Improving Your Process: Combating Burnout

Posted: May 05, 2008 Comments(11)

We’ve all got the benefit of working in an extremely creative environment. Whether you’re a programmer or a designer, working on the Web puts you in quite a unique situation. While our surroundings have a tendency of being ever-changing, exciting, and stimulating, it’s entirely possible to fall victim to burnout; one of the worst things to effect your productivity.

For me personally, it’s disastrous when I’ve found myself burnt out on anything related to work. I suddenly find myself consciously avoiding the activity I enjoy most. While being burned out on a job you don’t enjoy in the first place may be quite a bit more common, with (most of us) working on the Web, we’re often doing it by choice, it’s what we love to do.

Recognizing you’re burnt out

It’s sometimes difficult to realize you’re burnt out as opposed to day-to-day stress. I’ve found a simple indicator for myself to be mostly emotional when I’m burnt out. When I’m burnt out, I invest quite a bit less of myself in my work, that is to say; I care less. That’s big trouble when it comes to building a product meant to help not only the client, but also potentially the customer base of that client. Working when you’re burnt out usually produces junk work; work that could have been so much more with your head in the game.

It’s a sinking feeling when I discover that I’m burnt out on work. On an average day, I’m usually neck deep involved with any projects in production and I’ll be able to focus all my energy on problem solving and getting things done. When I’m burnt out, my time would be better spent out of the office instead of forcing myself to make things happen.

If you’re able to decipher exactly what’s causing your burnout, whether it be impossible goals set upon you (or set upon yourself) or simply a lack of challenge, it’s great to nip that issue in the bud as soon as possible. Most of the time, however, burnout for me usually occurs at random, not as a direct reaction to anything in particular.

Combating burnout

There are a few things I’ve found that really help when I’ve discovered that I may be burnt out. Some things on this list can be generalized as basic stress relievers, but sometimes burnout can be quickly cured with a quick change in environment, you can take the list for what it’s worth.

Change projects
If your workload is anything like mine, you’ve got a list of projects to get done over the next few months. Sometimes I’ll find myself burnt out on a specific project at hand, and shelving that project for a day or two can definitely help with that. The only trouble is making sure impeding deadlines can provide this freedom. If you haven’t got too many projects coming down the pipe, take some time to work on something internal. You know there’s always things to get done for yourself.
Learn something new
If you’re burnt out specifically on the work you’re doing, I’ve found it helpful to expand your toolset. I mostly work on the front end of things, so when I get burnt out on working with markup & style, I’ll take some time to work on something to do with the back end. This complete change in environment usually gets my brain working the way I want. I’ll get stressed quickly due to my lack of knowledge, and endless references to books or other material will help me get things done, but after completion I’m ready to get back to the front end.
Clean up
I’ve got OCD when it comes to my desk. I hate a messy environment mostly because I feel it directly interferes with my productivity. If I’m burnt out on a project, I’ll take an hour or two to clean up around the office. An organized environment helps me to concentrate on work.
Watch a movie or read a book
We all love movies/books. Take the time to read that book you’ve left on the shelf for a year. Take the time to rend that movie you meant to see last summer. It may not live up to your expectations, but the distraction can prove to be invaluable.
Play video games
Many of us tend to be video game fans, and a few hours behind the controller can help provide the distraction we really need to help us concentrate when we sit back down to work.
Grab a coffee
It doesn’t have to be a coffee, but getting outside for a short while to grab a beverage will help. If you’ve got any coworkers you actually like, take them with you. Talk about anything but work and don’t sit back down until you feel like you can continue without hating every minute of it.

Sometimes, the only thing to help a Web designer or Web developer with burnout is to unplug, there are a few things I do when that’s the case:

Take a drive
While I haven’t spoken much about my personal pastimes, I’m what you could call a car enthusiast. I don’t have a race car in the garage I trailer to events on weekends or anything, but reading about, watching, and driving cars is something I’ve had an interest in for quite a while. Sometimes taking some time for yourself via a short (or long) drive can work wonders. Being in the car allows you to clear your thoughts to the road and your favorite music.
Take an afternoon off
Sometimes it won’t be until midday when I realize that I’m truly burnt out on work in general and the longer I remain at my desk, the worse it gets. I’ve found that recognizing unwarranted stress and taking an afternoon off will sometimes avoid a longer stint of burnout. The thing to do with your afternoon off is not something passive like going home and watching TV. Instead, go and do something. My token afternoon activity is detailing my car. It gets me away from computers in general and allows me to do some physical work. A few hours detailing your car can really clear your head and it’s often the first thing I’ll try to get done with an afternoon away from work, weather permitting.
Take a vacation
There will come a time where a few hours off just won’t cut it. If you find yourself in that boat, do yourself a favor and take a vacation. You don’t have to go anywhere, but don’t go to work. Spend some quality time with those close to you doing the other things you enjoy. Avoid work and computers in general for as long as possible and you’ll come back refreshed and ready to tackle what needs to be done.

What do you do?

I know my list is quite generic in the grand scheme of things, do you have anything particularly unique that you do when you’re burnt out at work?

Get my newsletter

Receive periodic updates right in the mail!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


  1. I do many of the things you listed above. I’d say the biggest things for me are: taking a walk and clearing my head, reading a book on something slightly different, and cleaning up (I like to have a tidy desk).

  2. I also do many of the things you do. But, the biggest things that clear my head are: working on my car and hiking/camping. When I am burnt out, I lose my inspiration to work. Getting outdoors in the mountains is really nice and gives me inspiration. Hiking also brings lots of challenge, which I thrive on.

  3. Its a nice article Jonathon about being tired and fed up, but be clear that it is not about burn out.

    Your Wiki link makes that clear, burn out is exhaustion. Total fatigue. That is not something that is resolved by tidying your desk for a couple of hours or taking the afternoon off. They might get you through the day so you can maintain a public face but after that you need to go home and take proper rest and reflection.

    If you are burned out you are doing something wrong and you are damaging your long and short term health. We only get one crack at this life – take proper amount of time off and work out how not to make the same mistake again.

  4. @Lucy: Thanks for your thoughtful feedback. I realize I should have been more clear with my intentions with certain parts of the article. What I meant to get across by suggesting a few quick things (such as cleaning up your workspace) was burnout prevention. I was unclear with that and I apologize, but thanks very much for making the clarification with your comment. You’re very right when you mention the severity of being burnt out, and it should be taken much more seriously than an afternoon off. Thanks again!

  5. The comment you made about “unplugging” really rings true with me – working around the house on a bit of home improvement always refreshes me. The more simple, repetitive and physical the task the better. Raking leaves does wonders!

  6. Wow, someone voicing this. This burnout is killing me, and has been killing me for some time now. I’m working on a few projects which have no forseeable closure, and have already been going on way too long. They’re also extremely complex (for myself) and I’m getting no direction with them.

    I’ve gone past the point of caring, which is a real shame because I used to love web develooment – the struggle but satisfaction of getting a page or site out there which potentially millions of people will see. But now I can’t stand it with a passion. Unfortunately, at the moment it is paying the bills so I’ve got to stick with it.

  7. @Trovster: I can absolutely sympathize. There have been some projects over the past year which had me in exactly the same boat. Luckily enough a couple long weekends allowed me at least a quick break to get my head straight. Any chance you’re able to take some time off to recollect? I know schedules are more often than not quite strict, but if you can swing some time off that would be great. Best of luck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *