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Burnout in College: What Causes It and How to Avoid It

I should have just said “No.”

About one year ago during my senior year of college, I was juggling a full course load, an internship, extracurriculars, and a social life. One afternoon, I got an email from someone asking me to help them edit their book. I knew I’d be in over my head, but the money sounded good and I wanted to prove my worth.

A few days into the project, I was exhausted, stressed, and strapped for time—all during my last semester of college. Why? Because I didn’t have the guts to say, “No.”

It was my first taste of burnout.

Stories about burnout get a lot of attention when a public figure is involved, as was the case with Arianna Huffington. But it’s clear that burnout doesn’t just happen to high-profile celebrities. The National College Health Assessment found that stress negatively affects more than 30% of U.S. college students.

It’s safe to say, then, that burnout is a pervasive problem amongst young people. But what exactly is burnout? What are the warning signs? Can we avoid it and still be successful students and professionals?

These are the questions this article will explore.

What Is Burnout?

David Ballard of the American Psychological Association defines job-related burnout as:

“An extended period of time where someone experiences exhaustion and a lack of interest in things, resulting in a decline in their job performance.”

Of course, if you replace “job” with “student,” that definition remains the same. But before you diagnose yourself as burnt out, it’s important to make a distinction between stress and burnout.

Ballard notes that burnout entails a decline in performance. It’s possible to experience stress without burning out. In fact, some stress can actually improve cognitive performance. But if your stress is taking a toll on your academic life, social life, or overall wellbeing, you might be experiencing burnout.

Burnout Warning Signs

The good news about burnout is that you can prevent it by developing self-awareness. Just like a doctor can prevent an illness by detecting symptoms, you can prevent burnout by understanding its precursors. These may include, but aren’t limited to:

  • You’re constantly exhausted
  • You lack motivation
  • You’re constantly frustrated
  • Your grades are suffering
  • Your struggling to pay attention
  • You feel disengaged from friends and colleagues

If these sound familiar, you’ll want to keep reading.

What (Exactly) Causes Burnout?

Before we jump into preventing or treating burnout, we need to understand its root causes.

Now, you’ve probably experienced stress as the result of a singular task or event, like a looming test or job interview. But burnout is different: it doesn’t happen overnight or because of one incident. Burnout can take months or even years to develop. But why does it happen?

A 2006 study at the University of Southern Maine surveyed 354 students to get to the bottom of why they were burning out.

Here’s a look at the findings:

  • 5% of students reported mental or physical issues
  • About 13% attributed their burnout to a lack of personal motivation
  • A quarter said that outside influences were a major cause: family troubles, financial issues, and time management struggles caused by things like part-time jobs
  • Less than 5% reported problems with professors to be a cause
  • The most prevalent cause, by far, was assignment overload. Almost half of the students who reported feelings of burnout cited their overbearing, overtaxing course load as the main cause of the problem

Figuring out what’s causing you to experience feelings of burnout is crucial in order to solve the problem and prevent it from happening later in your professional life.

How to Prevent and Overcome Burnout

Whether you’re just now noticing the symptoms of burnout or you’re barely hanging onto your academic life by a thread, the following strategies should be able help you out.

We’ll explore preventative strategies, sleep habits, and everything in between. You might benefit from a combination of these tips, or maybe one will do the trick. Either way, they’ve all helped me in one way or another.

Take the Warning Signs Seriously

First and foremost, recognizing the early signs of burnout and to anticipating things that cause it is the first step to freedom. It’s much easier and more efficient to manage burnout when your mental faculties are not hampered by constant exhaustion or frustration.

Unfortunately, students might not acknowledge or take action on the warning signs because they feel it’s a sign of weakness. This couldn’t be further from the truth. By stepping in early, you give yourself a chance to do better work than you’d ever be able to do under endless stress and fatigue.

So, if you feel like you might be on the road to burnout, don’t take the warning signs lightly.

Learn How to Say “No”

Young, ambitious people are often allergic to the word “no.” We accept any challenge or opportunity that comes our way because we want to impress our peers and superiors by juggling all sorts of obligations.

Taking on more work might give you the illusion of being productive and talented. But there are hidden costs: you have less time to think, reflect, grow, and learn. If we don’t draw the line, burnout is inevitable. Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, hit this spot on nearly 2,000 years ago:

“No person hands out their money to passers-by, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.”

Sleep: Your Sanity Depends On It

College culture tends to glorify the “all-nighter”: those 12-hour study sessions where bleary-eyed students chug Red Bull to crank through their term papers or cram for a final exam—as if it’s a badge of honor to be sleep-deprived and on the edge of hysteria. We don’t glorify the student who got seven or eight hours of sleep the night before and earned a higher grade than the student who pulled an all-nighter.

There’s one key difference between these two types of students: one is on the path to burnout and the other is not.

“Sleep, or how little of it we need, has become a symbol of our prowess,” said Arianna Huffington. “[But] there’s practically no element of our lives that’s not improved by getting adequate sleep. And there is no element of life that’s not diminished by a lack of sleep.”

Sacrificing sleep might give you the illusion of productivity, but in my experience, I always performed better academically when I traded an extra hour of studying for an extra hour of sleep. But don’t take my word for it. Max Hirshkowitz, chair of the National Sleep Foundation Scientific Advisory Council, suggests that people ages 18-25 should get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night. If you’re having trouble getting to bed on time and getting enough sleep, check out this guide.

Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

When I was a student, I thought it was always better to have too much work to do than not enough. Truthfully, though, you need to find a balance. A good rule to follow is this: Be willing to challenge yourself, but think very carefully before committing to long-term obligations that will stretch your resources thin. You have limitations, and surpassing them for too long can have consequences.

This lesson about moderation is especially important when it comes to determining your course load, considering that it’s the primary cause of student burnout. Cal Newport (a writer all college students should be familiar with) explained this in his commentary about that study we mentioned from the University of Southern Maine:

“…you need to be extremely vigilant about your course selection. Choosing your courses is the most important and potentially dangerous activity you perform as a college student. While you’re at it, don’t forget about your extracurriculars. If these become too demanding, even a light course schedule can still induce overload.”

If you’ve had a look at Thomas’s free book, 10 Steps to Earning Better Grades, you’ll probably recognize this as another wording of the very first tip in the book: Don’t overload the system!

Find the “Off” Switch

I developed a bad habit in college, one that I still struggle with today: I don’t hit the “off” switch when it comes to work. I respond to emails and Slack messages immediately (even if it’s late at night), and I try to knock out assignments as soon and as fast as I can (even if it’s a weekend).

Obviously, this isn’t a sustainable system. Left unattended, these long stretches of constant mental activity and periodic interruption can definitely lead to burnout. But recently, I’ve become better at catching myself in this trap and hitting the “off” switch, which in my case entails snoozing notifications and logging out of my working files.

When a computer or phone operates nonstop, it glitches and slows down. Your brain is no different. That’s why you need to hit your brain’s “off” switch so it can cool down and recharge.

While there will be some days when you just want to binge-watch Netflix or party with friends, I’ve found that the most effective escapes from work are ones where you can have a sense of progress and productivity outside of traditional “work.” This might be exercising, reading, or volunteering.

Whatever you decide, your brain will thank you.

Ask for Help

Education and adulthood can often feel like a solitary pursuit. There’s always something being added to the already-heavy load on your shoulders. But you don’t have to go through it alone. If you’re in college, there’s almost certainly a resource on campus whose job it is to help you cope with the symptoms and causes of burnout.

If you’re not comfortable with talking to a professional about stress-related issues, sometimes a good venting session with a trusted friend or family member can help you clear your mind and figure out a plan to reverse the burnout cycle. You’d be surprised how many people feel or have felt the same way, so starting a dialogue can be mutually beneficial.

You’re Already Ahead of the Curve

Just by admitting your feelings of stress and taking the time to read this post, you’ve already taken the most important step to prevent or address burnout: acknowledging of the problem. I know way too many people who should read information like this, but don’t: students who don’t have time for a social life, overworked employees who can’t escape the screen, the list goes on.

Burnout is nothing to take lightly, but the earlier you address it, the easier it is to overcome.

Looking for more tips on overcoming burnout? Check out this guide to what you should do when you’re feeling overwhelmed.