As a culture, we’re indoctrinated with the merits of being “on fire,” most often as it relates to work.
“On fire” is good–it means we’re doing things.
We’re closing deals, making sales, crafting killer content, landing major clients: “on fire” means succeeding. Our hard effort is being rewarded by the world, and we’re achieving our desired results.
But what happens when the flame is there, yet the results are not?
Then we’re in serious danger of burnout. Dr. Nicole Gravagna, neuroscientist and author of MindSET Your Manners, defines burnout as a combination of two factors: a failure to recognize that your increasingly intensifying actions aren’t getting you any closer to your goals, followed by the depressing realization that you just poured more energy than you could afford into something that cannot give you your intended results.
If your mental dialogue sounds anything like this:
“What am I even doing this for?”
“I don’t have time for fun; I have to work.”
“I’ll show up and do my job, but it probably won’t matter.”
. . .You may be experiencing burnout. Chances are, you’re repeating past behavior with the hopes of replicating past rewards. But your system isn’t working anymore.
Let’s say bosses at your previous two jobs promoted you at the three-month mark after seeing all the late hours you put in, but your current boss is unmoved beause his KPIs are different. It’s natural to feel frustrated in this situation. You’re expending the same amount of effort for a reward you feel shouldbe inevitable. The promotion eludes you; you feel deflated, your previous methods have failed and it feels like you’re banging your head against a wall.
So what’s the solution?
You’ll get nowhere by banging your head harder. That seems obvious: however, for many people stuck in burnout mode, pushing more seems the only right thing to do.
Rather, when you’re burned out, you must take a step back and allow time to clear your mind. Ask yourself these questions: What is my goal here? What is my obstacle? What do I need to try to get me closer to it?
If answers aren’t coming to you – don’t fret – this is a sign of extreme burnout. Simply sit with that “no” in a space of non-judgment. It will likely be excrutiatingly hard. When this happens to me, I’ll watch a movie. I once watched 3 movies back-to-back until my mind felt light enough to tackle with renewed energy. For some, meeting friends or taking a meditative walk with the dog, or finding time in a forest or field does the same thing. Do whatever you need to do to clear your head. When you make space in your mind, you will have nourished your brain for a creative solution to emerge – often an untried path which acutally fills you with excitement rather than burnout dread of adding another item on the to-do list. Follow your intuition that’s right for you and you will find the correct step will emerge.
Here’s one more tactic to proactively guard against burnout: don’t have too many plates spinning at once. Resist the temptation to think that the more you have going on, the higher your value.
According to Dr. Gravagna, when we have projects that need to be done we open up a circle in our mind. If we have too many “open circles” it taxes your working memory, much like having too many internet tabs open at the same time. Once a circle is closed–i.e., a project is completed–it is stored in long-term memory. Until then it’s in working memory: but working memory only has so much space. The more plates we have spinning, the more cluttered our minds get. Thus, we’re not able to clearly evaluate whether certain actions are moving us toward our goals.
To guard against this, make room in your schedule for non-work time. Fill this time with things that bring you pleasure, and guard it fiercely. Get comfortable with not doing. Demonstrate gratitude, or do as my grandmother used to do which is to ‘count your blessings’ by appreciating the richness of your wholelife and nice things that happen to you–not just your work life.
Here are two emotional intelligence tips on how to move you from feeling stuck or travelling into the inevitable zone of burnout:
The first composite of emotional intelligence to consider here is stress management. Especially the flexibility subscale. To overcome burnout, you’re going to need to be flexible – since being inflexible, i.e. doing the same things over and over again, is what caused the burnout in the first place. Ask yourself ths one question to get started: what can I change?
The second is decision making. Under the “decision making” umbrella are impulse control and problem solving. Your impulse may be to keep pushing the boulder up the hill; but to overcome burnout, will you give yourself permission to stop? Or will you give yourself permission to close one of those ‘circles’? With your grey matter aware of this you’ll be able to see the problem of burnout for what it is–and find your way forward.
Stay ahead of systemic burnout. It doesn’t have to be inevitable if you are mindful of what you have going on in your life and have a few safety strategies in place to guard your mental performance.