn't a goal I set for myself, and if allow myself to drift freely and explore stuff, I don't burn out.

Edit: And yes, I also trained myself to feel guilty whenever I relax. I have to do something about this.

I have to do something about this.

The irony of this sentence is an important part of a healthy breakfast.

Permanent state of stress is a prerequisite to a burnout. If you are in touch with your feelings enough to confidently assess whether you are constantly stressed or not, you can probably catch it before you stop caring about saving the world. Top Google hits for "symptoms of a burnout" appear quite useful.

(Personal: going through the grad school: burned out twice, took a leave twice, still finished, because quitting was not a satisfactory option, but didn't pursue the same career once done.)

Double binds are a surefire path to burnout. A good way to get there is to make more promises than you can possibly keep, and then make a non-verbal, undiscussable promise to yourself that you must keep all or your promises. A typical situation where I've seen this play out is starting your own company, getting caught between responsibility to your employees, your family, your customers.

Anyone considering a startup should be aware of this (and given the overlap between LW and HN I'm guessing this is some appreciable fraction of LW, though I'm too tired right now to quantify that). Don't put that plan into motion until you've got a good sense of whether that's a vulnerability for you.

I've never burned out but my productivity fluctuates drastically. Perhaps I would describe it as having frequent but very minor burnouts (no, I am not bipolar).

The biggest contributor to akrasia for me is a subjective lack of mental energy. I can greatly temporarily increase my productivity with caffeine but usually avoid it for health reasons.

For what "health reason" are you avoiding caffeine? Depending on your answer, there may be some close substitutes that you can try.

Bad sleep rhythm, anxiety/stress problems. My tendency to start taking it late in the afternoon before sleep if I take it at all.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

This. Other drugs used correctly to balance out the after effects of other drugs and caffeine as well.

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This might be a re-phrasing of some of the other comments, but I think you need to calibrate your approach to match your personality make-up. For instance I could easily spend hours reading, thinking, and writing about some socio-political issue, but the idea of joining a march or protest addressing the same issue sounds draining. Other people are the exact opposite of that. Maybe you like traveling, maybe you like telling stories, maybe you like statistics, maybe you like street-art. Any of these could be creatively leveraged to change the world.

If you link your goals to activities that you can't get enough of, then burn-out is less of a problem. If you decide to equate the worth of your contributions with your degree of success in , because it's the culturally accepted standard (or even because it's the most effective tactic, all other things being equal), then you could end up both failing AND blaming yourself for it.

I've found that both trying to work and trying to relax (for the enjoyment of it or to recharge) both hurt. What helps is working on something else; doing so for other people is best, especially doing mildly unpleasant chores.


"Burnout can have its roots in childhood. Studies show that children who were bullied, who experienced abuse or neglect, had a parent in prison, lived in a home where there was mental illness, violence, substance abuse or the loss of a parent through any cause were more prone to develop diseases such as emphysema, mental health problems, substance abuse and obesity. These childhood experiences can predispose to burnout and the associated health and psychological problems in adolescence and adulthood."

Not everyone has a traumatic childhood, but if you do or at least have something you need to get to the bottom of with yourself - do so. Problems probably rear their ugly heads in more ways than just burnout, so get to ridding yourself of them.