blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, productivity, self improvement

More Than Tired? How To Recognise And Recover From Burnout

when leaning in further isn’t the answer

man sitting behind a fire pit, blue background representing burnout
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Pexels.com

The wise rest at least as hard as they work.
Mokokoma Mokhonoana

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.
Arianna Huffington

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.

red and orange autumn leaves on the ground and on trees beside body of water
Photo by Jake Colvin on Pexels.com

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.
Richard Louv

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.

Stop

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.

Sleep

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.

Get moving

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. 

a small child under a water spray
Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

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.

a man in blue shirt and shorts jumping against a background of lake and mountains
Photo by Victor Rodriguez on Unsplash

Rise Again

There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither.
Alan Cohen

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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blog, self improvement

How To Stay Positive In A Negative World

feel better without drugs or therapy

the Golden Pavilion, Kyoto, Japan
Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto Japan

We see the world, not as it is, but as we are.
Stephen Covey

When you look at the world around you, what do you see?

Do you see beauty, hope, and possibility? Or do you see destruction, despair and delusion? It all depends on your viewpoint.

As seen above, the Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-ji has natural beauty, man-made elegance, the richness of gold, and the calmness of water reflecting serenity.

The reality was much less attractive. We visited at the weekend and the site was swarming with tourists from all over the world, their different languages clashing in a modern day Babel. Everyone wanted unobstructed photos of the pavilion, everyone was waving a selfie stick, and everyone crowded at the barrier.

We’d travelled a long way and we wanted our picture too. Frantic tourism and ancient tranquillity fought for the same space, and I knew which I wanted to remember. By stepping back from the crowd and being patient, I was able to spot the opportunity to capture a moment.

Was that choice reasonable, or was I refusing to see the truth in order to present a lie?

Open Your Eyes

You see what you expect to see, Severus.
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Just open your eyes and look — but it isn’t as simple as that. You filter and disregard far more information than you retain. It’s essential, because you could not hope to pay attention to all the inputs.

Studies estimate that the brain receives 400 billion bits of data per second, of which the eyes receive 10 million bits per second. You’re only aware of perhaps 2,000 bits per second.   

Thinking about buying a new car, maybe a blue VW? Suddenly you see VW cars everywhere, and especially blue ones, where you didn’t notice them before. That doesn’t negate the existence of all the other cars on the road, but they’re temporarily less important than the ones you’re paying attention to.

Your brain is wired to take shortcuts and build theories to deal with all this data quickly. This can be helpful, but it also leads to confirmation bias, causing you to ignore evidence that disagrees with your first impression. That bias is a bad thing if you’re investigating a crime or making a diagnosis.

But if you’re trying to stay positive in a negative world, confirmation bias can be your friend.

Mind The Gap

Stress is the gap between our expectation and reality.
Buddha

The lifetime prevalence of major depression in high-income countries is 14.6%. Less severe mood disorders affect a further 12% of patients in family practice. How can this be, in this era of technological advance and generally high levels of personal safety and freedom?

As high as living standards may be, our expectations at every level of society are still higher. Driven by comparison on social media and seductive advertising, our desire for more is constantly fed and never fully satisfied. We rapidly adjust to each step up – and there’s always something new to aspire towards.

Unmet expectations induce emotions such as anger and resentment, and feeling unable to reach them leads to helplessness and despair. While you absolutely can use envy to fuel your progress, there are times when that’s not appropriate. Expectations must be managed.

Taking a vacation is an example. Before booking a hotel, you probably look at reviews. Surprisingly, guests staying at the same time often give wildly varying accounts of their stays.  One guest was disappointed not to be given the best room in the property, treated the staff like servants and saw reasons to complain about everything from the weather to the amount of ice in their drink. Another was happy to be on holiday, treated others with respect, and saw reasons for praise.

You will be happier when you match your expectations to the limits of your personal influence. Where you have no or limited influence, try to manage your expectations as low as you can tolerate.

If you are content with less, then everything else is a bonus. If only perfection will do, even a small deviation will disappoint you. You can see this play out at the Olympics, where a study of medal winners’ expressions showed bronze medal winners are generally much happier than silver medallists.

Bronze medallists are happy to get a medal they didn’t have before, like Tom Daley in 2012. Silver medallists are unhappy not to get a gold medal, like McKayla Maroney in 2012.

It’s tough to work hard for something and then try to let go of your attachment to the outcome. It’s galling to hear people who have already achieved your goal say it doesn’t matter because process is the real prize. But that doesn’t make it less true.

Make your product or your advice great, send it into the world, and get on with the next one without obsessing over the reception you think it deserves. As soon as you talk about what you should have, your expectations are showing.

There is only one person you can expect more of, and that’s you. If you have given your all in the pursuit of a goal, that is a form of success. You can’t force any result to go in your favour and the world does not owe you.

The simpler your needs, the more likely they will be met or even exceeded. When needs are met you can be content; when needs are exceeded you can be happy. How can you make this shift in mindset?

How Much Is Enough?

My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.
Stephen Hawking

Sometimes we’re told to live each day as if it were our last. How would you spend your final, precious twenty-four hours?

You could either focus on all the time you would miss, or you could focus on what you still had. The taste of your favourite coffee, the smile of your favourite person, birdsong, or the scent of a rose would take on a new significance.

The good news is, those things are available to you right now. Happy feelings can be yours, if you look for them. Rather than discount all the real things you have compared to the imaginary stuff you don’t, appreciate and enjoy them. Compare your current experience not with some fictional worse-off person, but with not having them yourself.

Reacquaint yourself with gratitude.

Gratitude journals have been shown to increase happiness. However, I’ve found that people react to the idea with disbelief or cynicism, particularly when depressed. Those with low mood have the most to gain, but their focus is unfailingly negative. There’s a way around this.

First acknowledge the suck. The suck is real so feel free to pour your heart out on the pages of your journal. Then once you’ve run out of suck, you find three things to be grateful for that day and write them down.

I’ve done this exercise and the truth is, some days it’s a struggle to find positive things. It’s tough. That’s when it’s most needed. You might have to dig deep but even little tiny things count. A cup of tea given without asking, a puppy running in the park, flowers, a pretty sunset, hot water and indoor plumbing, or no queue at the checkout are all reasons to smile.

For anyone preoccupied with everything that’s wrong, focusing on the tiny spots of light in the darkness can produce a real shift in attitude – without therapy or drugs. And since what you focus on grows, the more you seek out positive things the more you’ll see.

Of course it’s not the whole picture. You are applying a filter to the world, not changing it, so does any of this matter?

Your viewpoint matters because you can’t hope to feel content when everything looks negative. You can’t change your world from a position of despair. You need to feel better first.

Turn To The Light

As long as this exists, this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?
Anne Frank

With practice, you can be happier without therapy or drugs. The keys are managed expectations and regular deliberate focus on positive moments in your current life.

  • Work within your circle of influence, which is your thoughts and actions.
  • Expect the most from yourself and less from others.
  • No matter how bleak things look, make the effort to look for the small positives in everyday life.  

The little pleasures you notice along the road to your future will build your positivity so you can take on the world.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

If You Want To Be A Better Writer, Stop Writing

sometimes more writing isn’t the answer

Pascal van de Vendel on Unsplash

You’re a writer. You gave yourself permission, put your bum in the seat, and started cranking out words. They’re not perfect yet but that’s okay because you read advice articles that tell you how to do it better. You’re on your way.

Then you stumble. No matter how much advice you read and try to apply, the words don’t get any better. You’ve tried it all, and when you read your piece back you cringe. It’s dull, it’s bad, and it’s all yours.

Impostor syndrome sneaks up behind you like a cheap horror movie monster. It breathes down your neck. “I knew it. You’ve been found out, and not even the best advice can save you now. You’re no good. And you never will be.”

You stop trying.

Writing is too hard and you’re just not good enough. It’s enough to drive you to drink. Or back to Facebook and Netflix.

Invisible Growth — What You Don’t Understand About Practice

When something isn’t working, it’s tempting to give up. But you need to think about the way growth happens.

I used to plant sunflower seeds every spring with my young children. They were so excited, pushing seeds into the earth and imagining sunflowers higher than their heads. They looked at the picture on the packet, and they wanted all the flowers right now.

But the seed needed time to absorb water, develop roots, and grow a stem. On the surface, nothing was happening. The kids got impatient because progress was less than they expected. Under the surface, growth was already proceeding unseen. One day the shoot popped up, apparently overnight.

Then it grew really fast.

Source Evolution Partners

This type of progress in students as described by Thomas P Seager, PhD fits with my own experiences in the garden or the classroom.

Some students (black line) show linear growth at a steady rate. Others (green line) take instruction with little apparent effect until one day it clicks, and they take off. Soon they leave the others behind, despite being slower to start.

The move to higher levels of skill is often preceded by a stage in which nothing much appears to be happening. In fact a number of sub-skills are developing. When those skills reach critical mass they combine to produce a leap forward, followed by accelerated development.

In the early days of building a skill, a following, or a plant, progress seems slow. Patience and persistence are essential.

That means you must have faith and keep going. But although creativity is endless, it needs to be replenished.

Sometimes the best way to keep going is to stop.

Just Don’t Do It

You’ve read many articles about establishing a writing habit. You might know that Stephen King writes 2000 words every single day. All the advice says sit and write daily.

I suggest you do the exact opposite. Step away from the keyboard.

Just like any other human, a writer is the sum of many parts. The healthiest writers get out of their rooms and out of their heads regularly, and those experiences enlarge their characters and inform their writing. The more they see and hear of people, and the more things they do, the bigger their repertoire of subjects, characters, and situations to write about.

If you’ve been pushing harder but not seeing results, it’s time to change your approach. Staring at the blank screen for hours isn’t working. Rewriting the same paragraph isn’t working.

You need to move on and concentrate on another part of your skill set. Writing is more than butt in chair, just as soccer is more than kicking a ball. Stop writing and you’ll write better.

Three types of not-writing can help you reach the visible growth stage faster.

Get Physical

Mens sana in corpore sano
A sound mind in a healthy body
Juvenal

MatanVizel via pixabay

The brain weighs about 2% of body mass but needs 20% of energy intake to function well. In addition, we can concentrate fully for around 90–120 minutes. After that, we need a break to maintain focus.

You need to build two types of break into your writing routine.

One is a short break after ninety minutes. Get up, stretch, move around. Look into the distance to rest your eye muscles which have been working hard to focus on the screen. Take five slow deep breaths, allowing your belly to relax. Your brain needs extra oxygen.

Drink water

Research has shown that thirst is a poor predictor of dehydration and that dehydration reduces performance. Consider setting an alarm to remind you to drink more water.

Move your body

The second type of break is regular exercise. The type of exercise doesn’t matter; what’s important is that you engage regularly, which is more likely if you enjoy it. Some activities have a social element built in, which is very good if you sit alone all day to write.

Sitting for extended periods is known to increase your risks of premature death. That alone should motivate you to get moving. Walking, running, gym work, and yoga are all beneficial. Vigorous gardening and housework are alternatives.

Get enough sleep

Insomnia is a problem for many of us that tends to increase with age. However, finding and keeping good sleep habits is essential to mental and physical health. If you have problems start your search for help here or here.

Simple measures like regular sleep and wake times, keeping your bedroom dark and the bed only for rest or sex, and writing a to-do list for the next day can all help. Cut back on the nightcap because although alcohol might help you nod off, it then causes broken sleep.

My one best tip, gleaned from personal experience and professional practice as a family physician is this;

if you wake in the night, never check the time.

Your brain immediately starts working, calculating the time you’ve been awake, the time left before the alarm goes, and so on. Turn the clock away. Do not look at your phone. Slow deep breaths can help.

It’s natural to wake during the night and it will happen more often as the years go by, so have realistic expectations. Learning to go back to sleep is the skill you need.

Whatever your health status, you can improve fitness levels and give your brain what it needs to function more effectively.

Only Connect

Staying mentally fit and well needs to be a priority. It’s certain that you will have to navigate personal or professional difficulties at some time, while continuing to meet your obligations. It’s all too easy to withdraw from people, but if you write you already spend a lot of time with your own thoughts. Balance that with positive contact.

Humans are social creatures. We all need different amounts of interaction to feel our best, but looking at the same walls every day can drag you down, especially if you live where winters are long and dark. Figure out how much social interaction you need to be energised, not depleted. Then make sure you schedule time to get it.

Combine social contact with exercise by going to the gym or taking a class. Dog walkers know that pets can be a great icebreaker.

Stay in contact with friends and family. Avoid being hijacked by Facebook and Twitter by setting a time limit on checking updates.

Sit in a cafe and listen to people talking for clues on dialogue and people’s current concerns. You might hear a character or a problem for your next piece.

Join a writers’ group and interact with people who understand the struggle. Even difficult interactions can be a source of material for your writing.

Writers are often introverts who find being in groups more or less difficult. Online connections can be as real and nurturing as real-life ones, if not more so. Don’t let extroverts mock you for not going out all the time.

Part Of The Fabric

BrainyQuote

Maybe you’re a religious person. In that case, honouring your faith will be key to your wellbeing. Even if you’re not religiousfeeding your spirit is essential to wholeness. Finding meaning, a reason to go on with life, is a matter of realising that you are part of something larger than yourself.

There’s more than one way to tap into a sense of awe and wonder that enlarges your sense of being. Prayer works for some, while contemplating the natural world or spending time with a child or pet is preferred by others. Quieting the endless chatter in your mind can be achieved by gardening or stargazing or knitting.

Concentration on a single thing is the essence of meditation. It doesn’t have to mean chanting and impossible poses. Find the thing that absorbs your attention to the exclusion of external stimulus. Do that regularly.

Feeding your spirit might come from watching the ocean, singing along at a concert, or volunteering. It can come from seeing art or listening to music, or sending a supportive message to someone who’s struggling.

Don’t underestimate the value of laughter.

We smile and laugh much less as we grow up, and who can blame us? Adult life is tough. Share a joke with your server or your partner. Watch a comedy show before bed rather than depressing news. Humour is essentially linking familiar things in an unexpected way. It’s one of the most creative activities around and it’s calorie free, so indulge.

Connecting with people has an element of looking outward and giving rather than receiving. Altruism makes us happier by focusing attention outside our selves while making a positive contribution. Even though each one of us is a tiny part of the fabric of life, we can still make a difference.

And as writers, isn’t connection and making a difference all we want?

Burn Bright, Don’t Burn Out

Nobody can be ‘on’ all the time. Balancing work, rest, and recreation is the key to a healthy life for everyone. Sometimes before we can push forward we need to stop and catch our breath a moment.

Solutions often bubble to the surface after a period of letting problems percolate unseen. While you’re occupied in another activity, your subconscious is busy figuring out the questions you’ve been stuck on.

Your body will benefit from the improved physical health that comes from being strong, well rested and well hydrated. A healthy brain is more flexible and resilient, able to think faster and process the many different things it sees and feels. And creativity is about making new connections.

Creativity is just connecting things.

Steve Jobs

Now you have more material and a better machine to work with. Come back to your screen refreshed, and get growing.