Burnout vs boreout

I work a lot. Between running a company, learning how to code, speaking at events, writing regularly, my days are filled with work. My friends sometimes comment that I work too much. But it doesn’t feel this way. I do work a lot, but not too much. I know, because I have experienced what it’s like to work too much.

About five years ago, when I was offered a full-time job at Google, I could not believe it was true. Surely, they had made a mistake. Someone will realise that I’m not nearly as smart and talented as all the folks around, and I will get fired. The classic imposter syndrome.

As a result, I decided to work hard. Really hard. It didn’t help that my manager and I both joined Google on the exact same day. We were both eager to prove ourselves. We said yes to everything, offered to help on every project. I was getting very little sleep. This was the only time in my life I ever had coffee in the morning, because some days I could barely keep my eyes open.

Once, I was travelling for work to San Francisco, and had a call in the middle of the night with a colleague based in London. I had to present the results of some research I conducted. When he questioned the methodology, I started feeling tears filling my eyes and pretended that the connection was too bad to continue the call.

Burning out

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was very close to burning out. Or maybe I did burn out but somehow managed to power through. After all, I really had to make sure no one would notice the imposter in the room.

What I find interesting is that it was not so much the quantity of work that made it hard to cope. It was the lack of control. I had no control over the goals, no control over the deadlines.

It wasn’t the long hours that were making me mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted, it was the lack of control.

Many people suffering from burnout tend to be high-achievers, for whom a sense of control is particularly important. Moreover, it makes it harder to share your struggles with your colleagues, as mental health is still pretty much taboo and losing control is not something that will make you shine in the workplace.

The other face of the coin

But you don’t need to experience burnout to dread going to work. Turns out, burnout has a sibling called boreout, where people struggle with the “daily sameness” of their job.

What burnout and boreout have in common is that they leave you exhausted, feeling empty, and unable to cope with the demands of work and life. Early symptoms such as demotivation, anxiety, and sadness can, if left unchecked, lead to depression.

It’s okay to be bored at times. Even when working on a side project of our choice there are sometimes tedious tasks that need to be taken care of. But boreout is much more than boredom.

“You become irritated, cynical, and you feel worthless. Although you don’t have enough to do, or what you have to do is not stimulating you enough, you get extremely stressed. (…) With a boreout, you get stuck in your ‘comfort zone’ for too long, until your personal development comes to a halt.” – Steve Savels, Psychologist.

The personal development part is particularly interesting. Beside feeling in control, we need to grow through your work to find it meaningful.

Your purpose

Burnout is when you are overstimulated, and boreout when you are understimulated. In both cases, the way we are stimulated is wrong and doesn’t result in a sense of purpose. We’re less productive and less creative. Basically, work sucks.

Burnout vs boreout graph, showing how burnout is caused by overstimulation, and boreout by understimulation.

So how can you go about recreating meaning in your work?

  1. Align: ask yourself why you started working at this company or on this project in the first place. Is your work still aligned with your goals and values? If not, time to consider changing projects or changing jobs.
  2. Brainstorm: sometimes it’s hard to come up with solutions on your own. Does the lack of meaning come from the projects, the work style, the team? Sit down with a friend or trusted colleague to come up with ideas for moving forward.
  3. Experiment: don’t take radical decisions while feeling burned out or bored out. Try various small changes at first. One simple step could be to talk to a counsellor.

You don’t find your purpose, you build it. There is no silver bullet and looking for purpose can actually be one of the most fulfilling aspects of life. It can take several forms, change over time, and we can create purpose in the most surprising ways. As a maker, this sounds great to me.

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