You may want to slow down a bit. You’re going to burnout.
I distinctly remember my manager a handful of years ago sharing this advice. I found the idea somewhat laughable. I’m doing a job I love. I’m pushing a ton of creative ideas forward. I’m right where I want to be.
Burnout was the furthest thing from my mind.
In retrospect, this is probably around the time my burnout started to creep in. I was starting to come into my own in my marketing career at a fast-moving tech company. I was working long hours, leading projects, plugged in during all waking hours, and consuming content (blog posts, books, and podcasts) at a rapid rate to accelerate the pace of my growth. Work was my priority.
Hustle is the way
I had the drive to achieve and I had the Gary Vaynerchuk’s of the world in my ear telling me to hustle my way to success. Clearly, that was the right path. So I followed.
I built a daily routine for myself that ensured I was flipping through newsletters on my morning bus commute, reading blog posts on a second screen while watching TV at night, and listening to podcasts for my industry while I did household chores, bummed when I had to pause to run the stupid vacuum. I was applying ideas in my work at a rapid rate to show the fruits of that hustle.
I was actually just running around in circles chasing shiny new objects.
My approach to work finally reached a crescendo several years later when yet another weekend work “emergency” pulled me away from life and put my burnout meter in the red.
Wave one of my burnout came from poorly constructed boundaries around work.
Though I still didn’t classify what I felt as burnout, I knew things had to change.
But I had no idea where to start.
So, I turned to what I knew. Self-help podcasts and books. Cue Tim Ferris, Tony Robbins, and various other lifestyle/fitness/nutrition podcast bros.
I felt great about what I was getting back from this topic exploration into the perfectly constructed life and daily routine. I had a laundry list of life hacks to implement which would allow me to achieve but do so in a way where I was still taking care of myself. So I started building the perfectly optimized life and would re-optimize every few months as I came across more can’t miss nuggets of wisdom.
I started getting up at 5AM to complete the Miracle Morning routine where I would read, journal, meditate, and bang out some pushups before eating breakfast. I took 30 minutes to read self-help books at lunch. I got into a good routine of doing CrossFit. And I started to dial in my eating around how to bulk up and tried tracking my food intake since that’s what I understood men are supposed to do.
I kept telling myself how great I was feeling.
But there were two massive problems bubbling under the surface:
- My routines were not sustainable. They looked GREAT on paper but were near impossible to execute on a regular basis or even very often.
- Each time I came across a perfect new life hack, I had to re-optimize this already manic web of routines and wedge it in.
Creating this perfect systematic lifestyle in response to my first wave of burnout was actually making me even more stressed. It became a daily battle to muster enough motivation to accomplish even a couple of small tasks on my to-do list and continued that way for close to a year.
Wave two of my burnout came from low-quality restorative time outside of work.
The carefully constructed routines to come back from burnout were just making me more burnt out. Sigh.
There has to be another way
I eventually, and thankfully, came across the work of the Blue Zones. Blue Zones is the study of the seven small global regions where people are far more likely to live happily and healthily to 100 years old.
This was my personal turning point. After getting caught in the web of toxic masculinity podcast bros, the Blue Zones was the first body of work that presented an alternate way to approach success that wasn’t centered around accumulating money, chasing titles at work, eating chicken and vegetables to bulk up, and hitting the gym like crazy.
Instead, it puts forward the nine principles every one of the Blue Zones shares. The lifestyle commonalities include taking time to downshift daily, moving naturally, finding community and belonging, identifying purpose in life, and eating largely plant-based.
This was the first lightbulb moment for me in my path back from burnout. Life didn’t have to be a constant hustle, chasing so-called success, that leads down the path of burnout.
Burnout prevention that treats the cause, not the symptoms
We have unlimited solutions to treat the symptoms of burnout from the trillion-dollar wellness industry. They are temporary band-aids. Something to just get you through to the next day. It’s the training plan of the hare.
But there’s another option. However, it didn’t click fully into place until I took two bike rides that changed my mindset on just about everything.
The first ride was 30 miles. I took only one break halfway through. I was out of gas and struggled hard for the last few miles.
The second ride was 36 miles. I took several breaks and took it easy at several points. While a longer ride, I still had more energy when I was done.
However, my playbook does not include life hacks. It requires a total mindset shift. And it takes a while (for me, it was around two years). Holistic Burnout Prevention is the practice of reclaiming your time, working at a sustainable pace, and prioritizing time-tested healthy habits. All without sacrificing your definition of success.
My journey has now been three years since I realized things weren’t working. It’s taken me that long, through trial and error, to solidify my habits and create a repeatable daily way to keep burnout from creeping back in. In that time I’ve refined how I measure success, created strong boundaries around work, focused only on essential work, moved my body naturally instead of boring sessions at the gym, and have lowered my cholesterol by 22% (since weight loss is a poor metric). And I’m still a high-achiever that gets good performance reviews.
Application in the real world
Now, this is the part of the story where you might expect for me to say that I left corporate America to have full ownership over my time so I could solve my burnout. That’s not where this story goes.
So, how does this playbook work in a pressure-filled fast-paced life and job where 71% of knowledge workers reported feeling burnout in the last year? And how do you do so without sacrificing your definition of success?
- Downsize your relationship with work: We’re taught to judge success based on money, job title, and power. But the endless pursuit of this definition is making us miserable. Find another marker of success. Mine is: Doing work I find meaningful on most days and having agency over my time.
- Make work, work: Focus on the essential work. The biggest most important items will move the needle for you and your organization. And that work is doable in a sane amount of hours. The other stuff is non-essential and only sucks time.
- Build boundaries: Be strict with yourself and only work when it’s your working time. Give yourself permission to log out of email and Slack outside of your work hours. And most importantly, when you’re taking time off, actually do so.
- Unprogram your wellbeing: Lean into hobbies and people outside of work that bring you joy. Take time to get outside and log off. Don’t worry about following the routine of that podcaster who seems to have it all.
So, you may be asking. Where do I start?
Starting on the path to quitting burnout
First is a mental exercise. How might you redefine success for yourself?
The second is more actionable. It prioritizes restorative time through what I call Three Good Pockets for Daily Joy. The idea is to create a grab bag of activities that bring you meaning and help you unwind and then aim to do three of them a day. It can be as simple as reading for a few minutes, stretching while watching TV at night, or growing some tomatoes.
I intentionally suggest starting with habits outside of work since this time is more controllable initially and getting a handle on this time leads to a snowball of good habits when it comes to work and your boundaries around it.
I’ve learned that burnout from work has very little to do with work itself. It has everything to do with a misguided definition of success leading to poor boundaries and low-quality restorative time around work.
I’m thrilled to share my story and my playbook since I can’t wait for a day where burnout from work doesn’t exist.
You have the courage to break up with burnout and I’m here to provide your (gentle) weekly reminders.
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