How to Avoid Burnout

(illustration by Brian Ewing)

I’m an addict. For 20 years I replaced one addiction with another. I can’t even describe all of them. I’m actually embarrassed. Ashamed.

I would cling to whatever addiction was making me happy at that moment. A fire sucks the oxygen out of everything in the room. When the oxygen is gone, the  fire is extinguished. Then burnout occurs. That’s addiction. It takes every form.

(illustration by Brian Ewing)

Addictions: Let’s work 100 hours a week for fame, money, for sex, health, more fame, then F-you money, then stand on our heads, then get fancy artwork, big houses, guard dogs, pit bulls that kill people, bigger bank accounts. Heck, let’s own the bank. Then let’s double down on all of the above.

Now there is a new addiction. “All I want is freedom,” a lot of people say. But freedom from what? Who is enslaving you that you can’t get away from? Then people want freedom for their kids, or their parents, or their siblings, or their kids’ kids. Or five generations of kids. Where did all these kids come from?

(some people even carve their addictions into their bodies)

But still, “it’s all for them. Everything I do.”

Then we get burnt out.

There are two ways to avoid getting burnt out. These are the only two ways I have EVER succeeded in avoiding getting burnt out.

A) Only do things you enjoy. This might seem obvious but it isn’t. I only just started doing this in the past few years after being infinitely unhappy, getting divorced, losing money, losing jobs, careers, friends, everything I was clinging to. Eating a turkey sandwich in a diner by myself on Thanksgiving Day 2008. “Fuck it.” I was done.

I used to go out every night. “You never know,” I would think. I used to go to every business meeting I was invited to. “You never know,” I would think. I used to go on TV everytime I was asked. “You never know,” I would think. Maybe someone would SEE me. And call me and offer me and give me and want me and like me and love me. Maybe they would press the LIKE button on my face.

[Note to self: invent TV sets with “LIKE” buttons so people can LIKE people they see on TV and that somehow gets transmitted back to the TV networks.]

(can we combine the LIKE button with the TV?)

99% of meetings don’t turn into money. 99% of the news is a lie (trust me. I know them). 99% of TV is about scandal, murder, and cheating. 99% of the people on the street will lick the flavor right off your lifesaver if you let them.

Everytime you say “YES” to something you don’t want to do, this will happen: you will resent people, you will do a bad job, you will have less energy for the things you were doing a good job on, you will make less money, and yet another small percentage of your life will be used up, burned up, a smoke signal to the future saying, “I did it again.”

The only real fire to cultivate is the fire inside of you. Nothing external will cultivate it. The greater your internal fire is, the more people will want it. They will smoke every drug lit by your fire. They will try to ignite their own fires. They will try to light up their own dark caves. The universe will bend to you.

(the fire within never burns out - painting by Sam Verdegaal)

Every time you say “Yes” to something you don’t want, your fire starts to go away.

You will get burnt out.

B) Blah  blah “The Daily Practice” blah blah. I put it like that because I feel I am always talking about it. But I will explain it in a completely different way this time.

You are empty. I mean this literally. Our bodies are like little galaxies. Galaxies have billions of massive stars in them and yet the reality is the space between those stars is so gigantic that a galaxy is mostly empty. That’s like you. You are made up of atoms. Every piece of you. And yet the actual physical matter in an atom (protons, neutrons, electrons) take up only 1/50 of 1% of the space in that atom. The rest is empty.

(billions of stars but 99.99999% empty)

So you are empty. There’s nothing really there. The real you, the real fire, is inside this emptiness.

We spend our lives afraid of the emptiness. We want to fill it with love, with money, with pleasures, with anything that could put off the ultimate decay and dissolving into that emptiness that happens to every object in the universe. Only the emptiness does not decay.

The best way I have ever found to fill that hole is not to seek external motivations to fill the emptiness. But to ignite the internal fire that will never go out. To light up my own inner sky:

Physically: take care of the little matter I have: sleep well, eat well, exercise when I can. I want my atoms healthy. I want the emptiness inside of them to be relaxed.

Emotionally: As empty as our atoms are, our emotions are even emptier. They are really just creations of an ephemeral mind that is mostly the creation of the brainwashing we grow up with. Our “education” that we get from society, our family, our friends. So emotionally I try to be only around positive people who inspire me. This way I can learn to be positive. To be a beacon to those around me. And I try to be quiet. Instead of speaking the average 2500 words a day that most people speak, it would be nice for me to speak 1000 words a day when possible.

Mentally. Your mind desperately wants to be the BOSS. It needs you to be very VERY BUSY with BS stuff so it can do all the things its good at: obsess, worry, fear, depression, exuberance, forward thinking, backward thinking, thinking thinking THINKING until…


So you need to tame the wild horse or it will tame you until you are a slave. Nobody wants that. So the way you tame it is in focused use of it. Set a goal: I’m going to come up with 10 ways I can have more time for myself. Or I’m going to come with 10 ways I can make my job better. Or 10 business ideas. Make sure the list you plan to do is a hard list. You need to make the mind SWEAT so that it gets tired. So tired that it’s done for the day. It can’t control you today. TIRE IT OUT! Then do it again. 10 MORE ideas.

I’ll tell you what I did today. asked me to come up with an online course. Maybe I’ll do a course on “The Daily Practice” but I made a list of ten other courses I could maybe teach. It was hard! I didn’t even know if I knew enough about ten different topics to be able to teach them. I still don’t know. But I did the list. My mind sweated like a pig. And then you know what I instantly did afterwards?

I fell asleep.

After sleeping about ten hours the night before. Sleeping is fun. I love to sleep. It’s a Saturday. It was 1pm. I took a half hour nap. My mind was tired. Then I woke up and wrote this.

Spiritually. Everyone and everything is equally empty. When you look at anyone or anything it’s almost as if you are looking in a mirror. They have inside of them 99.999% emptiness just like you do. The one thing you can do that might be different: they might be obsessing on the past or the future. Dreaming or Hating. Worrying or Reliving. You don’t need to do that.

The past and future are empty also.

I have money worries. I have relationship fears. I have insecurity. Will they like me, hate me, love me. Will I ever go broke. Will Claudia ever leave me like so many others have. All fears from the past, all worries of the future.

All of that doesn’t exist. It’s my mind pretending they exist.

I give up. I can’t control the past or the future. They are empty, just like I am.


When you surrender and accept the beautiful stillness around you, when you give up all thoughts of the past, all worries and anxieties of the future, when you surround yourself with similar positive people, when you tame the mind, when you keep healthy, there is zero chance of burnout.

(give up. like her)

This is the ONLY way I’ve ever ignited the fire and avoided burnout. Think about the things we worry about. How, almost 100% of the time when we look back on it we realize how useless it was.

Devoting ourselves to this Daily Practice, even if it only shows the tiniest of incremental improvements in our lives. These increments build up. Today they will build up. Every moment they will build up. Every moment they will shed the extra garbage on every level that you carry with you, the garbage that weighs you down, the external garbage that eventually goes on fire, burning you OUT, on the outside.

Instead, igniting the fire on the inside, burns a light so fierce it can’t be burnt out. Instead, you will brighten the galaxy. You will add brilliance to the lives around you. You will become a beacon, a light that attracts abundance, instead of a flickering fame that is eventually smothered.

(be the internal fire)

[This is an expanded response from last week’s Twitter Q&A. The question was from Leon Benson ‏@LeonBenson2: How do you stay as productive as possible without burning out everyday while still creating great content?]

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  • Jeremiah Stanghini

    To extend/alter one of your quotes (I’m not sure how to do strikethrough on Disqus, so I’ll just write it twice): 

    “Every time you say ‘Yes’ to something you don’t want, your fire starts to go away.”


    “Every time you say ‘Yes’ to something you don’t want, you say ‘No’ to something you do want.”

    With Gratitude,


    • James Altucher

      THAT is a great quote. Thanks!

  • Justin Mazza

    This is great James. Being in the personal growth field I know how we can become obsessed with goal setting, and the need to always be busy. Sometimes its best to let go/surrender and create a life that feels oh so good to live. :)

  • Anjanikumar

    On a broader level, i was reflecting on the very same things you have posted today.Brilliant Perspective! Real Deep! Thank You!

  • Robbie Abed

    I WISH I could press the like button on people’s faces. That would be amazing. But then we would have to include the dislike button as well. That’s only fair!

  • Lori Sandler

    Ever feel like you’re addicted to being “liked?” Especially when it applies to virtual social networking? 

  • Nick

    One thought: just as helpful would be a piece on how to recover from burnout once you’re there. I’m squarely in the middle of this right now: working hard for an impossible-to-please boss on tedious, mind-numbing work. But this presents its own problem: how do you envision a new life for yourself and take the difficult steps toward it when you’re mentally and physically wiped out?

    • Jeffrey

      Yes James, I’d like a perspective on Nick’s question as well. Your post on How to Deal with Crappy people comes to mind. But, one can’t just cut off a supply line because of one person. I have, however, set a goal to hand in my resignation by the end of the year. And while I fantasize almost daily about telling him the “truth”, the poetic justice will ultimately lie in the simple sentence without rhyme or reason. As of such and such a date, I resign from my position. Simple. Honest. Direct.

  • Capitalistic

    Another great post. I suffered three burn out incidents within a 6 month period. I learned that sometimes you have to go away to make a come back. Going away could be:
    1. Hiding from the world
    2. Surrounding yourself with silence
    3. Exercising
    4. Sleeping all day or all week

  • Patrice

    Hello James, thank you for these posts, they are helpful and inspiring to me everyday. My own experience tells me you are right on with your idea of The Daily Practice – when I go about actively and purposefully building my body, mind and soul each day, life takes on this momentum where good things start happening, and where I previously felt drudgery and despair, I kind of start to…glide. Thanks for your writings; they keep me on track. 

    • CRLife

      I totally agree.  I handle the stressful stuff so much better when I’m taking care of my mind, body and spirit first.  I used to always put work first for fear of going broke.  Then I realized that was a fear-based life and I felt stressed and crappy all the time.  After I switched things up, put my mental and physical well-being first, everything is just flourishing and thriving.  At least it seems that way.  Either way, the altered perception is still a great benefit.  I’m happier.

  • Ron Fontaine

    I turned 50-years old last year, and suddenly it occured to me that I don’t have many years left – maybe 25 good years if I stay healthy.  And that is not alot.  Add to that the fact that time appears to move faster and faster with each passing year.

    I am here to say that Altuchers post here is spot on. You can learn this the long and hard way, or perhaps learn from people who have been there before you (grandparents used to perform this function, in the days before broken families were the norm).

    I wish I could have learned first from those who went through stages of life ahead of me.

  • Benfriedrich

    When will you be coming out with the “Daily Practice” iPhone app?

  • Noob Traveler

    I have been reading your blog for about 3 months now.  I found you through a TechC article.  
    Like many of your readers, I am drawn in by your authenticity and sense of concern for the well-being of your readership.  This combined with your modesty and sense of humor keep me coming back to the “JAC”.  I have a question for you, and would love a response if you find the time to reply.  – It appears that you had a life pivot (to use an overused startup buzz word) around 2008, when much of the Daily Practice began to come into focus for you.  What role do you think that your financial independence played in your ability to begin to see this new way of self understanding and life practice?  I think a self taught axiom for many of us, is to get ahead financially enough so we can have our own AhHa moments, our own moments when we understand that excessive pursuit of money, sex, power etc puts us out of balance.   So, it appears from the outside looking in that you may need that financial independence before you can start seriously re-shaping your own life.  Can you say this was the case in your own experience?

  • lila26

    I needed a post like this so much today.  Thank you very much.

  • Jim Kasper

    Hi James,
                       Tidbit for the day: Pigs do not sweat.

  • Sandra

    Understanding that because of dependent arising all phenomenon is empty (of inherent existence), really helps the mind relax and become more expansive. Likewise, impermanence–which has a causal relationship to both. You can really observe this in people who have had a direct experience of this. They’re not even sweating it, but graciously explaining it over and over for the rest of us.

  • Dspidero

    Thanks James.  Again.  I sent this article as a response to this: (which is what you get when you have two little girls like you have and the elder wants to write instead of go into college debt).  Do me a favor and read it.  Better: Reply to it.  Thankssss

  • debster2

    A new question James: can you do a post about forgiveness? (forgive me pls if you already have!) Ive got a neighbor gardening and encroaching/scavenging on our property. We visited a friend this aft who despite knowig we didnt want to expose our toddler to death kept insisting on talking abt how our dead dog died (we left!). I feel so solitary in my rightness but wonder what you think abt forgiving people – even assholes or good people temporarily acting like assholes?

  • kamalravikant

    This is one of your best posts, James.  And please continue to encourage the Daily Practice each time you get the chance.  It’s so simple and transformative. 

    • kamalravikant

      Just re-read the post again, slowly, savoring it.  This really is one of your best.  

  • PC

    Ok that’ll be one turkey sandwich. Anything else? Great post James. You are helping me.

  • Investlike1percent

    running so fast and afraid to fall if i stop.

  • Landmark Tax Group

    After reading this, a push of the “Like” button is definitely in order. Thanks for another great post, James. 

  • New Superhuman

    Brilliant stuff. Thanks and blessings.

  • Mickeyd346

    How does making lists prevent burnout? What is it about your brain that you love to make lists? I hate lists!  Lists to me create a new set of  responsibilities and expectations. Just do it I say. You don’t need a list. You need to find one thing you want to do over everything else. And I sure as hell don’t need to exhaust my brain with making lists. An overactive brain gets ya to burnout in the first place. Where did you get that incredible photo of the girl who gave up? Fab shot…cheers

  • Mickeyd346

    I just realized you’re talking about two different things..burnout and an addictive personality – both can be mutually can have an addictive personality and never suffer burnout.I    would think an obssessive personality or a perfectionist is more prone to burnout.

  • Mickeyd346

    I would cling to whatever addiction was making me happy at that moment.  You wrote that and then wrote…Only do things you enjoy to avoid burnout. Well, you were enjoying your addiction so why would you get burnout by your definition?.And when is it passion versus addiction?  Is Zuckerberg “addicted” to programming or passionate about it? 

  • dcaseyrowe

    Fantastic Post. I’m trying to reconcile “Always do things (I) enjoy,” with “(my) job is to make my boss look like a hero (different post).” At the moment, I’m not succeeding, but it gives me fodder for my comedy routine. Thanks, James.

  • mgmarino

    James –
         This is one of your best and most concise posts in the series of TDP –
    Always sending you many Blessings for your Love of spreading the power of being in the NOW –

  • Chubbydavis

    Does a happy hooker give better sex?

  • Olaoluwa Naphtali Kola-Omiyale

    Although what I’m about to post here is totally out of context but James I have to stance my reiteration about your psychics, perhaps not, perhaps yes – A ghastly incident involving a plane crash occurred very near to my residence. The plane nose-dived into one of the neighborhood killing 153 people  not sans those that were on ground (they were BURNED OUT). So painful really and here you are talking about its avoidance. I’m totally sorry for putting this up, but should we put our blame on civilization and reroute our self back to the antiques of the past? Is that a way of avoiding being burnt out talking about the physiological perspective ?

  • jmdanmar

    Wow! I feel down today and came over to see what fun things James would talk about. Imagine my disappointment when I found out life sucks!   My problem is not, not doing what I don’t want to. My problem is doing what I want to. Like work! You need a job to work. That’s what I want to do but can’t. Because I don’t have a job. Because doing things that don’t cost money can only take you so far. At some point you’d like to go to Europe or drive down the American West Coast to Hollywood or spend a couple of months camping across Canada. Or at the very least get your house fixed so you can sell it and get free from that ball and chain. But mostly because you want to feel useful and productive and good about yourself..

  • jmdanmar


  • Kevin Friedman

    Hi James… great post as usual. Funny, I was just thinking about the idea of “burnout” today. I thought you might appreciate this quote from Parker Palmer about burnout which I think speaks to “Only do things you enjoy”:

    “One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a conditon called BURNOUT. Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess — the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is the state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.”

    And this part is the kicker… Palmer’s solution to burnout:

    “When the gift I give to the other is integral to my own nature, when it comes from a place of organic reality within me, it will renew itself—and me—even as I give it away. Only when I give something that does not grow within me do I deplete myself and harm the other as well, for own harm can come from a gift that is forced, organic, unreal.”

    What do you think?

  • mikeyhell

    It occurred to me today that I no longer read the news online (never did pay attention to tv or papers). It hasn’t even been a conscious decision on my part. I think it just happened on its own as a result of doing the daily practice and reading Altucher. Thank you, James!

    PS, it’d sure be helpful if you stuck a permanent link to the original daily practice blog somewhere on the front page so that it’s easy to find when needed.  Most of the time your links are to and not to the original post. Or am I missing it somewhere conspicuous? thanks, m

  • C. k.

    Clearly, George Costanza had it right then?  

    George:  Why did it all turn out like this for me? I had so much promise. I was personable, I was bright. Oh, maybe not academically speaking, but … I was perceptive. I always know when someone’s uncomfortable at a party. It became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I’ve ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong. My life is the opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every of life, be it something to wear, something to eat … It’s all been wrong.George : Yeah, I should do the opposite, I should.Jerry : If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.George : Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something!(Reprinted with no permission)C.K.

  • Edward Liu

    James, this piece is just beautiful. Been having a rough time these days, and your entry immediately gave me some breathing space.

  • Steve Goff

    “Remember, today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday”
    – Dale Carnegie 

  • Steve Goff
  • Patrick Halstead


  • Miruna Macavei

    James, amazing article! Thank you. Going to print it and read it again. Thank you, really.

  • neena

    What an excellent post!  I have been moving toward doing only what i like to do. Thanks for the very insightful explanation.

  • Rich Collins

    Great Post. It reminds me of my favorite music video, Amor Fati by Washed Out:

    “Inside you’ve got the light to guide your fate. Decide the world you’re going to find”

  • Mario

    Best one yet, James. Thanks a million