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Over the past few days, my advisor and I had been going really hard. We got a really good idea and the preliminary results looked good, so I started spending long days in the lab, going home only to sleep. My advisor saw this and he started spending a lot more time with me and we had long meetings whenever I requested. This has been going on for about 4 weeks and although I loved it while I was in it, I feel burnt out now. There are still really exciting things I need to try but I don't know why I can't get myself to do any of them.

What is a good strategy to escape this burnout phase?

I have already tried:

  • Playing an instrument I was good at
  • Just taking some time off
  • Limiting my work hours

But none of these and others seem to work.

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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If it is days or weeks (not years), I don't know if "burnout" is the right term. It's just a temporal loss of motivation or energy, or tiredness. (Anyway, the quicker you fight with it, the better for you.) –  Piotr Migdal Feb 1 '13 at 10:51
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You need to find something apart from books and papers that keeps your mind busy and away of recurrent thoughts. I would not recommend reading other books. It has to be something different of the environment your burnout is caused by. For me, gym and movies most part of the times works really well. This activities really make me forget about problems of my daily life. Try to find what's yours and schedule a time for them. –  user5872 Feb 1 '13 at 12:20
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Not specifically academia-burnout-related. As my Zen teacher says: "if you're so burnt out you feel you can't accomplish anything, start with clapping hands". Do anything you can succeed in, starting from the absolute basics, until gradually you recover your momentum and get back to serious things. Another advise, to prevent burnout, next time keep the excitement / expectations in check. High expectations mess with your success thresholds and rob you of the sense of accomplishment. Excitement wastes your serotonin unnecessarily, while you need it for creative work. –  zvolkov Feb 1 '13 at 12:28
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Bipolar disorder? You never know ... –  Kaz Feb 1 '13 at 17:42
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Actually, there's a lot of research that suggests that extended workweeks are only sustainable for a short period of time—a few weeks at most. Beyond that, burnout sets in, and can require a few weeks of rest to "make up" for the intense work done during the "rush" period. –  aeismail Feb 1 '13 at 19:22

7 Answers 7

up vote 37 down vote accepted

For a true burnout you will need to stop working, rest, and seek counseling/medical help. You need to lower your expectations of yourself and virtually eliminate what others expect from you. Ultimately, because work is about expectations (either self-imposed or set by others), I doubt that you can continue working and recover from a burnout.

Given that you state that the burnout occurred over a short period, rather than a sustained year-upon-year effort, my advice is to take a vacation. Three weeks should do the trick.

Just remember, life is about enjoying it, not earning money, because in the end you will take nothing with you.

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17  
I agree: get yourself out of your current environment (no work, change in daily life, change in place). If you work at a small campus in a rural area, take a trip to New York/LA/whatever. If you work at a University in the center of London, go to the Lake District for a week or two, go hiking in Corsica, just go bury your toes in the water of Ardèche, etc. Doesn't have to be very far, or very expensive, but it should take your mind to other things. Also: find good books, don't bring your computer, don't look for internet access. –  F'x Feb 1 '13 at 8:48
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@F'x: Sounds like good advice for me (and I'm not even burnt out). –  Dave Clarke Feb 1 '13 at 8:53
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I gave Dave Clarke's feedback a "yes" to was this helpful, but I have to add my own experience. If you're truly feeling burnt out, you need to do one of two things, step back and think about it, or jump in and just submit to it. I've felt burnt out with my job and been pushed to the edge where I lost all productivity, but then I realized, it's my life, and if I want to do it, I should "claim" the work as my own even if I am not the boss, And that really makes all the difference. Claim what you're doing, own it, and take pride in it, it will stave off burning out. –  Asitaka Feb 1 '13 at 12:36
    
+1 for "seek counseling/medical help". –  JeffE Feb 2 '13 at 5:06

I find burnout a reoccurring effect, and to some extent it comes with academic research as you are continually trying solve problems and come up with new ideas. In this respect I find doing science like doing art - if I am not in the mood for doing it then the results won't be good and productivity is low, so the only solution is to stop completely. If you have got the research 'bug' (you normally love research and it preoccupies pretty much every waking hour of your day) then when you are ready you will come back to thinking about it and want to get back in the lab.

My advice is to do nothing until you are ready - don't think about the lab at all or worry that you are not doing anything, just rest completely - go for walks, watch moves, kill zombies, whatever.

As a post doc I have learnt to organise better, and back off if things get too hectic, taking an afternoon off for example. I still suffer a little at the end of the year, where I take a fortnight off but usually I am itching to get back after a week.

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Burnout is a word of many meanings. But basically, it is characterized by a very strong physical exhaustion, a general anxiety and the feeling that you are a failure at work, that you will never meet the expectations of the persons you work with/for. This last feeling is strengthened by the fact that a person in burnout thinks she owes something to the others. A last symptom is depersonalisation : you have the feeling of living outside you and the world, you are a spectator of your life, not an actor of it anymore. If you have this last symptom, you should go to the doctor right now, not asap, now !

Most of the time, a burnout becomes a real medical problem (as a strong anxiety syndrom) and needs that a medical doctor takes action.

Besides giving a medication, a MD will give life advice such as :

  • Stop completely working for a while, do a sleep cure
  • Avoid any activity that relates to work (you're in academy, don't read complicated stuff, you're a plumber, don't do any home improvement)
  • Change your environment : go visit your old uncle who is a farmer in Ohio (or a fisherman in France, or ...)
  • Modify the way you live, be more involved in your own life. Sometimes, we (=people in academy) don't take the time to cook, to do sports, to rest without activity. Even if one can live happily with a 100% focus on work, it increases the odds of being burned out.
  • And my last advice : at first try to avoid seeing people from work. It is necessary, so that you can realize that they don't really need you and you don't really need them.
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This is really me! About your last point, but how can I graduate without seeing them and being at my work? Right now the only way out that I can see out of this mess is suicide. I can no longer read, I only see me failing. Thanks for the advise to consult a doctor, though I am not sure if I will do it. –  Abraham Apr 13 '13 at 5:06

As an addition to the current suggestions, I can highly recommend adding some exercise to your daily life. Lab life, especially when intensive, makes as sedentary life style. You sit in front of the pc, by the wetlabs... etc

What kind of exercise you do is a preference thing, I personally love high tempo ball sports like football (soccer) or squash. There's nothing like the endorphin high you get after wearing yourself completely and take a shower afterwards. It will help you get troubles off your mind as well. I can highly recommend squash for this purpose; when playing with an even opponent, an hours workout will get you to a point where forming shorter sentences is as complicated of an intellectual task as you can manage, which means no time/place for daily worries.

Another important thing is to get good sleep. Not just the hours in bed but the quality of sleep. If thoughts and worries about work are haunting you in the sub-conscience, it really doesn't matter how long you are in bed. In this aspect you'll have a positive synergy between physical workout and better sleep.

Hope it helps, and you'll start feeling better soon.

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1  
As JeffE would put it, Run, don't walk! –  Federico Poloni Apr 17 '13 at 19:55

First of all, noone here can know what is really the matter with you. So we all find it rather alarming, because

"Not getting yourself to do exciting things" can be a symptom of serious medical problems.

However, after a "work-sprint" you may just be exhausted in a perfectly normal way. E.g. after I had handed in my Diplom thesis, I needed two weeks of basically doing nothing and sleeping a lot (incidentally and very typically, I got a cold as well). It's just paying back your debts in recreation, in the very literal meaning of the work.

Things to do:

  • Talk to your advisor. From what you wrote, you have a very good relationship. If you think you are in the normal need-for-holidays, tell him, and get the holidays.

  • During the holidays,

    • Sleep much

    • Spend much time outdoors. Sun (in case it's winter now where you are) and excercise is good for everyone and you may need to catch up due to the work sprint. Doesn't need to be real sports, for me personally it would be better to do "excercise" on a non-exhausting level, but longer. 5 - 8 h of walking, biking or slow cross country skiing would sound good to me, but your marks may vary of course. I'd say, a good amount of fresh air is when you fall into your bed at 8 pm and sleep till next morning...

    • Make sure you eat lots of vitamins

  • If you are afraid (i.e. you are not 100% sure that it isn't) something more serious may be the matter:

    • Don't wait until you know it is serious! By then, it will be very serious, and you may not be able any longer to seek the help you need.

    • Also talk to your advisor. If you think, holidays may help, take them. However, here are two additional "saftety lines":

    • Schedule a meeting for after your holidays to discuss whether you are again in working condition. Ask him now that he should get you to medical help if you are not in working condition after the holidays.
    • Ask him to come and get you to medical help if you don't show up after holidays.

In addition (before the holidays),

  • find out whether your university has some kind of psychological counselling (not sure about the correct English name), examination offices usually know that.

  • Alternatively, find out a psychological clinic (university hospital?) with emergency counselling hours (again, someone please correct my English)

  • If you don't get yourself to doing this now (till Monday noon), go to your advisor (or very good friends/relatives), tell them you have a psychological emergency and that they should get you to medical help immediately.

Normal exhaustion after intense work:

Personally, I know and love these exciting periods of intense work. However, they are exhausting, and you need the recreation afterwards as you'd recreation after a mountain tour of several weeks. Also, they don't happen every day (I think one couldn't survive that, even though they are incredibly good). BUt from what I know from fellow researchers, these a serious driving force for quite some of us. Welcome!

  • Even though you are now exhausted, remember how good it is. I think a healthy balance is if you are exhausted like you are exhausted after a big physical effort. I remember them like physically strenuous tours.

  • They are not an every-day experience, but odds are that this wasn't the last experience of the sort :-) And, while this one may have been too much of the good, you can learn knowing when it is enough (and/or to plan for recreation afterwards). For me, this got easier once I had the experience that new such spells of incredibly good work do come.

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For me, having a structure is usually something that brings a good balance.

One of the reasons PhD students can get very disorganized and end up wasting a lot of time is the lack of a fixed schedule, this is both needed to have a productive life and a balance between your work and personal life.

Just try to keep by an schedule, and you'll see you will get more relaxed.

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Sure. That prevents any future burnouts. But what can be done once you get into one? –  Stressed Feb 1 '13 at 8:15
    
The only way to get out is to go back to your life, take care –  Leon palafox Feb 1 '13 at 8:25

I agree with a lot of the other answers, but I have a few additional ideas that haven't been suggested yet.

Do you find yourself thinking about this project at odd moments, even when you're supposedly resting or doing something else? You need to reset your mind by clearing out this project and replacing it with something else for a while. It needs to be sufficiently compelling to get your attention away from the thing that has filled your mind for 4 weeks. Then, after a bit, your enthusiasm for your old project will regenerate and you can be excited about it again.

When you get sick of working on a particular project, one thing that can sometimes be helpful is to spend some time (perhaps a week or two, maybe more) working on a very different project of some sort.

Another possibility is that you are not actually burned out. You may instead have conditioned yourself to associate this project with working very long hours. Now, whenever you think about working on it, you subconsciously feel like if you work on it, it will consume your life again and you don't have the energy for that. This is a bit harder to deal with. To continue to work on this, you have to break the conditioning. If you can force yourself to work on the project, but with more reasonable hours, that may help.

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