When I search online on the etymology of burnout, I get something like the following:
Burn until fuel is exhausted […] meaning “mental exhaustion from continuous effort”.
When we examine this a layer deeper, we notice two things:
- Fuel is replenishable, but the most critical component in burnout.
- You spend fuel with effort.
Throughout my life, this definition resonated. However, I don’t think I knew what real burnout was—and how it felt—until last year.
A Different Angle
I first noticed my real burnout during the tail-end of 2023, when I frequently found my mind going numb. My brain, which had always been a chaotic whirlpool of ideas and thoughts, had suddenly become sedated. It almost felt paralyzed, unable to make any movements to stir the deep sea of reflections and inspirations that had shaped my identity.
While trudging through my days, I coincidentally encountered a video clip of an interview with Sam Altman on Youtube. During this interview, Sam talks about his experience with burnout. Interestingly, his biggest takeaway was that burnout happens when there is a lack of momentum, not when you’re working too hard.
This was an incredible moment of unlock for me. I was suddenly able to reflect on my current situation and previous experiences and found this framework to fit perfectly. It was all about momentum.
Momentum is Everything
I needed momentum, not fuel
The reason for my burnout now became so clear. Without going into details, during the latter half of 2023, almost all facets of my life encountered impediments simultaneously. My overall momentum had come to a screeching halt. I thought I needed to rest; but even with great sleep, lazy weekends, and social media purge, I still felt the same. But rest wasn’t what I needed. I needed momentum, not fuel.
Because previous “burnout” experiences always had other facets that weren’t blocked, I had mistakenly conflated the idea of requiring replenishment and rest with recovering momentum.
Upon closer examination, this also feels obvious. When you find passion in an area, things that are hard can actually give you a ton of energy. Conversely, if you end up working on things that don’t interest you, even the smallest tasks can feel difficult. You might use “less fuel” in the latter example, but you burn out much quicker.
Furthermore, think about how we overcome projects or initiative that feel insurmountable: we break it down into smaller tasks. When we break things down into manageable tasks, part of what we’re doing is building or maintaining momentum. And I bet that many of you have felt the continuous feeling of achievement as you crossed off each task, one by one—and have suddenly found yourself with tons of energy that you didn’t know you had.
Thus, burning out isn’t about you expending fuel quicker than you’re able to replenish it. It’s about the constant flow of oxygen required to keep the fire alive and burning.
Humans—individuals—need progress to survive and thrive. In fact, I see countless examples with friends, relatives, and myself where the lack of momentum can lead to states of depression. Don’t let this happen to you.
Do everything you can to build and maintain momentum. Find friends, environments, and tools that will help blow wind to your fire. You have more much more fuel than you think you do. Initiating and conserving momentum is the most effective way to progress.
This is how you defeat burnout.