How to Overcome Burnout with a Little Help from Aristotle

Neha Sunkara '21 , Food and Wellness Editor

Burnout. A word that is heard everywhere in our society of overworking and isolation. But, what is burnout? Why should I even care about burnout? How can Aristotle, an old Greek dude, help us overcome burnout?

The term “burnout” was coined by Dr. Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s. He originally used burnout in an analogy to a burned out house. “If you have ever seen a building that has been burned out, you know it’s a devastating sight… some bricks or concrete may be left; some outline of windows. Indeed, the outer shell may seem almost intact. Only if you venture inside will you be struck by the full force of the desolation” (lifehacker.com). Similar to a burned out house, a person experiencing burnout may look like they are fine on the outside, but on the inside are burned out by the fire consuming them. Dr. Freudenberger defines burnout as “a response to stress… It’s a response to a demand that an individual may make upon themself in terms of a requirement for perfectionism or drive” (npr.org). 

There are many different symptoms of burnout, but the most common symptoms are physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, detachment from one’s work, lacking inspiration and creativity, feeling tired almost all of the time, lower immunity, pessimism, decreased satisfaction, procrastination, and isolation. Burnout is important because anyone can experience it at any point in their lives, especially in our world of detachment, distraction, and procrastination. An increasing number of students experience academic burnout from their constant school work and overscheduled lives.

However, Aristotle provides the perfect way to overcome burnout. By following his philosophy of aim, rationality, action, friendship, and virtue, we can all strive to prevent and overcome burnout.

What Are You Aiming At?

Burnout is a sign that something in your life is not working. One of the main reasons why people experience burnout is because they feel dissatisfied with their work and their life. Aristotle believes that everything in nature has a telos, or an end/purpose. Our telos is the most important thing that will help us live a conscientious, intentional life. In order to reach our telos, we need to ask ourselves the questions: “What am I aiming at?” and “What is important to me?” By answering these questions, we can discover for ourselves what makes us happy and what helps us flourish. With our answers, we can re-prioritize our goals and focus on what we love. 

Set Systems Not Goals

Another way to overcome burnout is to set reasonable goals based on your aim. When we set unreachable goals, we make ourselves more prone to stress and burnout. To achieve our goals, we should use systems. A system is a process that will help you achieve your goals through executing daily habits. Aristotle would definitely endorse systems because they are geared towards action, which Aristotle values in becoming happy and virtuous. In creating a system, you should examine where you are and where you want to be. Then ask yourself: “Is there a gap between these two places? What can I actively do to bridge this gap? What daily habits can I commit to so that I can reach my goals?”

Do What Brings You Happiness

One symptom of burnout is lacking motivation and creativity and becoming detached from your work. Especially in academic burnout, everything may seem boring and distractions such as social media become more attractive, so you begin to procrastinate. A way to break this cycle of procrastination is to make time for doing what brings you happiness. Aristotle defines happiness, or eudaimonia, which also translates to flourishing, as an activity of the soul in conformity with virtue. Aristotle characterizes a flourishing life as rational, complete, and self-sufficient. In order to live your best life, you need to choose to be virtuous. Then as we continue choosing to be virtuous in our daily lives, the virtue becomes a habit, then characteristic, then ethos or who we are. Aristotle says that this is our source of happiness: striving for moral virtue. 

…With Moral Virtue

Aristotle defines moral virtue as “a characteristic involving choice, and that it consists in observing the mean relative to us, a mean which is defined by a rational principle, such as a man of practical wisdom would use to determine it.” What does this definition of virtue even mean? Like above, virtue is a rational choice that we need to make. Nobody can make the choice for you, you need to make the choice yourself. Virtue is also a mean relative to us, which means that virtue depends on our telos. Aristotle believes that there are three types of virtue through which we can achieve happiness. Techne, or technical virtue, is knowledge for the sake of making. Techne can be achieved by mastering something like an instrument, a sport, or a craft. Theoria, or intellectual virtue, is knowledge for the sake of knowing. Theoria can be achieved by asking questions and wondering about the things around you. Lastly and the most important virtue according to Aristotle (and the most efficient way to become happy) is phronesis, or moral virtue. It is knowledge for the sake of doing. Phronesis can be achieved through striving for virtue or doing the right thing at the right time (practical wisdom).

Turn To Your Friends

Social interaction is one of the biggest ways to overcome burnout. Through social interaction, you can not only build a positive support system around you, but you also become the best version of yourself. According to Aristotle, friendship is the best way to practice virtue. To be human means to be in the thick of friendships. Friendship requires virtue. We make a choice to be friends with someone and use our rationality to communicate with our friends. In friendships, we can learn from each other and become better people as we encourage each other to be virtuous. Aristotle believes if we do not have friendship, we are harming ourselves and our ability for happiness.

Carve Out Time For Yourself

Taking time for yourself is a great way to overcome burnout. By taking a little “me time,” you can treat yourself for your victories. But, you can also carve out time for yourself in silence. By just sitting by yourself, you can ponder your telos and also reflect on your actions in striving for moral virtue. A process of reflecting, recalibrating, and responding is great for achieving moral virtue and for overcoming burnout. The process involves asking yourself clarifying questions to understand the situation (reflect), investigating questions to determine what is important in light of your telos (recalibrate), and an action which is open to revision (respond).

When A Psychologist Succumbed To Stress, He Coined The Term ‘Burnout’ : NPR

What Causes Burnout and How to Overcome It (lifehacker.com)

What are the 5 stages of burnout? | Calmer (thisiscalmer.com)

Burnout Prevention and Treatment – HelpGuide.org

Academic Burnout: How to Prevent it and What to Do When You Have it (uopeople.edu)

Tips for Preventing Student Burnout (fnu.edu)

15 Tips on How To Deal with Student Burnout (thriveglobal.com)

⏹️ Regain Motivation: Break the Stress, Burnout & Reset Cycle | Ep. 2: Prioritize – YouTube

the one habit you need: set systems & habits according to your WHY / what’s most important to you – YouTube

the one habit you need: how to set systems (vs goals) ft. tidy with me – YouTube

What It Means to Build a Life Compass (montroseschool.org)

Neha Sunkara ’21, Food and Wellness Editor

21nsunkara@montroseschool.org