Oct 16, 2012 by Martha Burns, Ph.D


So it is only October and the buzz and excitement of starting a new school year has already fizzled. Life is a little boring, the holidays seem too far away, you are more tired than usual, and you are having a little trouble getting enthusiastic about your job or your children’s upcoming book reports and science projects, or whatever. What’s going on? Of course you know, burn-out.

What exactly is burn-out? Does it come from working too hard, not being appreciated?  Perhaps, but from the standpoint of the brain, burn-out occurs when motivation declines.  The human brain is designed to keep motivation levels high for activities we need to survive, those that are very rewarding, and those that involve novelty.  Hence we are usually very motivated to escape a dangerous situation, eat chocolate cake and watch a new movie we just purchased. We tend to associate reward and novelty with play and leisure – video games, a golf or tennis match, watching a new TV show or a sports event, playing a new board game,   or visiting a new vacation spot – even though we might work very hard at those activities.  Rarely do you hear avid golfers complain about golf burnout.  But you also rarely hear CEOs talk about being burned out. They may retire to relieve the stress of their job or spend more time with their family, but rarely do they complain about their workload or burnout.  Why not? Because the excitement of a new round of golf and the reward that might come from winning or achieving a greater profit margin motivates the golfer and the CEO.  However, when your daily life becomes repetitive, unexciting or non-rewarding, motivation decreases. Burn-out is really the symptom of a brain that has lost its motivation. And motivation declines when two important aspects of life are missing – earned reward and novelty.

So, what can you do about burn-out?  The answer actually comes from neuroscience research. Whether your burn-out is associated with a job in or out of the home, the solution is not to work less and play more (because poverty is not very rewarding).  Rather, the solution is to turn work into play.  And the way to do that is to imbue your day with novelty and challenges where there is an expectation of reward.

Reward thyself:  If your work is not very rewarding or your boss is not good at showing appreciation, one important key to avoiding burnout is to build in self rewards for a job well done. Each morning, next to your to-do list, make a “reward when completed list”.

  • After I work out I will…buy myself a little treat (a new pen, some fun post-it notes or allow myself a small ice cream cone)
  • After I finish my major work project I will…do something nice for myself (set aside time to watch the football game I recorded last week but never had a chance to watch, take a long hot shower with a special soap or set aside an evening with a few close friends)
  • After the house is cleaned I will…do something that makes me feel better (take a short walk to the park, check out some of the new houses for sale in my neighborhood, call a high school friend I haven’t talked to for months)

Keep it new: If a job largely involves repetitive routines, try to come up with something new to add.

  • Long boring commute – add something  different each week 
    • Try a slightly new route
    • Add a new song or pod-cast to your iPod to listen to
    • Rent audio books from the library
  • Hours at a computer – add something new to look forward to
    • Listen to music in the background using headphones
    • Make a contest or start a pool with workmates over your most boring tasks. Guessing the number of junk mail messages each of you has to delete each week – the losers take the winner out to lunch on Friday
    • Start a company softball or volleyball team, a duplicate bridge competition, a  bowling league, a game of cards at lunch
  • Change it up – change your routine
    • If you always eat lunch at noon, eat a late breakfast and take a mid-afternoon walk
    • If you always get in at 8:30 and leave at 4:30 pm, try a few days of getting in at 7:45, leave by 3:45 and go for a swim or a late afternoon hike
    • Do it a new way – rotate the pillows on each of the beds you make each morning, move the living room furniture around,  try one new recipe for dinner each week, learn a new technology to make your life a work simpler, take a management course and implement one new idea a week

Delay gratification: Make your work schedule its own reward by scheduling  your most boring task first each day and your favorite task last so all day you are looking forward to the activity you enjoy the most.

Finally, build in healthy brain-building activities to your week. A happy brain is a brain that is thinking, creating, planning, solving, and learning new things. Schedule activities outside of work that make you feel good about yourself and keep your mind sharp:

  • Bridge
  • Chess
  • Sewing
  • A musical instrument
  • Dancing
  • A class at the local junior college
  • A new hobby:  furniture upholstering, furniture refinishing, water color painting, crafts
  • A new language!

Related reading:

Lifelong Learning and the Plastic Brain

Creating the Optimal "Internal" Learning Environment