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Avoiding Burnout

When I was in graduate school, friends used to ask me about various television shows or movies that had come out, or for my reaction to a popular book. I never had a response because I was always working professionally in the academy full-time and studying or attending class. I was so conditioned to think in an academic sense that the external popular culture alluded me. Even now at this point in my life, I can barely read a comic book without scanning it first because I still am so conditioned to plow through piles of readings and paperwork.

Post-graduate school it has been difficult as well because I never “turn off.” We may punch in from 9-5 (or more accurately, 7:30-5:30) but I am coming up with ideas for administrative improvements, faculty development, and research projects at all hours of the day and week. For me, I am always chasing something and that creates both stress and the likelihood of burnout as an academic professional.

The information offered below is not groundbreaking or exhaustive. As a further caveat, self-help is not my specialty and I certainly retain my failings and flaws. Still, I am an academic sharing a similar path that you all are walking and I can empathize with a lot of the experiences that occur inside and outside of the academy. This page represents prospective means of dealing with stress and other difficulties that might lead to burnout.

Stress Management

Diet

People around campus kind of make fun of me for my eating habits. Diet is important in reducing stress though. I do not adhere to any particular scheme (vegetarian, Atkins, South Beach, etc.). I just heavily limit certain foods. Trust me, I want to eat donuts and chicken wings every day; but I know that I would feel worse about how it affected my energy afterwards.

Everyone is different in what they can limit and tolerate- just start small. I started eating healthier when I was 14 years old. The first step was cutting out regular sugar-laden soda. Aside from trips abroad, I do not think that I have had a regular soda in about 15 to 20 years. Regular Coca-Cola now tastes like maple syrup to me. After the soda, I started adding a few other restrictions and eventually healthy eating became a habit. Small changes add up over time.

Exercise

People always talk about how they feel better when they work out due to the release of dopamine. They will get to the gym, work out, and feel great. I usually work out twice a day. Honestly, I hate working out. The only joy that I get from working out is the conclusion. However, I am even more miserable when I do not work out. It is a habitual part of my life at this point and I cannot skip or avoid it.

So at this point, it is less about whether I will work out or not and more about keeping myself interested. For me, I supplement the typical gym-style workouts of cardio and weights with martial arts. It is easy to relieve frustrations from work and life when you are punching and kicking objects or people. Find what works for you and go with it.

Sleep

This one is tough, especially if you have young kids. I would love to sleep more than 6 hours a night but it does not happen these days. However, sleep remains one of the primary ways to alleviate stress.

Work/Life Balance

Social Life

I actually have to schedule time to meet with friends. I have the compulsory familiar obligations that most folks maintain. However, not all of those ventures are scheduled strictly for my enjoyment. You have to make sure that there is time scheduled for yourself.

If you are new to the area, then try joining a social club or sports league. Again, this could be a difficult assignment with young kids. As with sleep, do the best that you can.

Vacations

My dad was an aerospace and mechanical engineer that worked six days a week as long as I can remember. I think that we took one week-long vacation when I was 6 years old and then rest of the time we took short 2-3 day trips to visit family. He is on the doorstep of retirement and still has months and months of vacation time accrued. The one thing that he always talks about is wishing that he had traveled more over the years.

I am not very good at taking long vacations (or even days off) either. Maybe it is ingrained from watching my dad. It is difficult leaving work behind. Still, I do try to escape and travel more than he did. There are plenty of cheap getaway options for any budget.

Spirituality

I am not talking about religion, though that may play a part in an individual’s spirituality. Spirituality in this sense relates to the higher sense of purpose. As well, it denotes the positive connectivity of an individual with the people and environment surrounding them.

Meditation is often involved with martial arts. When I am teaching, I do not tell the students what to focus on. Sometimes I encourage them to relax and empty their minds. I am really just trying to have the students engage in whatever will provide them a better contextual concept of self.

Create Meaning

You as the individual need to define success in the academic field and in life. It likely will entail many more things than merely successfully publishing a book or obtaining a specific rank within the field. The true definition of success might include:

  • Attention to both personal and professional development
  • A stability between work and play
  • A balance of both scholarly and pragmatic impact in your field
  • Supportive and loyal relationships

Consider some of the above conversation and work to make positive changes in order to avoid being burnt out at work. The collective VIU community will benefit as a whole from these efforts.