Editorial: You might be burned out, not lazy

As we approach the end of the semester and race to finish up our classes, the feeling of burnout becomes more apparent. Many of us have had to put up with constant studying, long paper writing sessions, neverending homework and dreaded exams. When the end seems so close, the impulse to just let go and be done with everything can seem tempting—and it’s not wrong to feel that way.

Often, however, these feelings can turn into demeaning attitudes about our own self worth: “Why can’t I get anything done? Why am I so tired? Am I just lazy?” That word, “lazy,” is the most destructive: In just one utterance your perception of your worth is immediately doubted. If you can’t get anything done or can’t stay on top of your work, then perhaps you aren’t as worthy of respect.

But that is simply not true. Your worth is not determined by how productive you are, and struggling with staying on top of work does not make you any less of a student. Perhaps, instead of laziness, the issue is actually burnout.

There are three key aspects to burnout. First is an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion. This is the most obvious sign and includes a loss of energy and fatigue. Second, there are feelings of cynicism and detachment from your work as you begin to doubt if the work you are doing is even worth it anymore. Last is a belief that you are ineffective at your job and can’t accomplish anything. All of these features together can make it seem almost impossible to get any more work done. Thus, it’s no wonder why wanting to let go can feel so enticing.

But just because you are having a difficult time being productive and getting work done does not make you lazy. Being in a competitive school such as Case Western Reserve University with challenging curricula, you might feel like you have to live up to the golden ideal of maximum productivity. This pernicious “productivity culture” is all too familiar to us and can follow us all throughout our lives.

The label of laziness is also oftentimes attached to those who have mental health struggles such as anxiety, ADHD or depression. When living in a world that prioritizes able-bodied people, these labels turn into attacks on one’s character. Consequently, these attacks feed back into the already countless struggles that disabled people and those facing mental health issues deal with, creating a vicious cycle. Despite these claims, though, you aren’t “lazy” if you’re finding it hard to get through school.

But what can you do to take care of yourself if you’re feeling burned out? There are a few strategies.

If burnout is caused by a sense of a lack of control in your life, then finding ways to regain that control can help to combat the exhaustion. Psychiatrist Dr. Jessi Gold from Washington University in Saint Louis suggests keeping track of your mood throughout the day; note when you feel particularly exhausted or overwhelmed and when you feel energized. That way you’re able to pinpoint the exact cause of your burnout.

Creating a routine can help as well. If you’re always feeling obligated to work, make sure to add time for self care. Block off time in your schedule for relaxing and spending time with friends like you would for class assignments. Hold yourself to that schedule; don’t cancel plans so you can get more work done. This new routine will allow you to set boundaries for yourself, giving you time to unwind after a long, stressful day or week. In the end, you’ll find that you’re more than capable of the challenges of college.

Speaking of boundaries, physically and mentally distancing yourself from work during your self care time is essential. Silence notifications, put down your phone, walk away from your computer—anything you think is necessary to create that distance. You don’t have to be working all the time. In fact, working too much can have the exact opposite effect on productivity. According to psychological research, burnout may negatively affect short-term memory and attention, leading to increased risk of errors. So staying up until 4 a.m. might not actually be as good of an idea as you thought.

Over these next few weeks try to keep these strategies in mind. Find space to relax and separate yourself from work. Don’t feel like you have to sacrifice your health just so another assignment can be turned in. You’re allowed a break every now and then. And remember: A little bit each day is all it takes. You’ll make it to the end sooner than you realize, and you’ll be proud of the accomplishments you made along the way. Let that be the reason you keep moving forward.

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