Academic Burnout: Taking Breaks and Breaking Habits

“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.” — Muhammad Ali
Though this saying has been around long before Muhammad Ali, I think this sentiment explains the ways we forget about what's really important to us during bigger endeavors. It's very relevant to burnout that students and faculty face. When my friends and I recall the troubles and trials we have faced over our college years, we often draw upon the long nights with problem sets, lab reports, essays. I sometimes wonder that, when I feel tired after finishing a Logic proof, whether or not I will truly be able to handle much more difficult and demanding work in the future. My initial impression of future problems is that the endurance necessary for a graduate-level education or any cool career is much greater than anything I have to sit through during my four years working towards an undergraduate degree. I've even been considering taking a gap year or two before graduate/medical school. It becomes apparent, though, that, in order to prepare ourselves for challenges and problems of the future, we must learn how to adapt to the minor struggles that will continuously wear away at ourselves over a long period of time. I think Dr. Richard Gunderman put it best when he wrote, "Burnout is the sum of hundreds and thousands of tiny betrayals of purpose, each one so minute that it hardly attracts notice."

My personal habits and behaviors during academic semesters tend to follow a similar pattern: I start out semesters with a type-A personality about my schedule in which I wake up early, exercise well, attend classes, research, and get to bed early. But, throughout the group-work required by problem sets and poor planning/organization of events, I find myself slowly shifting towards the more erratic, unpredictable schedule of a night owl who can't fall asleep unless he has drained his mind while browsing Reddit. It would usually seem impossible or highly unlikely for me to be able to achieve complete autonomy on my schedule and daily behavior with the unpredictability and instability of the college life. The semester would finish with my poor habits falling into summer and winter breaks only for the cycle to repeat once the semester starts once again.

Burnout, certainly emblematic of bad habits that are molded together over time, has its roots in something deeper than social phenomena of how much pressure people face when working. Burnout is more of a personal issue in which one fails to find meaning or value in what he/she does anymore. Ayala Pines, an Israeli psychologist who has done extensive research on burnout, has written that "The ones who had some traumatic experience related to insurance when they were children—their house burned down or whatever—they can work for a long time without burning out because they came to the profession with a calling. They feel their work is significant.” If students can work to find significance of whatever they do, then they too will be sure to work optimally in the future and, hopefully, avoid burnout. The college student who fails to find meaning in what he/she does over time is much more likely to suffer burnout than the one who can sincerely take the time to appreciate a true purpose in his/her education. Perhaps while I assumed that my temporary academic burnout at the end of the college semester was due to poor decisions of the nature of my lifestyle during the school year, if I were to model my daily and short-term decisions in the context of wider, overarching purposes that gave significance to my education, I might be able to develop an endurance that will drive me throughout my career. Instead of studying and working for vapid, lazy reasons, it might be more helpful for us to engage in a healthy self-reflection of what our purpose is in our daily routine. This would eliminate desires to procrastinate, plan poorly, and other unhealthy manifestations of a lost purpose.

In order for us to tackle academic burnout, we must understand how habits are formed and how to break the bad ones. Similar to the minor struggles that work away at our purpose over a long period of time, temporary examples harmful behavior will create bad habits that will eventually instill into greater behavior, or worse, character. And only a poorly-written blog post that attempts to find value can save me from the reality of meaninglessness of my education.