when leaning in further isn’t the answer
The wise rest at least as hard as they work.
No matter how hard you push yourself, there comes a time when you hit a wall. Either you’ve lost interest and excitement in your project, or you’re just exhausted by the work.
Empathy and good humour are in short supply. You zone out, even during your leisure time. You’ve been running too hard for too long, and now your tank is empty and you’re running on fumes.
You simply don’t care anymore. Welcome to burnout.
We’ve all seen it in others. The dead eyes of the caring professional, the weary voice of the call centre operative, or the resigned indifference of a mother with young children all have the same flat emotional tone. It’s as though such people are hollow, all their colours washed out. They have no spark.
You put the way you feel down to stress or fatigue. While these obviously play a part, burnout goes deeper than that.
Every Day The Same
Burnout often has as much boredom in it as exhaustion.
Ingrid Fetell Lee
When you’re burnt out every day is just more of the same.
Your life is like Groundhog Day, endlessly repeating except that unlike Bill Murray’s character, there’s no way to escape the loop. Low intellectual challenge combined with high physical or emotional challenge is a recipe for discontent.
Physical challenge can come in the form of long hours, hard manual labour, or lack of rest. Emotional challenge is dealing with other people’s emotions, absorbing rudeness or abuse, and repressing your natural responses. In the case of sectors such as retail and hospitality, the requirement to do all this while smiling is an added layer of stress.
Maybe it’s the extra self-imposed load of writing or a side hustle that’s drained your tanks. You can barely muster a smile. Nothing you do makes a difference and you can’t bear another day. All your emotions are blunted except anger, ranging from mild irritation to full blown fury. Everyone frustrates you, which is anger in another guise.
Emotional energy is like money. Each day we have a finite amount to spend. If you’re a millionaire, you can afford to give to anyone who asks. But when you’re down to your last pound, even a request for 50 pence is too much. You just don’t have it, and you lash out at the tiniest demand.
How can you be creative in this situation?
Nothing From Nothing
Creating the culture of burnout is opposite to creating a culture of sustainable creativity.
We are all creative, but for some of us it’s a defining pursuit. A burnt out bricklayer can still build a wall, even if quality suffers. A burnt out creative loses inspiration and motivation. Their output dwindles and dries up, and the impact on their livelihood is matched only by that on their psyche as they start to question their identity.
It turns out you can’t make something from nothing.
Many occupations and professions have a culture of long hours. Smartphones in every pocket are a modern marvel that chains us to email and therefore work. And that’s before we consider social media and the stress of a hyperconnected world.
If you recognise yourself here, maybe it’s time to take a breath.
Rekindling The Flame
Time spent in nature is the most cost-effective and powerful way to counteract the burnout and sort of depression that we feel when we sit in front of a computer all day.
Once you’ve determined that burnout is your problem, it’s time to fix it. The term “work” means the totality of your non-leisure activities, paid and unpaid.
Try some or all of the following.
Take a moment in a busy day. Close your eyes, blow out all the air in your lungs. Let your stomach sag and relax. Take a short breath in and blow it out slowly, repeat five times. Rest your eyes by looking at something distant. If that’s not possible, find a picture of mountains or a lake online and examine that. Breathe.
Repeat twice daily and whenever overwhelm and anxiety start to build.
Every body needs adequate rest and quality sleep is the foundation of wellness.
In a world of 5am starts and late nights, most of us are sleeping less than ever. Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, wrote The Sleep Revolution to highlight the importance of sleep to our overall health and success. She has six rules for better sleep.
- Put away electronic devices at least thirty minutes before bed
- Take a hot bath
- Put on specific night clothes for sleep
- Your bedroom should be cool, dark and quiet
- No caffeine after 2pm
- Bed is for sex and sleep only
If you’re getting only five to six hours of sleep, and especially if that sleep is poor quality, you probably need more. Watch your programme on catch-up and go to bed earlier.
Ease off stimulants and depressants
You’re probably leaning on something to keep you going, whether caffeine, sugar, or alcohol. Go cold turkey and stop. You may be able to restart at a lower level after seven to ten days, or you might feel so much better that you carry on without.
Cutting out caffeine can cause a withdrawal headache for a few days, so drink lots of water to help minimise it.
Eating sugary or starchy foods leads to a yo-yo effect, where blood sugars rise and fall rapidly. This can impact your mood and irritability. Eating a large carbohydrate meal can cause sluggishness soon afterwards. Try splitting your lunch and having some as a snack mid-afternoon. Have more salad and fruits and less bread, cereals, and pasta.
Alcohol has a potent depressant effect. It might help you go to sleep but it disturbs your sleep and is dehydrating overall. If you choose to drink, have no more than two units of alcohol per night and at least two alcohol-free days each week.
After a day hunched over a keyboard or picking up and holding small children, you collapse on the couch, phone or remote in hand. It’s no wonder you’re aching. Muscles become weak, tight, and imbalanced due to sedentary lifestyles.
While we all know exercise is good for us, the road to burnout almost always includes ditching healthy habits. When the gym or your usual sport seems too daunting, a short walk is a perfect alternative. A ten-minute walk each day has real benefits for health and mental wellbeing.
As you feel better, incorporate regular exercise into your routine. Schedule it in your diary. Some like to work out their adrenaline in spin classes or kick-boxing, but you might benefit more from walking, running, swimming, or even yoga.
Rethink your workload
If you drove your car the way you drive yourself, you wouldn’t be surprised when it broke down.
Have you taken leave in the last six months? Have you set time limits on working at home, or doing overtime? Often we’re convinced that we have to do extra, but pushing until you crash helps nobody.
Spend time looking at the way you work. Can you delegate or give up something? Your boss may not be sympathetic to your issues, but if you can present a solution and not just a problem your chance of successful change improves.
Batch your work so you can concentrate on one thing at a time. Remove distractions such as social media. Consider noise-cancelling headphones, or listen to a noise generator like the ones at mynoise.net to drown out busy thoughts or external environments.
Do what you can to improve your ability to do deep work, as burnout reduces your effectiveness.
At home, teach your children to clean their rooms and do their own laundry. Buy in help if you can afford it. Share rides for sports and training sessions with other parents. Reduce social obligations that drain you.
Go out and play
A life without play and enjoyment is first dull and eventually unbearable. Spend some time outside. Time in nature refreshes and brings perspective, whether it’s in a park or on a mountaintop. If you live near the sea, make the effort to visit because watching the waves reduces distress and promotes calm.
Pick up your favourite hobby or a good book. Listen to uplifting music while you exercise as this has a proven effect on mood.
Having something to look forward to helps you get through the days. Book a concert, see a movie or visit a gallery, plan to do something fun at the weekend. Without play you grow old before your time, and without new experiences you ossify and become boring. You don’t want that.
Examine your motivations
Why are you doing what you do?
Part of burn-out is a feeling of hopelessness, that it’s all for nothing. One small thing that helps is a visual reminder. I kept a cute photo of my kids on my desk to remind me what I was working for. Other options include a place you love, a happy family group, the house you want to buy, or even tickets to a concert.
The image triggers positive memories and emotions to combat the tide of negativity. It helps you go on, just a little more.
In the same vein, crossing off the days to an event can help. Maybe it’s a vacation you’re looking forward to, maybe it’s the day you leave – either way, you want to create a sense of anticipation and excitement.
Reframe and realign your objectives
Following on from the point above, what if you’re doing the wrong thing? Or doing the right thing, but the wrong way?
You can use your trusty journal to free-write about everything that’s weighing you down. Often – if not always – you know the answers, deep down. You know you need to make a change, and you resist it for apparently rational reasons.
Perfectionists deal with their doubts about work by doubling down. They assume their dissatisfaction is the result of not working hard enough, and they are at high risk of burnout. The professions are the natural home of high-achieving perfectionists using dysfunctional coping mechanisms to deal with the truth; their role, responsibilities or work ethos is a bad fit for them.
But if your identity is tied to being a doctor, or lawyer, or entrepreneur, change will be painful and affect other people too. That keeps you stuck, no matter the cost, but consider this.
Burnout is a message – the price of your current life is your peace of mind, and that cost is too high.
So you need to figure out what and how to change, with help if need be. Change can range from working smarter, changing roles, starting something on the side that nourishes you, all the way to leaving your job and starting again.
Remember that you choose to do what you do.
When you say you have to do a thing, you also choose to reject the alternatives. You could resign today and go live in a cabin in the woods. There are many good reasons why that won’t work, but they don’t make the option disappear. And it will be the right option for someone.
Your job is to get rested and then get clarity on the things that matter. Own your choices. Then decide how to fit them into a life that works for you.
There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither.
Sometimes our lives get unbalanced. Burnout is an extreme case, where multiple aspects are neglected for a long time in favour of work. It is not necessary to destroy your relationships and your health in pursuit of some work ideal. If you’re crying in your car and unable to go into the building, or drinking every night to find rest, the warning lights are flashing.
Start to take better care of yourself so you can attend to the work of change. You may think you’re chained to your life as it is, but often you also hold the keys to your own freedom.
Renewal after burnout is possible if you allow yourself the space to find it.
(first published by Publishous on Medium 24.7.19)
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