Worn Out vs. Burned Out

Working a Saturday and looking at some of the elements of both.

I ended up working another Saturday on this HBO Max comedy series. This is not unusual towards the end of a season when you’re trying to keep a schedule and make deadlines. It does wear you out after a while, but that’s somehow not the same as “burn out”.

Feeling worn out on this show is easy to link to workload and other immediate factors. We’ve been working overtime with occasional weekend days. There have been very few slow days. I’ve had worse on other shows. Part of the challenge with editing/post production is there is no natural rhythm to the work, which can become very focused and obsessive. I’ve had to make a point of pacing myself, taking proper breaks and not just trying to push through to complete the task.

Worn-out can be easy to fix with a proper weekend, some relaxation or ideally a vacation. Taking a break gets the energy back and calms things down. Even if it’s hard, it’s all fairly straight forward.

Burn out factors, for me, are harder to track and identify, never mind fix. They have more to do with long term and big picture issues. There’s a tendency to ignore them and try to convince myself that things are OK. If they persist over time, they start to seem normal. This is bad, because then you don’t try to fix them.

I recognize this pattern from earlier in my life. It was pretty much how I grew up. Things were hard but you sucked it up and pushed through. I think of it now as part of the “Functioning Trap”. If you get into the mindset of simply trying to get by, you ignore things or let them slide, and it’s easy for all that to build up and get out of control. You stop thinking about it until it’s too late.

The problem is you “push through” situations rather than problem solve. This can be because of assumption that the problem is temporary and will go away on its own, or the feeling that it’s too big to deal with right now. Sometimes it’s a belief that circumstances will change, or that something you’re doing will change them indirectly (such as expecting a promotion at work). But the change doesn’t happen and the problems don’t resolve, so it just escalates.

Another thing I notice is in the burn out situation my routines stop achieving their goals. In the worn out situation, my routines are still working. For the most part, they are solving my day to day problems and moving me forward. In the burn out situation routines are no longer achieving their goals, or they become difficult and odious, defeating their purpose. A routine should be a predictable, relatively low cost way to address common problems and meet common needs. As this breaks down, there’s a temptation to double-down on the routine, and the situation is inherently confusing. The last thing you need in difficult circumstances is a disruption to routine. Do you keep doing something that is no longer working, or change it and introduce that additional stress and complexity?

This has also been true of coping mechanisms. They started to break down and not fulfill their goals or provide relief. There is the same dilemma of doubling-down, which can become obsessive, or trying to change when you have no resources left.

In the end, change was forced on me by the COVID shutdown, and a reorganization at work which forced me to find a new job. But it was only in the aftermath of that crisis that I realized how far down the rabbit hole I had gone – convincing myself everything was OK and being frustrated for not feeling more positive about the situation. It’s still difficult to identify the big picture, long term issues that were at play in the burn out. However, since they did finally change of their own accord, it’s no longer critical to figure them out. It would probably help, so I don’t repeat the cycle, but it’s no longer a day to day issue.

Part of recovering from this has been looking at ways I create unnecessary stress for myself. I became so focused on “pushing through” that I was ignoring simple problems and stress factors that have been easy to fix and seem a bit silly in hindsight.

For example, it suddenly struck me that the lighting in my apartment was very dim. I don’t know if it started out like that with the bulbs gradually deteriorating or whether it was always that way. I was working so much at that time that I was only here in the early morning and late evening and didn’t notice. In any case, I have bought new lightbulbs and set up a daytime/working configuration and a nighttime/sleeping configuration so there is some context to the lighting. This also helps me keep a better sleep routine.

An even simpler example: a bought a bathrobe. The thermostat in my apartment is not very accurate, and I often don’t run the heater in the morning before I go to work since by the time the place heats up I am ready to leave. Now I’m working from home due to COVID that has changed, but it made me realize that I’m often just slightly cold and decide to “push through” that. The problem with being slightly cold for a long time is it leads to muscle aches and general discomfort, and that’s completely unnecessary. So I fixed it for $20. It seems ridiculous that I didn’t do it earlier, but I was in the “push through” mindset and just didn’t think about it.

I also bought some big fluffy towels. Because why not?

So I’m managing myself better on the day to day issues; pacing work, taking proper breaks and avoiding obsessing over tasks (unless it seems like that would be fun). I still need to figure out the big picture burn out issues, but if I don’t get into the “push through” mentality, that might help avoid some of them automatically.

The burn out issues probably need big changes that aren’t obvious, that will take a long time or that I can’t do much about right now. Some things have changed by themselves, and sometimes changing small things changes big things.

I go through this maybe every 5 years and need a change of scenery or direction.

We’ll see what happens next.


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