The Burnout Equation


What if I told you that caring deeply and doing impactful work does not have to lead to burnout?

(Seriously, check in with yourself as you read that question.)

Are you skeptical? Does it make you feel hopeful? Are you pretty sure that I’m just trying to sell you something?

What I have learned after twenty-plus years of activism and caring work is that burnout does not have to be a given part of that work.

And if you are feeling burned out, it is not the result of some sort of weakness or failure on your part.

In fact, I have identified a clear equation that leads directly to burnout—that has little to do with the person experiencing burnout. This is true for people across the care-taking and change-making spectrum: parents, teachers, medical workers, coaches, kids of aging parents, activists… the list goes on.

And yes, it’s true that often when we find ourselves in these roles, burnout often follows. But once you understand the equation, you can start to shift each part of it in order to create a bit of breathing room between yourself and full-on burnout.

In my experience, there are three main contributing factors to burnout:

  1. Too much work
  2. Too few resources
  3. Unclear and/or impossible goals

(Please not: these factors can take place on both the systemic and individual levels.)

This is why quick fixes like that bubble bath and sheet mask might not fix your burnout. It’s why we end up in burnout not once, but over and over again. Because the odds—and our environments—are often not stacked in our favor.

The good news is that there are small, mindful steps we can take to start unwinding that burnout, and interrupt the cycle of burnout.

Get a feel for the landscape.

When it comes to the question of “too much work,” we often feel overwhelmed and don’t even know where to start. This is because we aren’t able to really see everything it is that we do.

The first step is to make a list of everything that you do—big and small—in a day or in a week. This will help you to gain perspective on how you’re spending your time and what it is that you really do.

Once you can see this, perhaps you’ll appreciate all of your work a bit more—and have room for negotiating some places to cut back.

Develop a sense of what you really need.

Before we can address getting you better-resourced, you need to understand what it is you really need. Often, when we begin or ramp-up our self-care practice, we’re simply adding more to our plates, without considering whether these are things that will truly nourish us.

Make a list of—in a dream life—what you would outsource first. These are your most-dreaded tasks and things you tend to avoid or procrastinate.

Then make a list of how you would spend that time instead. Between these two lists, you may be able to see a pattern of that kind of help or reinforcements you need, and what would resource you deeply in place of the thing you dread.

Start to cross things off your list.

When burnout rears its ugly head, sometimes we truly need to triage. We order takeout a bit more often. We leave the vacuuming for next week. Our email response times get a little more lax.

We do this in service of our physical and emotional well-being because we know that in deep burnout, our wellbeing needs to be our priority. In short, we let things get a little messy and imperfect.

I wonder what might happen if we started this process before the burnout strikes. With this in mind, the question becomes: are you ready to let go of perfection to have more peace?

I know, all of that is easier said than done. And I’m not suggesting that we fail to be accountable or become rude and selfish. (Honestly, if you’ve gotten this far, I’m pretty sure you’re not at risk of becoming a selfish jerk.)

Instead, when we endeavor to understand where our burnout comes from and start to ask questions about it, we can start to transform it. And that benefits not just us, but everyone around us.


Christy Tending is an activist, educator, and writer. She teaches online courses about sustainable self-care to students all over the world, and hosts the podcast Tending Your Life. She lives on occupied Ohlone territory (Oakland, CA) with her family. You can learn more about her work at www.christytending.com.

Image courtesy of Anna Tarazevich.

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