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Stop the Wheel,
I Want to Get Off!

Five Steps for Beating Burnout

Wake up, coffee, shower, office, meeting, call, meeting, call, work, work, call, store, gas, home, dinner, walk, work, bed, repeat. Busy, exhausted and less satisfying than the last—if that describes your day, you may be dangerously close to big-time burnout. How did you end up in this seemingly endless cycle? More than likely a little at a time. In other words, the problem gradually evolved. We said “yes” when we shouldn’t have, we took on projects that added little value, we made choices that were pennywise and pound foolish and the list goes on.

So how do you stop the churn? The same way it started—one step at a time.

Step One: Imagine a better future.

The first step in addressing burnout is picturing the ideal versus the reality. If you could wave a magic wand paired with a dose of reality, what would your day look like? Fewer meetings? Less travel? More interesting people? Less chaos? Whatever it is, get a clear vision in your mind about what energized looks like. Once you do, you’ll have a destination toward which you can strive.

Step Two: Look for root causes.

Once you know where you want to go, think about what got you to where you are and if it’s happened before. People who find themselves overwhelmed and overworked often arrive at their destinations more than once. They take on too much, frantically shed activities and then again find themselves in the same position. How does it happen? More easily than you might think. Despite dealing with the activities their choices created, repeat offenders often fail to address the root cause of their predicaments.

If you’ve been on the wheel more than a time or two, look for patterns. Do you take on activities before thinking through the costs versus benefits? Do you make decisions that don’t factor the long-term implications in addition to the short-term rewards? Do you take joy in being busy, and then it becomes overwhelming and you just shut down?

The faster you recognize the source (or sources) of your unpleasant busyness, the quicker you can start to do something to avoid getting back on the wheel.

Step Three: Ask yourself what activities add some sort of value for you or those you care about.

Deliberate decision-making can reduce burnout. In other words, when taking on a new task, clearly identify the value it delivers for you or someone who matters in your life. Working extra hours on a project that interests you and could open doors in the future might be a fine investment. On the other hand, flying halfway across the country to meet with a client you could connect with via video conference is something on which the deliberate decision-maker would probably take a pass.

But what if your boss insists you meet with the client in person despite your reservations? From time to time, what you think is important and what others identify as critical activities will differ. That’s normal, and you might find yourself on an airplane regardless of your reservations. It happens, so get over it. Focus on what you can control, and don’t let the things you can’t control become the excuse for not managing the decisions you do have.

Step Four: Block time for battery recharging.

Even if you participate only in activities that add value, you can still find yourself on the hamster wheel, albeit a very robust one. Value add after value add after value add with no break can still lead to burnout. For that reason, it makes sense to block time for thinking, walking, reading or whatever other activities help you renew and recharge. A meeting-free day, for example, can yield great dividends. Can’t get a full day? How about a morning off to work in solitude if silence and quiet time are important to you? The point is calendars fill. If you don’t claim space, something or somebody may usurp your time, and you will only have yourself to blame.

Step Five: Reflect and ask if what used to be important still is.

Sometimes what used to be a fruitful activity no longer is. For example, if you once got a lot out of networking with a group, and now seeing those same people doesn’t have the same return on investment, it could be time to redirect your energy to something more fulfilling. Do you participate in activities that used to excite but no longer interest you? Are you maintaining friendships or relationships you find draining? Are you holding onto projects you should delegate? If so, it may be time to refine and refocus your calendar instead of just going through motions that ultimately drain you.

Endless spin and burnout are real. With a little work and time, you can get off the wheel. So what will you do today to stop the spin?