“Are you stressed?” My doctor asked me that hilarious question while I was in her office being seen for recurring headaches that I’d recently begun having. These buggers were lasting for several days at a time. She asked me a whole battery of questions, trying to get to the root of the pain banging in my brain day after day.
“Is something new going on that’s adding to, or creating new stressors?” When she asked me that question I started laughing.
“I pretty much live life at a pretty high, constant rate of stress. It’s business as usual. So no. Nothing new.” I work a full-time job that is more than full-time hours. I run a separate accounting business with clients to manage. I raise 4 girls. I write, tend a garden, and sit on the board of a non-profit organization. Stress is my baseline.
“That’s not good,” she told me, face dead-pan. The truth is, over the past year plus, every adult walking this earth has experienced increased stress. Sometimes that stress crosses over into burnout. Burnout is a dangerous place to exist. Stress will do a number on your health, you start suffering from feelings of failure because there’s never enough time in a day to meet the demands of work, relationships, parenting, keeping a home, getting enough exercise, getting enough sleep, or any other responsibilities that are attached to our lives. Truth be told, it was a lot to manage in normal times and our lives still aren’t back to what they used to be. Maybe we still aren’t ok.
The world is beginning to move on and snatch back chunks of what life used to look like. If you were operating at burnout mode before, perhaps the world opening back up puts even more on your never-ending list of stuff to do and obligations to meet. Some of the things we added, won’t just drop off the list as the masks drop off our faces. As more gets added back into our routines, it’s important to take the authority to allow ourselves to feel relief instead of the mounting overwhelm. I’m so excited to travel and see friends and family again. I’ve been itching to host parties and get-togethers for a long time; but I’m also feeling stressed about how to fit in the enjoyable things when work and serious responsibilities have already taken over so much of my life. While the world was closed, I let the demands of the less-enjoyable things creep into practically every hour of my day like an aggressive vine. It slithered everywhere because I had nothing better to do for so long. Why not work later hours than I’ve worked in over a decade? I haven’t got anywhere else to go. Sure I’ll take on more challenges since I’m not doing anything more important. What’s one more thing? And one more? And so on, now choking on the smoke from burning my candle at both ends. Really, I tossed my whole damn candle into the burnout bonfire.
I can’t keep operating like this, so I’ve been adjusting some things around me to get myself back into balance. I want my life back. I need to offset my obligations with the things I enjoy again. It’s time to hack back the destructive tendrils of overload. Here are a few of my favorite tactics to beat burnout so I can feel more like a well-adjusted adult:
Re-Define and Re-Enforce Your Boundaries
In 2020 so many people started working from home that hadn’t before. Not everyone knows how to do this in a way that is productive for their employer but also manageable for themselves. It’s an art to be able to show high productivity without allowing work to invade your life outside of normal business hours. One of the biggest keys to success in working from home is establishing boundaries between work and home. I’ve been working from home for the past 7 years, so none of this was new to me, but I still failed at my boundaries during the pandemic. With not much else on my agenda, my day job became my evening job and night job. I stopped exercising at lunch, working straight through my day. Days would pass without even breathing fresh air. I’d forget to plan dinner for my family. My boundaries were not only out of whack, they were non-existent.
Work gets like that sometimes. Factors beyond our control begin to dictate our days, but it was also me who had contributed to my own burnout. If you communicate a boundary, but don’t adhere to it yourself, does the boundary really exist? I’d say, I stop my work day at 5:30, and I’ll be back on in the evening, only if it was absolutely necessary. But then I’d still be at my desk at 6:00pm, and answer my phone when it rang at 6:15, end up scrambling to feed my family random bits of food that I could throw together quickly, doing more work to get it out of the way, fielding questions because people saw I was still active, and working right up to the point of heavy eyelids. The boundary I set no longer existed. It was up to me to step back and take control of my schedule. I started blocking my calendar for lunch to force myself to have a break in my day. I started logging off at 5:30 and not logging back in unless it was truly a time sensitive issue. Overworking myself doesn’t help my company either. Not understanding the time commitment needed to function in a position because someone is not communicating that the only way they are staying somewhat afloat is to work non-stop, doesn’t allow a company to right-size their resources. It contributes to low employee morale and high turnover. I wasn’t doing anyone any favors. I needed to make my boundaries plain through my words as well as my actions, and communicating when they change.
Whether its work, or other obligations, re-assessing and re-enforcing your personal boundaries is important. If certain times are designated as family time or self-time, it really doesn’t what else comes along. Make a schedule and adhere to it. Be deliberate about establishing a schedule that incorporates the things that are important to you, especially time for yourself. Utilize tools that signal defined beginning and ending of activities to draw the line between obligations and personal time. I put my work computer to sleep when I am not using it so the glow of the screen doesn’t beckon me to check in. You can use scent from a candle to signify the start of the work day. An alarm that marks a stopping point. I heard about one writer that puts on a specific hat to signal to her mind, “time to write.” Consistent use of sensory markers help to train your brain to compartmentalize your life to keep the burnout from one thing bleeding over into another portion of your existence.
Do Things That Bring Joy
We’ve all lost a lot of joy lately. At a doctor’s appointment a few months back, my provider asked her mental health screening questions and the one that struck me was, “do you show interest in activities that usually bring you joy?” It was another hard question to answer. The things that I would usually do to bring myself joy in times of overwhelm were mostly lost to me during the pandemic. It was a long road of not going out for drinks with friends, not traveling, not going on dates with my husband, and not having get-togethers. The things that brought me joy were either eliminated or altered. Now that options are coming back into view, we may need some re-training in plugging in to the moments that usually bring us joy.
Joy brings balance in times of burnout. “Work hard, play hard,” isn’t a common phrase for nothing. I’m leaning in to the things that bring me joy harder than ever. I remodeled and expanded my garden because being out in the dirt, coaxing my plants to thrive makes me happy. I’m planning a silly meatball party, now that my friends and I are fully vaccinated. I went to goat yoga because goats make me laugh and why the hell not. I’m challenging myself when I come across random things that look enjoyable, instead of saying “ooh that looks fun,” then moving on because I don’t think anyone I know would be interested, I’m just going to do the stuff and experience it myself. Happiness eases the burnout and I’m on full pursuit of happiness mode.
Make Like a Health Nut
We all know that when we take care of our bodies, our minds tend to follow. Endorphins are released when exercising, and it eases the strain of a hard day for me when I can sweat out my frustrations. I feel lighter on my feet, more alert, and ready to face my day when I’ve been eating healthy foods. There is literally no downside to prioritizing physical health and making better choices. I know during times of burnout, the first thing to fall by the wayside for me is my diet, followed by my exercise routine. I eat trash to cope with stress like many people do. My workouts become less often because I tell myself I simply don’t have the time. These have never helped me feel any better and yet, I do them all the time when I am overwhelmed.
It never ceases to amaze me how fast I can fall out of healthy routines, and how hard it is to start them back up again. I feel worse the longer I go not taking care of myself. I’m sluggish. I’m more tired. More stressed. I don’t feel good about myself when I’m not only mentally burned out, but also not treating my body well. Its so hard to find the time to care for myself when those tendrils of burnout are running rampant. How can I make time for a workout when every hour is accounted for through deadlines and obligations, and I’m already dropping the ball here and there? How am I supposed to make time to make healthy meals when ordering in would save me at least an hour? I ask myself these questions, pop an Oreo and a handful of cheez-its in my mouth, and keep slogging miserably through the burnout. In normal times I exercise approximately 4 days a week. When the burnout reaches a crescendo, I comfort eat junk food and my workout performance suffers more and more from being burdened with so much sugar and grease that I make excuses to start missing workouts. I’m not at all saying treats are bad, because what is life without indulgence, but we all know moderation is important.
It’s tremendously hard to break bad habits, so I’m gentle with myself when I’m trying to get my healthy routine back on the rails. Not every day will be a success. I let it go, and try again. There always comes a time where I am fed up with my own contribution to feeling awful and take control over my own actions. I use my boundaries to create the time to be good to my body. I repeat, “discipline must take over when motivation fails” until I believe it enough to make a change. Doing a better job of taking care of my body definitely helps the bounce back from burnout.
Normalize Saying “That’s Not My Job”
“Employee is a team player.”
“Willing to go the extra mile.”
“Helps others when needed.”
If you care about your career, or fancy yourself a high performer, these catch phrases are the proverbial gold stickers that you’re familiar with. They bring a sense of pride in a job well done. It feels like success to be praised and thought highly of. When burnout is humming high, these same phrases can feel like arrows to the chest. At what cost are these regards earned when we’re making ourselves miserable to get them?
For those of us without life-saving professions, there indeed can come a time when it’s sensible to say, “That’s Not My Job.” We only have so much capacity and were hired to perform specific functions. When we are trudging through our own lists of responsibilities, it gets hard to be that team player and carry someone else too. We tell ourselves it’s for the good of the team or it makes us stand out from the competition. That isn’t incorrect but it also creates resentment, feelings of failure when we can’t carry it all, exhaustion, oh and did we say BURNOUT. It ultimately doesn’t help an organization in the long run either. Every piece of a functioning system is there to be the expert in what they do. A cog in the machine cannot go and do the function of a doo-dad because the doo-dad is breaking down. When one leg is compensating for an injury in the other, the body’s gait is thrown off and the supporting leg begins to show accelerated signs of wear. You put your mask on in an airplane emergency before assisting others because you can’t be useful to someone else if you’re not taken care of. Though it may not align to the high performance, work hard, whatever it takes culture of Corporate America, I’ve reached a point in my life and career where I’d rather there be times when I am a solid middle-of-the-road performer than one that’s highly regarded at all times but crumbling from the inside out.
This philosophy extends to how I’m living the rest of my life as well. I’m a helper. Queen of seeing a need and seeing if I can be of assistance. But I’m realizing that I don’t want “I’ll handle it” engraved on my headstone after having a heart attack from the heavy stress load of trying to do everything that I don’t really HAVE to do. I’m looking around in every vein of my life and figuring out the parts that really aren’t my job. The little things add up. I remember hosting an event at a venue and as the party ended, I started picking up trash and pushing the chairs neatly back under the tables. The staff-member came over to say, “You don’t need to do that. That’s our job.” It was literally what I was paying for them to do. Not my job. My amazing mother-in-law takes care of my children during the day so I can work, and we pay her handsomely for the help. I work from home, and due to Covid, my kids are also home almost all the time. In the midst of my work day if I hear then cry, I get up and go see what’s happening and lend a hand to the situation. She’s always reminding me, “I got it,” and she really does. During my work hours, dealing with the kids is not my job. I bet if you took inventory of every action you take in a week, you’d find a lot of things that are not your job.
We can’t be all the things, to all the people, at all the times. It ridiculous to try to be that, and yet we do. We set ourselves up for failure or frustrations. We contribute to our overwhelm. We don’t always draw the right boundaries to allow ourselves to do the good things for ourselves that brings us joy because we are busy doing everyone’s job. Society taught us that we should do that and I’m over it. During 2020/2021, those expectations became even more constraining to so many people, and I hope we all re-emerge into society as more empowered versions of ourselves. The burnout gets real and it will always come back. That’s when we re-prioritize, re-focus, and remind ourselves what we need to do to get back to being well-adjusted adults.