I was exhausted. My daily nap wasn’t helping, nor was eating healthy and taking care of myself. When I did any exercise, I would fall asleep on the floor when I was done. This is what burnout feels like, I finally realized. In addition to amazing support from my Naturopathic Doctor, I needed to make some changes.
I pulled out a huge sheet of paper, taped it up on the wall, and got to work making the most important mind map I’ve ever made. On it I brainstormed everything I was doing: running a business, hosting a podcast, hosting a retreat, teaching a course, taking courses, hosting a meetup group, working part-time, travelling, public speaking, doing everything around the house since my partner worked out of town, and more. The page was full, and it was beyond obvious how I got myself into this situation. I ruthlessly circled the most important things that I would keep, which were shockingly few. I left that paper up on the wall, and systematically started removing myself from every single thing that didn’t move me closer to my goals or align with my values. That’s how I began to heal.
Fast-forward about eight years to now, and it’s not like I’ve been zen and relaxed ever since. My responsibilities have easily doubled or even tripled since then, business has gotten harder, and we’ve been living through countless traumas as a society. I’ve nearly reached burnout again a few times, but thankfully I know how to recognize the signs and catch it in time now.
But even before that, well before burnout, nearly every person I speak to complains of having too much on their plate. They’re trying to manage too many things, meet internal and external expectations, and sometimes just get through the day unscathed. In my ideal client interviews I heard people often refer to wanting to “burn their business down” or “throw in the towel” which is a sign of overwhelm and burnout.
There’s no way I can help you solve this in one blog post, nor is this an exhaustive list. It can’t solve the inequities in our society of racism or discrimination, which I am in no way trying to minimize or ignore. This isn’t an article about how to manage a crisis or a short-term event that will go away quickly (like a sickness, coming back to work after a vacation, or team member quitting). This is about chronic busyness and overwork. The kind of work that will eventually lead to burnout.
Here are just a few ideas to get you started lightening your load as best you can. You don’t have to do them all, and you don’t have to do them in order. Take whatever you find helpful in this list.
Notice and acknowledge where you are and what’s going on
The first step to adjusting your life is to notice where you are. You can’t fix something you don’t know is there. No judgement for the past, just compassion and recognition for what you’re going through. No need to explain it away, place blame, or justify it. It is what it is. If you can, notice where you feel it in your body. And notice what meaning you put on it or what story you make up about it. It’s all good information to get you started.
Get it all out of your head
What is the big, long list of things you’re managing? Journal. Mind map. Acknowledge and face what you’re dealing with. It might be helpful to avoid the tiny details and just start with the big buckets or categories that are on your shoulders. This can also include things that are on your mind and not just thing you “do”. It all takes a mental toll.
Why do you have this much on your plate in the first place?
There are a million reasons this could be: logistics, not sharing the workload (or not having someone to share it with), a habit of always being busy, avoiding something deeper going on, a Martyr or Critic manifestation of self-doubt, you’re not clear on your goals or values, your business model is too complicated, you have a high drive for accomplishment, all of the above, or something else entirely. Easier said than done, but if you can stay out of blame-mode you might be able to keep this more constructive. I would love to tell you this can be fixed, but it’s heavy lifting. Culturally, and decade over decade, we’ve been taking on more and more logistics in our life that we weren’t designed to do. And in our work, especially in the era of content creation and social media, we’re also taking on a disproportionate amount of unpaid work to keep our businesses afloat. Tara McMullin at Explore What Works is a great resource for understanding what’s going on in our world right now with regards to this.
How do you want to BE and FEEL instead?
What do you imagine it feels like when you don’t have so much on your plate? How does it feel in your body? What do you think you would do instead if you felt like you had the time or energy?
I won’t tell you to just “be that now” and it will all go away. It probably won’t. But you can (sometimes) lighten the load by changing how you’re showing up to the day. This will of course not fix systemic problems in our society or any real emotional or physical danger you might be in. I’m talking more about your attitude towards certain tasks. Sometimes it helps me to shift frustration to appreciation. Sometimes it can just be a choice to be happy (which I talk more about in this podcast episode). You can also revisit your mind map if you made one and see what things are taking you further away from how you want to be and feel and which things keep you where you want to be.
What do you know you need?
Often, if we take the time to pay attention, we know what we need. Listen to your inner knowing and the wisdom of your body. Most recently for me it felt like my whole nervous system was on high alert and I needed to downregulate it as much as I could, and I knew what would help that. It meant no thought-provoking TV, shortening my work hours, decreasing the number of free and networking calls I did, I only did social events that were easy and didn’t involve planning, and my partner took on a lot more responsibility temporarily around the house. And yes, there may have been a few bubble baths.
Notice the difference between what your body knows it needs, and what you tend to do as a habit (eating, shopping, numbing with alcohol or drugs, binging TV, among other things). These are automatic, but not necessarily helpful or healing.
What do you want to change?
Do you even want to change anything? I assume you do if you made it this far! I’m not just talking about tactical changes you can put in your calendar. You may also look at your standards, your expectations, your responsibilities, your commitments, your business model, your strategies, your perspective, and who you ask for help. These will likely make a much bigger difference than changing a routine or getting up earlier so you can fit more in.
Then look at how you can be and feel the way you want right now. Even if you don’t change anything from the outside, maybe you’d like to make an internal shift.
Get focused on what matters the most
Ultimately, you will never get it all done. And don’t hear that like I do and take it as a challenge to just try harder! The truth is, it comes back to your values. What actually matters to you? What is non-negotiable? To help with this you could revisit the courage-based goals you set, or create a new one. Decide what to cross off your mind map first. Be intentional about what you add back in.
Take it seriously
When I was preparing to give birth I read a book called The First Forty Days and it completely changed my perspective on this. It suggested that the first forty days after giving birth are the most important time to heal. The mother should avoid doing anything but the bare essentials and rely on as much help as possible. I knew I needed to get back to work quickly, so I took that advice very seriously because my livelihood depended on it.
I think of that time often when I find myself getting overly busy, because I know that it’s still true that my livelihood depends on staying healthy and mentally agile. This is as important a responsibility as anything else you do in your life or work. Treat it as importantly as you would sending an invoice or serving a client. Your health and sanity rely on you valuing yourself enough to take care of yourself to the best of your ability.
I want to emphasize that I have by no means solved this. I’m writing this to process this for myself and attempt to help you at the same time. Despite my obsession with this topic, and my desire to “fix” it, I’ve personally concluded that I will never just magically have everything lifted off my plate. That realization is what changed the game, because now I know what I’m dealing with. Now I know it’s about just doing the best with what I have to work with. This means using the suggestions above to refocus on what matters most and make the best choices I can in any given moment.
If you think you need it (you don’t), you have my permission to step back and take a breath. Do what you can to live intentionally, and little by little you may feel the burdens begin to ease. And if not, maybe it’s time for a nap. Perhaps, a little of both.
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