The Simple Cure for Work Burnout

Steps toward intentional leisure.

It’s 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night. The workday has been a gauntlet of meetings, status reports, and endless emailing. But that’s all over for the evening. Of course, there’s always a specter lurking in the back of your mind — that tonight might be the night everything at the office goes to pieces, and you’ll be called in to fix the mess. But no matter how you feel about the workday that’s past, once you toss your keys on the counter and change out of business casual, you still face an important question: how will you spend the hours that remain?

With automated computer systems chipping away at the availability of entry-level jobs, specialization — finding an unfilled niche and becoming the best at it — has been pushed as the perfect solution. If you can find the job everyone needs but no one is doing, you can make yourself irreplaceable. The problem with being irreplaceable is that work often takes on a greater and greater importance: if you are the only person who can do your job, you need to be prepared to perform your duties whenever you’re called upon. This naturally results in a stronger and quicker identification between self and work.

Some millennials have found this temptation to get lost in their work deeply troubling. The remedy, however, is not to drop out of college, quit your job, and go off the grid. Instead, I suggest that intentionality in leisure is the antidote to the mental vortex sometimes created by hyper-specialization. This means making small, conscious choices throughout the day about how to use our limited free hours.

It is very easy to slide into a radical separation between work-life and leisure-life. Yet even in the busiest seasons of work-life, opportunities exist for greater intentionality in leisure-life. Here are a few examples of little, yet significant choices that confront me all through the day:

  1. When I’m stuck waiting on the platform of Metro’s Red Line, I have a choice about how to spend those few minutes: I can surf Facebook or Reddit, or I can look for a more constructive use of time. I’ve recently become a great fan of commute-length podcasts—particularly 99% Invisible, which discusses the history of design in American life, and Lore, which recounts the origins of famous legends.
  2. While idly browsing on my smartphone after calling an Uber, I can follow my impulse to glance at Twitter, or I can choose something else. Surfing Twitter takes less energy, but I have a better chance of learning something new from First Things, The Atlantic, or The New Yorker.
  3. Even when I give in to the urge to watch TV, I can still make choices about the quality of that viewing time. For instance, there is a qualitative difference between True Detective (well, at least the first season) and How I Met Your Mother: one poses intellectual and emotional challenges to its viewer, and the other merely appeals to the lowest common denominator of humor. I grow more, and my perspective on the world broadens, by seeking out things that are thought-provoking and emotionally complex.

Leisure choices shape us. When we settle for the easiest leisure that comes to hand, without intentionality, our personal growth occurs exclusively within one context — the working world. This, in turn, allows our identity to get caught up more and more in the hyper-specialized role of work functionality. Meaningful growth ought to take place along more than just the professional axis: we are social, artistic, spiritual, philosophical, and physical beings, and proper perspective on life is distorted when those other parts of ourselves remain stagnant.

The easy cycle — engaging mental faculties at work and disengaging them elsewhere — all but ensures that one’s professional role will take on an unhealthy centrality. By rejecting that cycle, we reject the “daily grind” nihilism that often goes along with it. Even in the most hectic periods of life, practicing intentional leisure helps cultivate the deeply encouraging awareness that we are more than specialized inputs, that the world is still full of good and beautiful things, and that we are deeply blessed to live in it.

Intentional leisure can help you develop a sense of hope and wonder, even in the midst of overwhelming busyness and stress. That is something valuable indeed.

John Ehrett
John Ehrett serves as senior editor at Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions. He holds a J.D. from Yale Law School and a certificate in theology and ministry from Princeton Theological Seminary.

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