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10 Ways to Feel Motivated at Work and Kick Burnout in the Butt

No, it's not "do what you love."

As more and more mothers have to work because of the economy, rather than to create balance in their lives or to pursue an avocation, burnout becomes an ever more likely consequence. Unfortunately, if you say to yourself when burnout creeps into your life, “OK, I’ll quit and follow Confucius’ advice (found in most self-help tomes): ‘If you find a job you love you’ll never work a day in your life,’" that only adds insult to injury. Your expectations rise too high, and you come crashing down when “the loved job” disappoints like all the others.

Recognize the wisdom in what Mark Twain said: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” Steel yourself to meet your obligations and use the tips presented below to lessen the emotional load on you while doing so.

1. Most careerists feel disengaged from work.

You’re reading this so it’s safe to assume you are not feeling engaged at work. You are not alone. Most Americans—over 67 percent according to recent surveys—report some or extreme disengagement from work. The first step toward combating feelings of work disengagement is telling yourself (and accepting), “It’s normal to sing, ‘Take This Job and Shove It.'” Yes, humming the tune is a good first step.

2. It’s also 100 percent normal to feel angry when disengaged from work.

The problem with feeling angry when your job is “the same old, same old,” is that although this is 100 percent normal in your circumstance, it is nevertheless not politically correct to express anger unless you walk on eggshells when doing so. Thus, the second step toward kicking burnout in the butt is telling yourself (and accepting) that anger is a natural reaction to being deprived of a psychologically rewarding vocational experience. Seriously, how else can you feel when what you do feels demeaning?

3. You won’t beat burnout by working elsewhere.

When a person begins to suffer burnout and wants to tell whomever she works for to “shove it,” she will often fantasize that the ideal job is waiting for her “somewhere over the rainbow” and she can beat burnout by relocating. In psychiatry, we have a term for that fantasy: “the geographic cure.” The third premise you must embrace to kick burnout In the butt is that there is no such thing as the geographic cure. While you’re at it, you can also reject Confucius’ claim, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” It’s the big lie. No matter how much you believe you will “love” a job you are paid to do, you will never, ever, love it in perpetuity, particularly if it is primarily a means to an end—money.

4. Money is not motivating.

The primary reason why Confucius was wrong about work is because of the primary reward derived from work: Money. Monetary rewards should be stamped with a “sell-by” date because they lose potency over time. Whatever you earn in January won’t feel as psychologically rewarding to you in December because of what is called an “adaptation effect”—needing ever-increasing levels of a mood enhancer to feel its effect over time.

The nitty-gritty work of feeling motivated at work commences when you find “a cause” to work for or a “wrong to right.” Investing in doing something you are passionate about—other than your employment—is a precursor to feeling motivated at work because once money is a derivative of behavior, it comes under the control of whoever dispenses money (e.g. a boss). That link to a reward controlled by another person strips it of its passion-generating potential. You take the critical first major step toward beating burnout when you harness anger and use that energy on behalf of a cause—making that your primary source of self-esteem enhancement.

5. A cause is something you want to change because it makes you angry.

Go back to point No. 2, above. You’re normal and justified to feel angry on the job, and this anger is often the result of a boss that conscripts you to drudgery. So you, like most folks, have a bad boss. He’s not a cause. Case in point: 9to5, the largest organization of working women in the United States. The founders converted “my boss sucks” anger into an organization with a raison d'être of eradicating workplace abuses for all women. If you harness your anger as the founders of 9to5 did—working to redress workplace injustices such as lack of opportunity for advancement and, of course, bad bosses, for every female careerist—you will be surprised at how motivating this sort of extracurricular activity actually is.

6. “But I’m too tired after my day job to do more work…”

You feel fatigued when a job that bores you witless and makes you feel like a wage slave is what you wake up to day-after-day. To amp-up your motivation level, invest in an endeavor you are passionate about—ending any form of injustice, saving any animal species, preventing any disease from creating a pandemic. If you do this sort of extracurricular “work” you actually gain energy and feelings of being motivated on an ongoing basis. How? Passion-generated work produces natural painkillers (endorphins) that give you a feeling akin to a “runner’s high”—naturally enhanced motivation.

7. Working your butt off is motivating.

In my writings on burnout, I liken a person who suffers this disorder to the Greek mythological king Sisyphus who was punished by the gods by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill and watch helplessly as it rolled down when it neared the top, over-and-over, for eternity. These days, any job that is both laborious and futile is called “Sisyphean,” a feeling born of poor quality work, not “long hours on the job.” Silicon Valley is home to countless professionals who thrive putting in 100-hour workweeks. In the exact same manner that those entrepreneurs are motivated by their work, anyone who works to fulfill passion-driven dreams can labor 24/7/365 and feel energized as a result. To paraphrase Confucius, “Find a job that 'undoes' something you are angry about, and you’ll be motivated for the rest of your life.”

8. Mentoring and similar endeavors are motivating.

It’s very simple to stay motivated while doing your day job if part of your job description includes activities that qualify as being what psychoanalyst Erik Erikson called generative—actions that make the world a better place for the next generation. Mentoring, “on-boarding” new hires, any form of workplace improvement, does the trick. As Winston Churchill noted, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” If you give to colleagues, the less fortunate, or those who suffer, the psychological gains afforded by that sort of giving is an inoculation against burnout.

9. Be true to yourself.

In order to properly address Steps 1-8, above, you have to be 100 percent honest with yourself. Another career-guidance insight from Winston Churchill comes from a statement he made to an aide: “Every night, I try myself by Court Martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day.” He didn’t say, “I check to see if I have become wealthier” or “I check to see if my achievements have enhanced my status.” He was concerned with being “effective,” which is a feeling you get when you do something generative. If you assess yourself each day and check to see if your work enables you to be effective, versus “richer” or “more impressive," you will be well on your way to minimizing burnout because you will be enhancing your feelings of self-worth.

10. “Money has never made man happy, nor will it, there is nothing in its nature to produce happiness.”

That quote comes from Benjamin Franklin, and if you can overlook his chauvinism his insight helps me make my final point: You can never eliminate burnout if you work with an eye toward amassing money based on the assumption it is an inoculation against burnout. Sadly, most people tell themselves something to the effect of “When I’m a VP, I’ll be happy because I’m eligible for performance bonuses.” False. In truth, “When I get X, I’ll be happy” fantasies never deliver as promised because when you reach a “professional nirvana” and look around, you will see someone whose nirvana is better than yours and feel like crap.

Thus, the final step you must take to fight burnout is to disabuse yourself of the fantasy that targeting a professional goal and achieving it will result in your feeling better about work and yourself. Instead, target nothing. By simply investing in a cause you feel passionate about you will be more motivated to keep doing good than you ever believed possible.

Written by Dr. Steven Berglas for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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