How to Serve Others Without Burning Out


I am a compulsive to-do list-maker, and I know I’m not alone in my ways. Even those who don’t have to write everything down to remember things (teach me your ways!) can relate to what’s driving the to-do list tendency: There’s never enough time for everything we want to do.

We are consumed by busyness. One crossed-off goal simply leads us to pursue accomplishing the next thing on our list. We desperately want to make time for everything, from work to our families to relaxing to helping others. 

And yet, if we were to try to live a life strictly devoted to work, something would be missing. If we spent each day napping by the poolside, we would accomplish little. If we devoted 100% of our life to aiding others without also taking care of ourselves, we would feel depleted.

Part of the task of growing into adulthood is to discover what it is that leads to a life well-lived. A fundamental piece of that puzzle is applying ourselves to bettering the world and supporting those in need. Service and advocacy work take commitment, though — we have to find a way to make it sustainable for ourselves so that it both empties us out and fills us up.

Pope Francis tells us that we should see the entirety of our lives as mission. To carry out that mission fully, we must be sure that we have regular practices and habits that provide what we need to flourish physically, mentally, and spiritually. The trick is to find balance in all of it.

Here are some ideas for ways to incorporate a life of service in a sustainable way that will fit your lifestyle.

Volunteer the time you have available

Pope Francis might urge us to live our lives as mission, but he doesn’t have a specific schedule of when and how to spend our time serving others. No one does — not even God! 

The simplest and oldest definition of the word mission is: “the act or instance of sending.” (Incidentally, the word for the Catholic Mass comes from the same root: missa.) Knowing that we are sent, that we have been created with a purpose in this world, we must use our time intentionally — but it is ultimately up to us how to do that. 

If your week is packed because you’ve got a big deadline for work, take time to focus your energy on that. If you know that Wednesdays are your slump day and you need a pick-me-up, consider spending an hour volunteering rather than watching Netflix — applying yourself in service to others will restore you more fully than vegging out in front of a TV. 

If you find that you are continually avoiding the invitation to serve or advocate for a cause that’s important to you, think about getting intentional: make a space in your schedule for it. Carry out your mission, but in a sustainable way that fits your life. Don’t break your spirit in the process — if you fall apart yourself, you aren’t helping anyone. 

Put yourself in a place where you are aware of opportunities

Service opportunities don’t just fall into our laps. Our routines and habits usually set us apart from people living on the margins, so we need to make an effort to connect with them (or the agencies that serve them). 

Rather than spending hours combing the web for an organization or volunteer opportunity that interests you, seek out connections in your everyday life and keep a mental (or in my case, physical) note of what opportunities are available. Are there people at your workplace or social circles who are involved in a cause? Do you live near, or regularly commute past, a social service agency? The best connections that you’ll be able to sustain are those that are easiest to fold into your daily experience.

Get involved in a service club at work or your community that keeps you accountable and up-to-date on opportunities. I can guarantee that if you go to Mass, you’ll see listings in the bulletin that describe ways the parish community is serving others. Follow Instagram or Facebook accounts of nonprofits in the area. I recently did this with a Right-to-Life group in my town, and I found that they often post about needing help with events, which were easy to plug into my days. Make it easier on yourself by surrounding yourself with potential opportunities rather than chasing them down.

Use your passions to guide you

While there is certainly value in stepping outside our comfort zones, there’s nothing wrong with seeking out service opportunities that are in your wheelhouse. The more enthusiasm you bring to it, the better the experience will be both for you and the group you are serving. If animals bring you joy, find a local humane society to volunteer your time. Maybe you love to hear stories — head to a retirement home and spend time chatting with the residents. Do you love baseball? Elementary schools and rec centers are always looking for volunteer coaches.

I once spent a period of time volunteering at a homeless center and helped out in the daycare room for toddlers, which was both in line with what I enjoy doing and gently pushed me out of what was a comfortable and normal environment for me.

The bottom line is to go out and do it, without draining yourself in the process. If it feels like a chore, that means it probably isn’t the right fit for you — and you probably aren’t a great fit for them.

Let’s fulfill our mission today by pursuing opportunities to lift up others who are in need — that’s the kind of a life that is fulfilling. For me, it means acknowledging that the best refresher may not be alone time, but spending time with a community with whom I share my time and talents, and they share theirs. 


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