Confessions from an Author: How To Sidestep Burnout
I write a lot about helping people achieve big dreams they have in life or career. What I’ve found from my own experience and working with others is that employing lifehacks or working harder, faster or smarter is not the answer.
The challenge lies in doing the deep work that will give you the energy to not just say what your biggest dreams are, but to take action on them.
One challenge you may run into (or perhaps have already experienced) is the high potential for burnout. I know I have.
A lot of the time the reason we get burned out is not just because we’re highly driven or motivated or because we’re biting off more than we can chew. Sometimes we’ve been conditioned to believe that if we’re not busy we must not be trying hard enough.
Society tells us we need to be busy and productive to be worth something, but why hasn’t anyone questioned why our worth is tied to production in the first place?
I wanted to seek the answer to that question for myself and it’s one of the reasons I wrote my book, The Resiliency Effect.
Burnout is a Big, Global Problem
Being busy only leads us to burnout, overwork, and suffering. Yet we can’t stop ourselves, and it’s getting worse—so much worse that governmental organizations have started to notice.
Beginning in 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) started classifying burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” They define it as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The organization further describes it as feeling depleted or exhausted, experiencing distance or cynicism related to your job, and/or being less effective at work. They are so concerned that they are launching research to create evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace.
When respondents were asked as part of a 2019 Meredith Corporation study about how stress and anxiety have contributed to trouble with planning, decision-making, or sleep during the last five years, 48 percent of women respondents said burnout was so bad that it keeps them up at night! And 35 percent of women said they have trouble concentrating. (Men experienced these too, but to a lesser degree.)
Burnout Can Be Linked Back to Adverse Experiences
Through my research, I found there’s a link between burnout, busyness, imposter syndrome, and traumatic experiences in our lives. This link is what’s keeping us focused on producing, despite the cost to our health and well-being. As a society, we haven’t been encouraged to deal with the root causes of why we feel imposter syndrome and why we need to prove our worth through productivity. It’s rare, as a human, to have not had some type of adverse or traumatic experience. It’s worth considering how it might be driving you to overwork yourself (or employ some other coping mechanism preventing you from living your best life).
This was the case for me. I spent years in a cycle of burning myself out at work, quitting my job, finding a new job, only to start the process right over again. My own adverse experiences as a child and young adult growing up in an alcoholic household made me more prone to behaviors like perfectionism, people pleasing, and denying my emotions and myself.
What to Do Instead
The opposite. If we’re always responding to the people who rely on us so as not to let them down, where do we find the time to devote to dreaming up our big dreams? Solving problems bigger than ourselves? Or truly finding satisfaction in who we are rather than what we do? We’re all trying to do way too much. Doing the opposite means giving ourselves permission to slow down…way down.
Make creativity and dreaming a priority
Instead of working ourselves to the bone, make something else the priority. Many of us put unrealistic expectations on ourselves. But when we simply allow ourselves to dream, there is no expectation. Start with something creative. Many people believe that you have to be an artist or a musician to be creative. I like to expand my own internal definition to all sorts of creative activities such as planning a meal, dancing in my living room, even taking a moment to write in a journal.
When we’re burned out and overworked it can be extremely difficult to focus on anything other than the tasks at hand. But something as simple as prioritizing time away to take a walk can both count for being creative and giving yourself a break. You’ll be amazed at the problem solving your brain will do in the background when you’re not intentionally thinking about your to-do list.
Schedule recharge time like you would a recurring meeting
As you begin to make dreaming and creative endeavors a priority, it may make sense to schedule time for these things like you would for a recurring meeting.
Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, suggests doing something called Morning Pages — free writing when you first get up on anything that comes to mind. It’s not about producing something beautiful, it’s about creating a habit that’s different from your life and day-job.
One technique that I use is to prioritize non working hours during my work day. I’m more of an episodic worker and writer anyway and no two days look the same for me. A week or two in advance I look at my calendar for time slots where I haven’t planned to work on a project or meet with clients. Those are my time slots to take walks, do something creative, or do nothing at all.
This is an active way I protect myself from burnout.
Take an extended break
Sometimes we need to go more extreme to protect ourselves from burnout. When you start to feel that familiar anxious feeling, like everything around you is an emergency, it’s a good indicator that you should take a break….a long one. I’m not talking an extra hour for lunch here. I’m talking about a long weekend or even a week-long vacation.
Some of us may get to a point where taking a full sabbatical for multiple weeks or months may be necessary.
Before I developed the courage, the focus and the energy to start my business I took a 6-month sabbatical. An important benefit from that time was that it allowed me to reset my expectations of what I considered “productive.” It allowed me to have motivation to set up boundaries to protect my time and prevent energy depletion as an entrepreneur.
Consider getting rid of to-do lists
I’m a reformed to-do lister. I used to have a to-do list as long as my arm at all times. It felt really good to check off things one my one. But the huge problem for me was that the to-do list never ended. There was never such a thing as completing everything on my to-do list.
I’ve always had an over functioning streak and this common tool made me feel like I had something more to work on all the time, no matter how productive I’d been. So, I gave it up. No one ever said on their deathbed, “I sure am glad I finished my to-do list.”
Instead I use time-boxing. Whenever I have a task from remembering to respond to an email to completing a complex tax analysis for a client, I estimate how much time it will take me to complete it and put a calendar entry into my calendar. Each type of task (revenue generating, marketing, creative, administrative) gets a color code in the calendar. That helps me visually keep track of where I’m spending most of my time. This can also be done for more complex or creative projects. I like to write, for instance, when “the mood strikes,” when I get into flow, I get way more written than I think I will. So, I sometimes will adjust my timebox on the fly to account for finding myself in flow on a project.
The main benefit for me in using time-boxing instead of to-do list is that my brain is much more ok accepting a starting point and ending point to my day. It’s also easier for me to accept and embrace those recharge time slots that I bake into my weekly schedule. The result is I feel less depleted and usually more recharged by the end of a week.
Remember: being busy ≠ reaching our dreams
Getting another one of our to-do lists done doesn’t mean we’re happy, fulfilled or are living our big dreams. Sometimes taking a step back to prevent or cure our burnout is the only way we can make true progress toward reaching our goals.
More about The Resiliency Effect: Drawing on the fields of life coaching, financial planning and psychology, Cady’s book offers a way to develop excitement and energy around your purpose. The Resiliency Effect includes actionable advice and exercises, as well as chapters dedicated to realizing common dreams such as how to change careers, take a sabbatical, or start a business.