10 Questions to Ask When You're Burned Out at Work

Figure out what you dislike and what's draining your energy.

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Last week I offered 42 questions to ask when you hit a career roadblock, and, in a comment, Jeff in Arizona asked if I had any suggestions for questions aimed at job burnout. As I pondered a response, it occurred to me that this was actually a great topic for a post of its own, because, unfortunately, Jeff is in good company on this one. So, if you’re feeling a case of job burnout, here are 10 questions to ask yourself:

[See 15 essential tips for job success.]

Why am I burned out? This may seem like a no-brainer, but humor me. When you start to feel down about a situation, it’s easy to paint the entire thing with a broad-brush negative view. And that gives you one of two options: Change everything you don’t like, all at once, or suck it up and suffer.

Make a detailed inventory of what is draining your energy at work. Once you have that, you have a starting point to start making changes. You might not be able to change all of it for the better, but you’re likely to be able to at least change some of it. And that’s leaps and bounds better than being stuck with the two options I described above.

[See how to sabotage your career goals.]

What do I dislike? What can I do about it? This is another spin on the first question. Be careful not to turn it into a gripe-fest and leave it at that. The point here isn’t to focus on what’s wrong. It’s to identify the points of friction so you have specific places to start making improvements.

What do I enjoy about this job? Another thing that often happens when the negative feelings start to take over – whether it’s because of burnout, or being in the wrong job, or some other reason – is that people start to see only the bad. And if they do happen to notice what’s good, they see it as inconsequential in the face of the things they don’t like.

Spend some time focusing on what’s good about your job, even if you have to start small. Part of this is just simple math. The more time your thoughts are aimed at focusing on the positive, the less time is spent dwelling on the negative. You might even try – and I know this might be a stretch – really focusing on being grateful for those positive things. Gratitude has been shown to have a significant positive impact on how you feel.

[See why friends matter so much to your career.]

Who do I enjoy? This is another spin on the question above. Again, focus on the interactions with the people you enjoy to help shift your attention toward a more positive outlook. It won’t make what’s unpleasant go away, but again, simple math…

What habitual perceptions do I have? Is there another way to look at it? If you have been feeling negative about your work (or any situation) for any length of time, you have probably worn some habitually negative grooves in your brain. You start to default to noticing what you don’t like, who you don’t like, what makes you mad, how bored you are, how much the politics drives you nuts.

Over the next week, pay attention to your thoughts. When the negative ones come up, ask yourself, “Have I heard this thought in my brain before? Is it a thought that has become a habit?” When you notice habitual negative thoughts (I hate ____, or this is so _____), try to stop yourself and ask, “What else could I focus on?” Practice replacing them with, for example, some of the positive things you identified in the questions above.

Do I habitually complain? Pay attention to what you talk about. Are you a complainer? If you are, stop. Just stop. You’re not doing yourself any good, and you’re bringing the people around you down along the way. The more you complain, the more you focus on what’s wrong, the more you squander the precious few ticks of the clock you have on this planet, and the less likely you are to even notice the positive. On top of that, you’re reinforcing your belief that yes, things are really as bad as you think they are.

What are my options? When you feel frustrated and stuck in your career, it can lead you to feeling trapped. And when you feel trapped, the pressure rises, making a bad situation feel that much worse.

The more choices you feel you have, the less likely you are to feel trapped. The choices might be big (change jobs) or small (commit to going for an energizing walk on your lunch break). A great place to start is looking at the answers to the questions above about what you both like and dislike and exploring the steps you can take and the changes you can make to build on the positive and reduce the negative.

How can I energize my workday? If there’s absolutely nothing about the job itself you can change to make it better, you can still take advantage of the fact that it’s you who is showing up for work. What are the ways you can energize your day that have nothing to do with your job?

I mentioned going for an invigorating walk at lunch. Or you might initiate group lunches with some of the coworkers you really enjoy. Make it a no-gripe zone. Even better, make it a habit to go around the table and have everyone share something positive in their lives. How about making time for meditation? Even five minutes of stopping to just sit and focus on your breath can have a restorative effect. Another place to look is your physical environment. How can you make it more visually energizing? Pictures of people/places/things you love? Plants? Pictures of nature? Colors that make you feel good? How about music?

How can I energize my life outside of work? Your whole life is interconnected. What happens outside work affects how you feel at work, and vice versa. What can you bring into your life that is energizing? Hobbies? Activities? People?

How are my health and well-being habits (diet, exercise, etc.)?  Finally, it’s just about impossible to overstate how important things like diet and exercise are to your state of mind. Take a good close look at your habits and, if you find them wanting, start taking doable steps in the right direction.

None of these questions are a magic wand that will magically make a bad situation great. But if you ask them, and commit to paying attention to the answers (and acting on them), the odds are good your situation will improve. Even if the work itself doesn’t change, your focus will shift toward the positive, and that will always affect how you feel.

After years as a professional malcontent, Curt Rosengren discovered the power of passion. As speaker, author, and coach, Rosengren helps people create careers that energize and inspire them. His book, 101 Ways to Get Wild About Work, and his E-book, The Occupational Adventure Guide, offer people tools for turning dreams into reality. Rosengren's blog, The M.A.P. Maker, explores how to craft a life of meaning, abundance, and passion.

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