Just about a year ago, I sold my partnership share of Copyblogger Media to Darrell Vesterfelt. (I’m delighted by the work he’s been doing there, by the way.)
Then, very shortly after that paperwork was signed, I had the marvelous good fortune to go to Norway to keynote the first Slow Business Adventure.
Hanging out with some of the attendees, I mentioned that for some years, I had been producing a podcast a week (which felt like a luxury after the year I recorded two a week), writing 40 or 50 blog posts a year, and leading a live teaching session for our community every week. In addition, of course, to the general tasks that come with co-owning a company as well as leading our editorial team.
Someone asked, “How do you avoid burnout?”
My response (after I thought about it a second) was,
“Oh, I don’t. I’m burned to a crisp.”
I hadn’t really thought of myself as burned out before that. Busy, sure. But burned out? Who has time for that?
Um, yeah, you’re probably seeing the problem with that line of thought.
What causes burnout (in my experience)
Burnout is a state of deep exhaustion. While it’s happening, it feels like it’s literally impossible to ever get enough rest or recovery to feel energetic again.
Human beings are complex, and I’m sure there are a lot of different factors that can lead to burnout. These are the factors that I think led to mine:
#1. When balance is not prioritized
Basically, if you don’t stick to a plan to restore your creative energy, it wears thin and starts to retreat altogether.
When we continue to push through exhaustion, using unhelpful excuses like “Who has time for that?,” eventually something just goes on strike.
The creative spark wakes up one morning and says, “Nah. You go on without me.”
And sometimes, what you think is your relaxation strategy doesn’t actually help you very much. Leading to,
#2. Escapism vs. real recovery
Most of the business owners I know do make space for some R&R. They travel, they have hobbies, they schedule time off.
But the time you spend needs to be restorative, and not just a thin distraction.
When I lived in Rome for a year, it was easy to keep a good rhythm of work and rest. But when I came back to the States … it got trickier.
I started distracting myself, instead of renewing myself.
When I find I’m spending too much time doing things like arguing with racists on Facebook or playing a mobile game, it’s a sure sign that I’m turning to escapist activities instead of genuinely restorative ones.
Travel has long been my preferred road to renewal … but COVID has taken that off the table for the foreseeable future.
I’ve started to think of those little escapist habits as junk food for my brain. They’re fun in the moment, but not so good for my long-term well being.
#3: Chronic stress
I don’t believe that all stress is harmful. Stress is a normal part of a rich and full life.
But chronic, unrelieved stress just isn’t good for us.
Looking back, I could have been wiser about how I managed the natural stresses of business ownership.
And of course, in 2020, the pandemic and other global factors have put all of us into a stress bath that we can’t easily climb out of.
Which means we have to take extra care of ourselves and of one another.
I believe that now more than ever, we need to structure deep and meaningful restoration into every day, week, and month.
You aren’t broken. You’re just tired.
Burnout doesn’t feel good, but I don’t think it’s actually “abnormal.”
After a period of intense effort, it’s normal to need a period of intense rest.
Short-term burnout (it should probably have a different name) is just a sign that it’s time to move to the next part of the cycle — to move into a “winter” state where we get to drink a lot of hot chocolate and let our brains hibernate.
Like any form of pain, burnout exists to let us know that something needs attention. It’s only dangerous when we ignore it.
I’m also observing that in 2020, most of us, even if burnout wouldn’t be the right word, are struggling with some form of fuzzy brain.
Difficulty concentrating. Struggling to focus, even on the things we care a lot about.
It comes down to the same cause — stress that doesn’t find a truly nourishing escape valve of restoration and recovery.
Here are my own tools for restoration and recovery. I hope some of them will help you, too:
Tools for recovery
Difficult as it is, we all need scheduled time to really rest from our obligations. We may not be able to carve out as much of it as we need, but any time you can make to truly rest will help you.
Work while you work, play while you play
Ever fallen into the mode of thinking about work while you’re relaxing, and thinking about getting away to relax while you’re working? Yeah, you’re super not alone with that one.
Mindfulness practices are incredibly useful to help you practice paying attention to what’s in front of you, instead of the next thing down the road.
Connect with people who matter
Physical distancing is important to keep us healthy. Social distancing is hurting us.
Depending on where you live, you may be able to do some in-person socializing, or you might, like me, still be locked into mostly Zoom.
Prioritize connection. Hug the people (or pets) in your household as often as you can.
Do work you care about
I think a lot of people have reassessed their professional lives since COVID blew up — and found that there were elements we just didn’t find meaningful.
While everyone has to do some drudge work occasionally, if you can orient your daily work to a larger sense of purpose, you’ll find more energy for the tough days.
Respect your good days and bad days
I have great days. (More of them lately, now that I’ve had a quieter year.) I have energizing client conversations and wonderful sessions with my mastermind partners. I have those good writing days that are half walking around the house talking to myself, and the other half typing really fast.
I also still have some garbage days when not much gets done.
I strongly recommend Stephen Guise’s newish book Elastic Habits, which creates structures around your great days and your not-so-great ones, so you can keep your confidence and momentum even when you don’t feel awesome.
Oh yeah, and that “structure” thing
I’m a person who absolutely requires structures in order to get anything done. I need habits and routines that I can rely on. And because I don’t have superhuman willpower, I need smart strategies to get back into my structures if I fall off the wagon.
I’m back (but with a smaller project)
So after a year of client work and noodling around with smaller projects, I feel refreshed. In fact, I actually feel good.
I’m also committed to not going back to the Crazytown of overwork, overstress, and overcommitment.
In the past few months, listening closely to the problems people described again and again — problems that sounded a lot like burnout, or like stress-related fuzzy brain — I started to map out a program. I think it will help people do the work that matters.
I’m calling it Growth Club. It includes the elements that I personally have found indispensible for moving forward when things are tricky:
- Shame-free accountability
In the past, when I’ve designed groups or programs, I have a major tendency to load them up so much that they become overwhelming.
This time, I’ve designed Growth Club to reduce your overwhelm, not add to it.
We’ll meet twice a week (or you can catch recordings) for brief sessions to get and stay on track.
Once or twice a month, we’ll have a quick group coaching session to work on something that will help you do more without killing yourself.
I’ll also hold scheduled email office hours to work with folks one-on-one through your stuck spots.
I’ll share my recommendations for the structures that help us get the right things done, and the mental habits and practices that support good work.
(By the way, I’m also exploring options for sessions in time zones that are friendlier to Europe and to Australia. Those are still in the works, but when I get them organized, I’ll let you know.)
Growth Club will kick off in early September (with a nice price break for the first group of members). If you want an invitation when we open up, drop your information below and I’ll drop you a line when enrollment opens.