It’s never too late to break the cycle and make a full recovery.
I’ve written before about the importance of ruthlessly prioritizing to find as much success as possible in your career. The paradox is that, by doing less, you achieve more. Do less of the noise to get to what will actually propel you forward.
It saves your energy for the things that truly matter, and helps protect you from burnout. You know the feeling–you are burning the candle at both ends, trying to do so much at work (and maybe at home, too), then you also start holding a flame to the middle of the candle as even more gets added to your to-do list.
It’s not sustainable or beneficial.
While many of us claim it’s necessary to perform at our jobs, or because we love what we do and are highly engaged, the cost is still high. So high, in fact, that even the most engaged employees can burnout and have their careers set back, as was discussed in a recent HBR article.
A common example from the article paints the picture many of us know too well:
…[Dorothea] single-handedly organized a large conference – marketing and organizing all the details of the conference and filling it to capacity. It was a remarkable feat.
In the last weeks prior to the event, however, her stress levels attained such high levels that she suffered from severe burnout symptoms, which included feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, depressed, and suffering of sleep problems. She was instructed to take time off work. She never attended the conference and needed a long recovery before she reached her earlier performance and wellbeing levels.
Been there or somewhere similar? Are you there now?
What if you are reading this too late? What if you are already past the point of breaking? Despite how it may feel, the situation is not without hope. You just have to be willing to accept it.
The biggest issue I have found with people I coach who are burnt out is their insistence on not being able to break the cycle. They fixate on all the “must do” things hitting them and the reasons why getting help or putting any of it off will not work or cannot be done. The feeling is that everything must happen now, and yet there is nothing left in the tank to do it.
The problem with this mindset is that it is all-encompassing. If you try to talk in generalities, the mind lumps everything together into a giant ball if impossibility.
Use this two-step process to break the cycle:
1. Reduce the pressure.
I focus on specific items on their to-do list discretely and manage our conversation to keep from bringing other tasks into the mix.
For example, working with an executive who was dealing with several time-sensitive, mission-critical things flying at him, I coached him through the following steps.
- List out the top 10 things that come to mind on your crucial to-do list (no more than 10, but fewer is okay).
- Write down the due dates for all of them.
- Force-rank by priority–no ties allowed!
- Take the top item, and write it down on separate piece of paper (so you don’t see the other items on the list as you go forward).
- Structure a plan of attack.
Having a clear path forward on the top priority helps it get done, and physically separating the planning from other priorities removes the pressure of everything going on.
Once you get through the first item, do the same exercise for the second, third and so on. Just do not do them all at once to help maintain separation of all the tasks that were joining up to create the extreme pressure.
2. Allow for recovery.
As much work as step one can take, step two tends to be the one people struggle with the most. It’s also the most important because it will bring you back from burnout and help sustain you going forward.
This step is about making time for you to separate and recover. When you are overloaded and burnt out, the idea of not doing something feels more than just impossible but actually foolish or dangerous.
I get this all the time from clients. They say, “I have so much to do, and you think I should stop and do nothing? That is totally unrealistic.”
It may feel unrealistic, and it is mandatory. Especially if you are past the breaking point and are burnt out.
I ask my clients about their sleep patterns, what they enjoy doing, and any plans they have to recharge with something like a vacation or even going out for a nice meal.
I’m looking for a few things:
- Would more sleep help?
- Is there space in their day for enjoyment?
- Are there tasks they are doing that could go from being work to being enjoyable by changing how they’re done, like letting someone else cook?
We then find a way to make sure there is a daily chance for them to get some “me time.” Meditation, exercise, watching their favorite show, taking a nap–what you do does not matter so long as:
- It doesn’t include any of the sources of stress that lead to your burn out.
- It’s something you truly enjoy.
- You actually do it.
Most of us go through times of burnout. That is normal, especially for driven, successful people. You can break through it, and then create sustainability in your life so it does not come back.
As long as you look past the feeling of impossibility and actually break the cycle.
This post is inspired by my best-selling book, “Do a Day: How to Live a Better Life Every Day” available in print, eBook and audio book formats. It originally appeared in a shorter form in my Inc.com column on February 26th, 2018.