Five years ago, I was burned out. I was exhausted and overwhelmed by a high-stress, fast-paced marketing job at a tech startup with two very young kids at home. I also had the beginnings of what I would eventually find out is an autoimmune condition. I had migraines most weeks and would crawl into bed at 7pm, sleep 12 hours and then wake up exhausted. I was struggling both at work and at home. I knew that what I was doing was unsustainable, and I decided to make some changes.
I looked at what parts of my then almost 20-year career in marketing I had loved and I decided to focus on those. I went back to school to become certified as an Executive Leadership Coach and I started my own practice. For me, helping others has always been energizing and my hope was that I would find a way to build a career that gave me as much energy and inspiration as I put into it.
For a myriad of reasons, many of us, at some point in our lives experience burnout. And today, as we live through this long pandemic, and the accompanying layers of stressors, we are experiencing this collectively. We may be absorbing stress in ways we don’t even realize.
So how do we make sense of this, and more importantly what can we do about it?
How Does Burnout Happen?
We are all systems of energy — physical, emotional and spiritual. When the energy we have coming in matches the energy going out, our system is sustainable. We feel good. We are more patient, productive, creative and present.
But sometimes — like now — things get a little off kilter. Our systems become imbalanced and unsustainable. This is when feelings of burnout begin. These can include feeling outright stressed, and also disengaged, impatient, exhausted, even clumsy or forgetful. In some cases our physical and mental health is impacted.
Building a Sustainable System
Understanding why and how these burned out feelings happen teaches us a lot about what we can do to prevent and heal from them. Here are four strategies that anyone can use to assess where they are and begin to build a sustainable system.
1. Energy Assessment
In order to understand which parts of your life require more energy and which give energy back, it helps to take a step back and assess what is going on. Here is a template to help you take stock of your day. What parts bring you joy, inspiration, and meaning? What parts are tiring and hard? Jot down notes throughout the day, and after a week take a look. What are you noticing? What patterns pop up?
2. Schedule Chunking
Once you have a good idea of where in your day and week your energy is coming from and going, take some time and build out a schedule that helps to balance things out. Here is another handy template you can use. For example if you find 1:1 meetings tiring, spread them out. If you feel frazzled by doing reactive tasks, make sure to build in some focus time. If you know a day or a week will be hard, build in extra energy boosters like a yoga class, or a hot bath, or whatever soothes or energizes you. Be strategic about balancing energy in and out.
3. Check In With Your Perspective
Our perspectives or mindsets provide us with a set of instructions for how we greet each moment. If we are sitting in frustration, then the smallest things will irritate us. Conversely if we are feeling open, we can be great creative problem solvers when challenges come up.
However, we are not always aware of the perspective we are holding. Here’s a short journaling exercise to check in on what your perspective is, the idea being that when we’re aware of the perspective we’re holding, we get to be at choice with it. We can decide how we want to meet each moment, and that is a powerful strategy for maintaining energy.
- Take a few minutes and observe what perspective you are holding. Give it a name — see list below for inspiration
- What does this perspective offer you?
- What does this perspective get in the way of?
- Try on other perspectives to see what they offer — see list or get creative
- Choose the perspective that serves you best
- Identify what shifts you want to make to hold this perspective
4. Thread Mindfulness Moments Throughout Your Day
Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of what you're sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. Even small moments of mindfulness can bring us back into conscious choice, which is many times the difference between feeling like you own the day, vs. the day owning you. If meditation seems too hard or time consuming, these techniques are simple, can be done anywhere and can take as little as one or two minutes.
Five finger breathing
- Place the index finger of your right hand at the base of your left thumb
- As you trace your finger from the base to the tip of your thumb, breathe in
- Pause for a second at the tip of your thumb and then trace your finger down the inside of your thumb, breathing out as you do so
- Pause for a moment at the bottom, and then trace up the index finger of your right hand, breathing in, pausing at the top and breathing out
- Repeat for each finger. Go slowly. If you feel like you don’t have time for five fingers, do three
I am a very visual person so it always helps me to see things spelled out. And I notice as I work with coaching clients that making ideas tangible and tactile helps keep things present. For this reason I love sticky notes. For example, if you’re working on holding a particular perspective, write it on a sticky note and put it in a place where you will see it throughout the day, like the bathroom mirror or the fridge. Then each time you pass by, you can take a pause to reflect on what it means.
Create a daily practice
To build new habits we need repetition and the easiest way to do this is to create a daily practice. To build a daily mindfulness practice:
- Choose one or two activities like a breathing exercise, a moment of gratitude or even a walk around the block
- Add a reminder to your phone or calendar once or twice a day. To start I recommend choosing a time first thing in the morning and another midday
- Find an accountability partner - a friend, colleague or family member who could do this as well so you can help each other keep accountable.
- Take note of how you feel after a week or two. Adjust as needed.
I hope you find these insights and strategies useful as you build your own sustainable system. I am always open to learning more about what works for people, so feel free to drop me a note.