Academic Burnout: Some Ways to Inch Along until You’re Fully Back Up and Running

Academic burnout is real and serious. When I went through a very long bout of severe burnout, the things that helped me to inch along were the following:


I determined the causes and sources of my burnout and eliminated all causes and sources, as much as was within my power.



When I just couldn’t draft, doing easy/organizational type stuff that set me up to work well and created desire to work.

Talking my writing into audio files.

One guy “wrote” his entire dissertation this way and then just hired a typist to type it up!

Even when I ended up discarding many of the ideas I talked out, this activity kept me engaged and working at the thesis.

Tips/Notes about #2:
If you try this, it is imperative to keep your audio files labeled, 2 minutes or less in length, and well organized. Audio files longer than 2 minutes are HARD to listen to when you’re excited/motivated, much less when you’re burnt out.

I have found XMind to be AWESOME for this. Easy, easy, easy: Make your mind map of labelled nodes that is basically an outline of your writing project, right click on a node, and speak! Replay, edit, annotate to your heart’s content. Later, to actually do real drafting, play back a node’s audio recording and type into Scrivener/Word/etc. as it plays back.

Only (super-duper) small, small drawback to audio-notemaking in XMind: You can only create one audio note per node. If you want to add another audio not to a node, you have to create a child node to contain the audio note. Not a big deal!

NOTE: Playing back and hearing back my “talk=writing” about my thesis really kept my mind on it and motivated me to do some additional work to improve the talk/writing, no matter how little. Sometimes I just had to change MODES of working: “Writing” became “talking-then-typing-up-the-audio-playback.”

And, there has been an AWESOME side effect from doing this: The readability of my prose improved!!!

Working around seriously-working, momentum-having, people whom I found inspirational or whose opinions about me mattered to me at least some .

There is something about being in the presence of people who are about their business that helps you engage some–even if it’s not up to the normal intensity–with one’s own project. I would just watch them and think, “Wow. They are seriously planning on graduating and capitalizing upon this blessing of having the opportunity to pursue this degree. They are not playing around! What am I doing with today? Wow. Well, hmm: Truth is, I really am dealing with burn out. But, well, looking at so-and-so and the peace he/she has in working and moving forward, perhaps I can at least manage/do ________ today.”

Visualization. I can’t tell you how effective for me it is to take a moment–just as I’m sitting down to start working–to visualize myself holding the end-result of the upcoming working session (e.g. a three-page, DONE section). I wonder now all the time why the HECK I don’t start every single session with visualization! For me, working without a PICTURE of the end-goal in mind is like just aimlessly sitting down to “do stuff.” So, given how impactful these activities are for me, you would think, then, that I would now faithfully make a plan for each work session and do a visualization of the end result of each work session. But I don’t often remember to do these things! 

And this, specifically, is what doing those things does for me: The visualization genuinely amps my thesis-related and work desire(s) and makes me goal-oriented . . . in both my thoughts and feelings. It’s like the visualization causes me to metaphorically do a wistful hand extension to the end product that I am visualizing and causes me to think, “Yes . . . I want thaaaaaaaaaaaat (done section, finished paragraphs, completed figure, etc.)” It’s a commitment/dedication move that is SERIOUSLY EFFECTIVE

#6 (The effectiveness of THIS one surprises me all of the time!)
On my Windows smartphone, I have a message-containing “tile” that periodically “flips” so as to grab my attention.

  • One side of the flipping tile says: “Motivation gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”
  • The other side of the flipping tile says: “You can finish if you WANT to. :-)”

For some reason, this flipping tile is VERY powerful for me. These two messages go STRAIGHT to both mind and heart: I don’t have to every moment or work session be motivated to work; I just need to keep up the habit of doing SOMETHING that truly helps me progress–whether organizational, motivational, substantive, etc.

And the other side reminds me to MAKE NO MISTAKE ABOUT IT: This is only going to happen if I want it to. It’s not going to happen if I don’t actively want it to happen.

Every time I read that “if you want it” side of the tile, I automatically (without thinking) ask and answer the question: “Yeah, but do I want it?” For me, if I’m honest, that answer is always yes. This has never changed. And then the little tile quickly flips around and tells me that, yeah, motivation may have gotten me started, but habit is what’s getting me finished

The end result? I get to downplay motivation so that motivation as an issue is not a stumbling block, and I get to focus on habit maintenance. For some reason, habit maintenance is less emotional for me and more a robotic type thing that my heart doesn’t have to approve I can just sort of go on “auto-pilot” because it is now just about habit maintenance and not about “feeling it.”

I say to myself, “Okaaaaaaaaay. Need to sit down at the computer and put in an hour. Let me close my eyes and visualize the small deliverable that would be GOOD to create real quick. Okay. Let me open the file/program. Hmm. Looks like I need some tea. Let me put on the tea and, while it’s making, scroll around in the file. ” This may not be work for all, but as I mentioned at the start of sharing all of this, this was about INCHING along, because that was all I could do as someone seriously burnt out.

Blogging to share what I learned or was good at already, as a grad student, to stay engaged with thesising

An article on burn out recommended it. People accused me of procrastinating. I was SEVERELY burnt out!: Brain wasn’t having thesising! Blogging saved my project for several reasons, not the least of which was that seeking graduate student-relevant websites to LINK TO THE BLOG was how I found PhinisheD! 

May not help all, but blogging gave me a sense of responsibility and dignity: People emailed me to tell me how helpful certain posts were and asked me about my project. This made me feel like I should probably finish that thing some day, since I had the gall to blog to “help” those newer to grad school than I, ya know? 

So, many people criticized my attempts at maintaining engagement in the project when those attempts came in the form of organizing. (“How many times are you going to reorganize, Z?”) But, at least I was thinking about my project. I was NOT on Facebook. I was NOT video gaming. (Though I don’t judge anyone there at all!!!). I was re-reading “How to Write a Lot.” I was increasing my math ed research knowledge (I read a lot during the burn out), which has lent to such confidence now in my planing and writing. I was learning about Kanbanflow, for example. My mentioning of Kanbanflow was its first mention at Phinished, and Kanbanflow has ended up being a blessing for many PhinisheD pholks.

Bottom line: I was burnt out. Audio recording into XMind, thesis-related blogging, sharing organizational finds, reading research and writing guides, visualizing, and working near “on it” folks was better than crying about it and doing NOTHING even remotely thesis-related.

I don’t know if ANY of that will help you, but I do know that you will find can find your way and inspire others in the process.

Know that many folks are behind you! Keep calm, and carry on!



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