Burnout is as much about your dreams as it is about your work, because burnout is the gap between your expectations and your ability to meet them. Jennifer Senior has a great article in this week’s New York Magazine about about burnout, which I will quote from here.

Burnout is not about how many hours you work, (contrary to Lisa Belkin’s New York Times column this week), but if the hours you work bring you desired results. For example, if you have very flexible hours and can go on an early date and then go back to work after dinner and you get eight hours of sleep, a 100-hour week might be fine for you. In fact, Ayala Pines, professor at Ben-Guiron University at the Negev, found that serial entrepreneurs, known for working very long hours, were the workers least prone to burnout. (Those most prone are pediatric nurses in burn units.)

Burnout doesn’t come from overwork but from an inability to get what you need from the work, according to Christina Maslach, professor at University of California, Berkeley. She created the wideley used Maslach Burnout Inventory to test one’s level of burnout. Senior describes the six areas of burnout to watch for:

1. Working too much
2. Working in an unjust environment
3. Working with little social support
4. Working with little agency or control
5. Working in the service of values we loathe
6. Working for insuficient reward, whether the currency is money, prestige, or positive feedback

The effect of burnout is depersonalization, according to Barry Farber, professor at Columbia University. He says, it’s not that people are uncaring, but “their level of caring cannot be sustained in the absence of results.” Senior describes it more poetically, “People who are suffering from burnout tend to describe the sensation in metaphor of emptiness — they’re a dry teapot over a high flame, a drained battery that can no longer hold its charge.” This is no small thing, and we should all be watching for it.

What can you do? Align your expectations with reality. Senior reports a body of research that shows younger people burn out faster because of thier unrealistic expectations, and older people have more perspective based on their experience. But this is hard to control, because if you don’t have experience what can you do except build it up over years?

Fortunately there is a bit you can control no matter how old you are, because like most research about happiness, it comes down to your connections with other people. Maslach found that married people burn out less often than unmarried because a spouse provides another means for fulfillment besides a job. And Pines found that people are more prone to burnout in a society that values the individual way above the family or community.

So make sure you are reaching your goals and maintaining close friendships, and you probably won’t burn out.