By Benjie Shaw

How to Avoid Burnout

“The limit does not exist,” realizes Cady Heron in her redeeming moment in Mean Girls. 

Cady was solving a calculus problem. But many of us apply her mathematical solution to our lives. 

We say “yes” to anything and everything. We take on responsibilities. We fill our calendars with plans, events, trips, conferences, and, if there’s time, for pesky nuisances like exams and papers.

In the process, we get tired. The quality of our interactions and outcomes seems to steadily decrease as we feel our stress levels proportionally increasing. Eventually, we burn out and withdraw. Unfortunately, when we withdraw, we’re so used to a frenetic pace where every day is filled to the brim with “stuff” that we feel isolated, lonely, and abandoned in our withdrawal.

Not that I know from experience. This is all purely hypothetical. Promise.

Like Bugs to a Bug Zapper

All of us are aware of this phenomenon. But awareness of the phenomenon seems to do little to dissuade us from trying to be the exception to the rule. 

I burned out as a college student. As a result, I’m very aware of the symptoms in the students in ministries I lead. When I begin to be concerned about a student burning out, we have a conversation in which I encourage them to let something go. If they can’t think of anything, I ask them to drop leadership as an expression of the seriousness of my request. 

In 10 years of doing this work, I’ve had these conversations too many times to remember. Out of all of those instances, I’ve had one student follow my advice. But not a single one of them disagreed with my assessment. They all saw the symptoms. They knew other people who had burnt out. But they were confident that they could be the exception.

Sadly, they weren’t. They became proverbial bugs to the bug zapper. 

The Lie of an Unlimited Life

In his book, The Common Rule, Justin Whitney Easley connects the rejection of creaturely imitations to a disconcerting unspoken belief: “I am God.” 

When we insist that we are the person that doesn’t need the same amount of sleep as everyone else, we reject a creaturely limitation imposed on us by our creator.

When we refuse to take a day off to observe a Sabbath because we’re too busy, we say that our creative and sustaining work is more critical than the Creators’.

When we say “no” to nothing, we are unable to say “yes” to important, faith-building, character-shaping practices that sustain us for the long haul in favor of short-term appeasement, ego-building, and people-pleasing. 

Try as we might, we are not unlimited. And our pursuit of a life of no limitation strangles both our spiritual lives and our physical/mental health.

A Recipe for Avoiding Burnout

The particulars of avoiding burnout depend on your circumstances. If you’re feeling like you may be getting there (or are pretty sure that you’re there), the best thing you can do is have a conversation with someone who cares about your spiritual development enough to say difficult things to you and listen to them. 

The summer is actually a great time to do this! During the summer, you have a little more margin in your schedule to set aside for practices that can help you rejuvenate your spiritual life. You can try out behaviors or practices as a trial run for the fall. Not everything that works for others will work for you!

Also, thanks to no pesky 8:00 AM classes, you can actually catch up on your sleep! As you’ll see below, getting enough sleep is an inherently spiritual practice!

Here are five practices/habits I’ve placed in my life to help avoid burning out again:

  1. Observe a Sabbath. Take 24 hours off of whatever you consider to be work every week. Give that time to pursuing spiritual activities that refresh your soul and activities that bring you joy. Not sure where to start? Try using this guide I made. 
  2. Get more sleep. Let’s face it, for all your protestations,  you probably aren’t the exception to the rule about how much people should sleep. Enforce a bedtime that enables you to get more sleep. 
  3. Be mindful of ongoing commitments. When was the last time you sat down with a calendar and actually tried to fit all of your commitments into a week? Try it now. Is it physically impossible for you to fit attending class, studying, work, church, sleep, Sabbath, and regular personal care (i.e. exercise) alongside all of your extracurriculars? If so, you need to let some things go. Make this a practice around the end of every semester.
  4. Protect time for spiritual disciplines. When we get busy, spiritual disciplines tend to be the first things that go. Don’t allow this to be the case. And don’t allow communal disciplines (going to Bible study, attending church) to be 1-for-1 substitutions for personal disciplines (reading the Bible, prayer, Sabbath, etc.). Community is important, but the Lord is more concerned about his relationship with you than your work for him. Cultivate the relationship over the work. 
  5. Learn to say “No.” Did you cringe a little when you read that? Then it’s probably here for you. The problem isn’t that people ask too much of you. You’re probably great! Why wouldn’t they want you involved? The problem is you find too much value in people’s high opinion of you or deep down you believe the lie that God is only pleased with you when you perform. The first is idolatry and the second is a lie. Both made a certain Top 10 list that it’s generally good to avoid.

If you’re currently experiencing burnout, don’t struggle alone. Tell a friend. Tell your staff worker. Be open to speaking with a counselor. There is a road back from burnout and there is no shame in taking time to recover before reengaging. 

At the same time, it is far easier to avoid burnout altogether than it is to recover from it. You are a limited creature. Limitation is not inherently bad. You were created with limitations on purpose. Those limitations tell us things about ourselves and about our Creator. 

Have the ears to hear the invitation of your limitation.

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Benjie is a campus staff minister at the University of Georgia. His desire is to see students engage their classmates, friends, and family with the Gospel and pursue Jesus faithfully into adulthood. Support his ministry at,o,0