The new school year is just getting started, yet many school leaders are already worn out. That’s what happens after years of tough decision-making and a pandemic. But Jon Wortmann of thoughtLEADERS has some ideas that can help you recover.

 Step 1

The first step to recovering faster is recognizing if you are burned out. Burnout is not a medical diagnosis. If you are depressed, you may feel burned out, but something larger is going on. Burnout is not listed in the “DSM-V Manual of Mental Disorders.” The symptoms of burnout at work, however, are very real.

From the academic research that originated the term in the mid-1970s, there are three clear symptoms that all of us who care about our work and pour ourselves into our organizations need to watch out for: chronic mental or emotional fatigue, cynicism and dissatisfaction.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you consistently exhausted, irritated with the people around you, bothered by issues that used to roll off your back?
  • Do you find yourself more critical than normal, judging and picking apart people and situations with an edge that isn’t who you are or want to be?
  • Do you find less joy in your work, perhaps even experience it to be meaningless?

These are both assessment questions and definitions of the three symptoms. Here’s the good news: If you answered yes to any of them, you can do something about it. The signs of burnout are actually the call to a different life of recovery.

Step 2

The second step to recovering faster is using coping strategies that work for you. You might wonder, if we have to cope, shouldn’t we be making bigger changes? Maybe. But parents cope with the struggles of raising kids. Athletes cope with the inevitability of overuse injuries.

So, too, is how organizational life is becoming — more like 24/7 parenting and more of a sport each day as we handle complex problems, travel the state and constantly adapt to new environments. Once you notice yourself getting cooked, recovery demands that you make time to let your brain, emotional being and body heal from the significant efforts you make every day.

Some of the strategies to employ include exercise, meditation, mindfulness, yoga, counseling, coaching, retreats, intentional breaks, walking meetings, forest bathing, checklists, time blocks, screen breaks, intentional down time, energy management, sprint planning and — the one that may matter most these days — vacation. Assess which of these you practice regularly, and make a list of the ones you would like to do more often.

Recovery is not a brain hack. It is a set of patterns you trust to give you the space you need to consolidate what you learn each day and get strong again. Want to feel better? Add one of the above strategies into your life.

Step 3

The third and most important step is planning. Months before a race, endurance athletes plan how much distance they plan to cover and at what pace. Directors know what they will shoot each day before they ever pull the lens off a camera. Scientists exquisitely prepare for experiments so they can make sense of the data they collect.

Give yourself the chance to recover from burnout faster by planning the way you work, when you work, and when and how you will get your juice back. If you live by other people’s demands and stress reactions (which usually create a false sense of urgency), how can you not feel tired, bitter and doubtful that your work makes a difference?

Finally, every time you feel burned out, remember the feeling itself is a valuable thing. It can really hurt to get so depleted that you crash. But your body sends those signals so your brain can process them. If you didn’t notice the signs that you’d gone too far, you would, in fact, be on the road to a clinical diagnosis. Recovering faster is always possible when we notice the signs that how we are working actually isn’t working, giving us that extra time to adapt before the burnout gets too bad.