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Set Limits at Work to Beat Burnout

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006

It's easy to snicker every time another high-level executive steps down to "spend more time with his family." Especially since such announcements are often closely paired with reports about earnings that must be restated, plummeting stock prices or federal indictments.

But what if they are telling the truth? Can even "the perfect job" get to be too much?

Burnout is real, and it doesn't strike just middle-aged workers at the top of their game. If anything, super-ambitious young workers seem especially vulnerable. They have known what they want to do with their life since oh, age 6, and everything since then has been a relentless pursuit of that goal. So what happens when they reach it? And even worse, when it doesn't turn out to be what they thought it was? Burnout can happen in a year, or it can happen in a decade.

"Burnout is an internal issue," said Mike Staver, an executive coach in Fernandina Beach, Fla. "There's no real correlation between hours spent doing something and burnout because it isn't just about activity." At its core, he said, burnout is the result of investing more and more energy for less and less return. Eventually, it leads to collapse.

Most of Staver's clients are older workers, but he has seen signs of burnout in people of all ages. In young people, he said, burnout is often a result of hyperstimulation and confusion about where to invest energy. "Somewhere we got this mindset that more choices would mean better choices," he said. "And that's not necessarily true."

So we hop around from one big thing to another, wondering why they all leave us exhausted and unfulfilled. Often it's not the specific career, though, or the job. It's the way we have structured our lives and the habits and expectations we have brought from school to the workplace.

While many older workers can trust their families to pull them back out of the fire (even if they must come kicking and screaming), young workers are often on their own.

But there are things you can do to control the damage while you figure out if any big changes are needed.

· Limit the stimulation. You might look like a Luddite to your friends if you withdraw, but that iPod at your desk is really not helping matters. Nor is the constant stream of IMs. If most of your work is at a computer and the Internet is proving a constant distraction, you're going to have to get the surfing and chatting under control. Staver recommends an old-fashioned solution to the problem of chronic multitasking: Set aside blocks of time to complete specific tasks. Don't allow yourself to be interrupted for other things. This works particularly well with managing e-mail, because your reward for responding to e-mails is -- of course -- more e-mails. You could easily sit there all day answering them as they pop in, never getting anything else done. Doing this will take discipline, Staver warns, but in the long run, the habit pays off.

· Limit the obligations. "What you say no to means more than what you say yes to," Staver said. "We don't have infinite time and energy." Concentrate your efforts on what means most to you. This might feel weird at first, since many twenty- and thirty-somethings grew up in an environment -- 24-hour shopping, movies on demand and the constant flicker of video games -- that equates old-fashioned resting with "boring." You're not a loser if you're asleep by midnight every Thursday while your friends are trolling for dates at the neighborhood bar; you're well-rested for work the next day.

· Limit the power that mistakes have over you. When you're just starting out, it's easy to obsess about every little error you make on the job. And you'll definitely make plenty; that's just part of being young. But you should be learning from those mistakes and moving on. Otherwise, you're just wasting precious energy on yet another thing you can't control -- the past.

Wising Up at 30

Do you turn 30 this year? What is the most important thing you know now that you wish you had known when you graduated from high school? If you're willing to share your story for a column on the subject, e-mail me at slayterme@washpost.com . Please include your full name and daytime telephone number.

Join Mary Ellen Slayter for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers at 2 p.m. March 6 athttp://www.washingtonpost.com.

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