When you think about burnout, you probably associate it with imagery of people working long hours at overly-demanding jobs. You think of people collapsing as a result of too much work. You may also think of burnout as a hairline breaking point past peak performance--as if you just put too much effort into the work, went too far, worked too hard.

This a mythical stereotype that brings with it a misconception. It assumes a close relationship between burnout and productivity. In fact, you can actually struggle with burnout before attempting to get any work done whatsoever.

Burnout has more to do with how we feel about our work than the actual work itself. It is about the paralyzing stress and anxiety associated with work. And everyone has different associations with their work habits and stress. You can struggle with feelings of work anxiety and overload without ever getting a work task done.

How is it possible? It's all in your head.

Confusing being busy with productivity

We tend to associate anxious feelings at work with being busy and confuse feeling busy with being productive. We confuse the unproductive anxious stress, with the growth stress we feel when we try to solve problems and improve our lives. This creates a tendency to associate anxiety itself with productivity. We get ourselves addicted to feeling anxious and thinking of the behavior later on as "busy" when we were really just being anxious.

Conflating anxiety with productivity sets the stage for burnout. This belief sets us up for trouble before we get started doing anything whatsoever. And the trick that really hoses us, is when we think about our anxious thinking--or more specifically, criticize ourselves when we are anxious.

Want to have a full-on mental breakdown without doing much? Start by over-thinking your more anxious thoughts, then criticizing yourself for doing it. This, in turn, makes you more anxious. And round and round we go until it's time for some deep breaths into a paper bag. Then at the end of a day of this kind of thinking, we're exhausted. We feel mentally and emotionally drained, as if we put in a hard day's work. You get the same effect when you have too many cups of coffee. You're wound up and when you settle down, you feel worn out.

This is a more serious problem than many realize. Friends and loved ones won't notice or validate feelings of burnout because--wait for it--you didn't do enough to earn it. Ouch. 

So what do you do? Don't wait for yourself or others to have panic attacks for one. Here are some other helpful ideas.

1. Have compassion for others

Under the hood, there could be an engine spinning out. You might not notice. Ask questions. Check-in.

2. Train yourself to have a bias for action

When you catch yourself overthinking, pick an action to take and take it. Give yourself permission to take an ineffective, or less effective actions, if only to ward off anxious feelings. If you can't think of an action appropriate to the situation, go for a walk, a run, yoga session, or a gym workout. Choose a physical activity that will elevate your bilateral brain operation. It will calm you down and help you creatively solve problems.

3. Write down what you get done

This is common sense, but how many people do you see who keep lists of what they've done. There are more people creating to-do list apps than actually and regularly practicing the habit.

4. Compare yourself only to yourself

Ask yourself only to be a little bit better than you were yesterday. Even the smallest 1% improvement made every single day would make twice as good in 72 days.