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side hustle burnout Polywork

Understanding the signs of (and solutions to) side hustle burnout

The conversation around burnout so often centers around people who hate their jobs or work for companies that don’t care about their employees. So, if you genuinely love your work (and every single side project on your plate), it could stand to reason that you can’t experience burnout, right?

If only.

Unfortunately, multiple studies suggest that people who do purpose-driven work are actually more susceptible to burning out. Intense passion about your work can make it harder for you to accept when you need a break—and to actually step away.

Hopefully we don’t need to explain why it’s so important that you do nip burnout in the bud ASAP. You won’t get your best work done from that headspace, and you’ll be hurting your mental (and potentially physical) health while you’re at it.

But how can you know when you’ve crossed from a healthy amount of busy over to being on the path of burnout? And what can you do to stop it without bringing all of your projects to a halt? We dug into the research and chatted with two experts—burnout coach Dr. Kimberly Wilson and multihyphenate career coach Cynthia Orduña—to find out.

Check for the most common signs of burnout at work

The World Health Organization has defined burnout as being associated with three common symptoms—ones that can show up in small ways before things get really dire. Checking yourself for each of these is a great way to know if you’re on the way to getting burned out.

1. Energy depletion or deep exhaustion

Not feeling like you can get out of bed and get to your desk in the morning is a stereotypical sign of burnout at work. But for multipassionate folks, a lack of energy may show up on the edges of your schedule first. “You begin to distance yourself from your hobbies,” explains Dr. Wilson. “Outside interests just get put to the wayside and you lose all these other sources of joy.” Orduña adds that you may notice it in your downtime first, such as by skipping social engagements.

That exhaustion can lead to another common early sign of work burnout: fantasizing about quitting. For multihyphenates, that may take the form of daydreaming about your next venture or a totally new career pivot, imagining that it will be the one to allow you to build the balanced life your body is craving.

2. Newfound negativity or irritability

If you’re juggling multiple projects and passions at once, you’re probably used to having a neverending to-do list. But if the little things you need to do start to become a little more annoying than usual, it may be a sign you’re on the path to burnout.

Dr. Wilson says that one of the earliest ways this shows up is having less patience when other people need things from you. “Even if you're very passionate and focused, you might be a little more irritable with those who you care about or work with,” she explains.

3. Feeling ineffective or a lack of accomplishment

Finally, if you have a persistent feeling that you’re spinning your wheels and not getting much out of it, you may need to take a step back. “The passion begins to lose its thrill, and you are just feeling like: Am I even making a difference? I love this so much. I'm pouring my heart into it—but is anybody paying attention?” says Dr. Wilson.

The passion begins to lose its thrill, and you are just feeling like: Am I even making a difference? I love this so much. I'm pouring my heart into it—but is anybody paying attention?

And it may not just be a feeling: Studies have shown that burnout can lead to a decrease in brain power and an increase in procrastination. If tasks you used to breeze through suddenly seem a lot harder, burnout could be the cause.

Address the leading causes of work burnout

So what can you do if all signs point to burnout? First and foremost, you’ll want to figure out what’s causing it. Here are three that may particularly affect multipassionate people: Ask yourself these questions to help identify where you can make the most impactful changes.

1. Are you putting too much on your plate at once?

Gallup found that employees who feel they have too much to do are 2.2 times more likely to experience burnout—and that can be true even if you’re the one managing your time.

Orduña suggests deciding how many hours a week you want to work (whether it comes from a full-time job, part-time gigs, or passion projects), and then be very intentional with what you take on to fill that time. Then, to help prioritize, she suggests focusing on the impact you want to make in the world right now, and putting opportunities that don’t align with that aside. (Remember: You can return to them later!)

2. Are you giving yourself unreasonable timelines?

Maybe the issue isn’t how many projects you’re working on, but how quickly you’re trying to get them all done. “What happens with people who are burned out, is that everything is critical and everything is on fire,” says Dr. Wilson.

The Eisenhower Matrix (Source: Todoist)

This could be a good opportunity to reprioritize, perhaps with a tool like the Eisenhower Matrix. For anything that lands in the important but not urgent category—like a passion project or new hobby—ask yourself if there are ways you can keep it moving forward without putting undue pressure on yourself.

3. Do you have a support system you can turn to?

According to Gallup research, manager support and clear communication are key to preventing burnout: Knowing that someone can talk you through challenges and will have your back when something goes wrong provides an important psychological buffer.

Knowing that someone can talk you through challenges and will have your back when something goes wrong provides an important psychological buffer.

If a large percentage of your work is self-driven, or is gig work for clients who you can’t necessarily turn to for this kind of support, look for other ways to ensure you have people you can turn to, whether that’s scheduling a regular coffee with a mentor or joining communities of similarly driven, entrepreneurial individuals.

4. Do you still care about all of these projects?

While caring too much about your work can drive people to burnout, lack of purpose is just as harmful. So, if nothing else feels true and you’re still feeling drained by your obligations, it could be worth gut checking that this is still work you’re jazzed about doing.

“The thing about multipassionate people is you’re going to constantly grow and evolve. Maybe something that you loved before isn’t something that you love now,” says Orduña. It could be time to sunset one (or more) of the projects on your plate and start dreaming up new, more aligned ways to spend your time and energy.