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How to avoid burnout and keep loving what you are doing

"Busy!" "So busy." "Crazy busy." You probably get this a lot when asking anyone how they're doing; it's become the default response nowadays.
October 8, 2021
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And we congratulate them back: "Better than the opposite," "It's good to be busy!". We've internalized this dialogue so profoundly that busyness has turned into our religion, something we cheer and strike for. We even look upon it with respect and admiration; it's a dignified thing to be a busy person.

Although this speech is nothing but a complaint, boastfully disguising our dissatisfaction. We fear the dread of doing nothing, the anxiety, and guilt when we aren't working or doing something to promote our work. Busyness acts as a balm for existential reassurance, a shield against emptiness; your life cannot possibly be silly, trivial, or meaningless if you don't have time to think about it.

At the root of understanding this busyness culture, we have to dig deeper into the core of the Millennial generation: we are workaholics and unhappier than ever. It sounds counterintuitive, since we are freer and have more of everything: more stuff, options, and distractions.  

But constantly making choices increases anxiety, the burden of having to make the right one. We are never satisfied; there's still this latent despair about the world.

'Workism': the identity trap we Millennials have fallen into

Have you ever felt so exhausted that you end up numbingly scrolling Instagram instead of reading the book that you genuinely do want to read? This superficial but accurate manifestation of not making the decisions you want to make is a classic example of Millennial burnout, the feeling of reaching your limit exhaustion-wise but then having to scale up the wall and keep going. This is not a temporary affliction; it's the Millennial condition.

In theory, we should have been better off than previous generations; businesses became more efficient, opportunities broadened, and technology upgraded connection and productivity.

But looking closely, this landscape is completely flawed: efficiency turned our ideas about achieving into fetishizing overwork, opportunities forced us to optimize ourselves to be the best workers possible to compete, and the way we interact with digital technologies propels distress and makes it harder to create boundaries.

So how did we end up here?


The Do-what-you-love ethos

Some hundreds of years ago, your life's trajectory was mapped out since you entered the world. There was growing up, but there was no becoming. We see how the concept of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings, from a necessity to status to meaning. We now have the freedom to choose our path. 'Don't give up until you find a job that you love!' is one of our generational mottos, being collectively shaped as a generation whose identity is defined by their work. Our job is more than a paycheck; it's about purpose.

This emancipation doesn't necessarily content us; it translates into meeting certain expectations: finding a job that mirrors well on our parents (steady, decent pay, recognizable as a "good job"), that's impressive to our peers (at a "cool" company), and that "matters."

But there is a mismatch between expectations and reality; the modern labor force evolved to serve the needs of consumers and capitalists, not to satisfy millions of people pursuing transcendence at the office. The insatiable craving for a sense of professional purpose leads to experience burnout.


'Hustle harder': the overworking and always-on mindset

Furthermore, we have to add the burden of belonging to the era of self-optimization. Ideally, this determination to improve ourselves and by extension, society's well-being— would be fulfilling if doing so was solely driven by intrinsic motives. However, maintaining internal motivation unaltered is more challenging in a world where social media and mass media fixate on externalizing our accomplishments. We gave in to the pressure to constantly craft an image of success, seeking what society has conditioned us to believe is valuable: improving our status relative to everyone else's by hustling harder.

This work ethic is fueled by tech companies that preach a woke culture that, in reality, aggressively focuses on making money. And, since we are also the generation that has delayed several of the responsibilities of adulthood, it frees us up to work even more.


The silver lining: you don't have to burn yourself out to earn a meaningful living

The problem with this doctrine of 'Your dream job is out there, never stop hustling' is that it renders for spiritual and physical breakdown. Longer hours don't make anybody more productive or creative; they make us stressed, tired, and bitter. A society that channels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried and "meaningful" jobs sets itself up for collective anxiety and inevitable burnout.

So how to detach yourself from 'Workism,' avoid burnout, and keep loving what you are doing? By unlearning. The panacea is the opposite of what we have been doing all along: we have to start working less.


Embrace idleness

We've been raised to be people in motion, equating being busy with success and making people proud of you. 'I should be doing more,' 'This calendar looks awfully clear;' we feel productive and worthy only if we occupy ourselves to an overwhelming point.

But associating ease with lack defies all logic: what we love won't leave us just because we've reduced our output. Yes, we are all afraid of the boredom of doing nothing or not doing enough, but depriving ourselves of a state of idleness harms decision-making and creativity. This is not just for 'artists,' it transfers to any field in which creativity and problem-solving are of the essence, such as product management or UX. We shouldn't kill mind-wandering.

Taking it easy is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.


Consider the alternatives

The omnipresence of full-time work being the only route to realization has blocked our minds in the search for alternatives. We now have more freedom than ever. In a volatile economy where jobs are not intrinsically secure, the possibility of switching to more bespoken careers has to be used to our benefit.

Do you want your productivity to be judged for hours spent at the office? If not, you have to start scrutinizing your situation and look for a more life-blending work ethic.


Diversify your sources of meaning

We are seeking work that matches with who we believe we are. For today's young professionals, finding meaning at work beats family and kindness as their top ambition. We are a purpose-driven generation, but this tying-together of selfhood with work limits how to exercise that attitude.

Putting all your eggs in one basket can certainly bring disappointment; what would happen if we branch out our sources of meaning rather than career alone? "Downgrading" ourselves in this matter could open the way to upgrade ourselves in many others.


Change the narrative

The truth is some work situations are undoubtedly unfair, and not everyone has the luxury to reflect upon how important what they do is or isn't. But the contemporary narrative of entitlement to a fulfilling career clouds the fact that it's not our job's job to be meaningful. It's our choice to find meaning in what we do.

Realistically, no job will make you wildly happy every day. The despair coming from this realization can be manageable if we rewrite the narrative; ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing, find the because of it, and tie that answer to a better story.

Paula Carbajo

I am endlessly creating myself. UX/UI enthusiast. Endorphins-lover. The sea is my best friend.

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