About a month ago, one of my very dear friends visited me in Florida. She was three weeks into her voluntary separation package from a corporate telecommunications company. We were working together on her resume and discussing what was next for her in her career when she said, “I can’t think right now. The last few weeks I have tried to let go and unwind. I felt so burned out I am struggling with getting re-engaged and energized.” Having been in a similar situation over 5 years ago, I empathized with and related to her experience. It took me close to six months to regain my passion, desire, and energy to utilize my skills and talents at work again.
As she continued describing how she was a great multi-tasker, answering emails, responded to instant messages and texts while at the same time being on a conference call, it was like the light bulb came on in her mind. She shared, “No wonder, I am so burned out! My mind was going ten thousand miles a minute before. I was just in that mode. Now that I have some time away and some quiet time, I recognize how fast I was going and how tired it made me.” At that moment, I realized that as leaders of people and of our own lives, we are all susceptible to burn out.
Looking back on my work experience and listening to my friend’s experience, I discovered three things that create burn out. Below are my thoughts with some tips on how to prevent it from happening to you.
Beware of Multi-tasking
My friend was absolutely correct that multi-tasking burns you out. Unfortunately, we multi-taskers tend to pride ourselves (yes, I am one) on the fact that we can do lots of things at the same time really well. In fact, I cannot even imagine functioning without having a few balls up in the air at the same time. However, there is a big difference between multi-tasking and juggling. Have you ever seen a juggler or maybe tried it yourself? It is an art that takes a tremendous amount of focus, concentration and perfect rhythm to keep multiple balls in the air. As you are learning to juggle, you must pay attention to each ball until you get into the flow of releasing and catching each ball at the perfect time. I liken this to positive multi-tasking and like to think this is what I do. I can have many activities or projects going at once, but when each individual ball is at hand, I give it the attention and focus it needs to allow it to remain in play with the others. Negative multi-tasking, on the other hand, is like poor juggling. Imagine throwing five balls up in the air and attempting to catch the one that is falling the fastest-over and over again. There is no way you can keep up mentally or physically so all the balls drop. This kind of multi-tasking is what causes burn out. Too many things at one time, no focus on any one thing; therefore, nothing gets accomplished and you can’t help but feel defeated. Once this happens, you feel tired, stressed, frustrated, agitated and the list goes on and on. In order to prevent this type of burn out symptom, remember to slow down and focus, if only briefly, on one thing at a time. This may sound impossible in our fast-paced world, but it is not. All it takes is one deep breath to clear your mind and then intentionally focus on completing one thing at a time. If you have a conference call, instant message and email staring you in the face at the same time, hit the pause button. Evaluate what’s happening. Is it really essential for you to be on the conference call? If there is something important you need to glean from it, then if you don’t listen, you will be behind the eight ball and drive your peers crazy asking them to repeat what they said. Not focusing on the email, may cause you to respond to or copy the wrong person and cause undue stress and strain for all parties. Prevent multi-tasking burn out by remembering the art of juggling… focus on one ball at a time with a steady rhythm.
Working without purpose
Another major contributor to burn out is being in a job, on a project or performing a task that you feel has no purpose. I witnessed many of my peers throughout the years feel defeated and exhausted working their butts off doing tasks that had no apparent meaningful value for themselves or the organization. I can’t count on my fingers and toes the number of times someone lamented to me “I just wasted my time and energy for what? No one will notice what I did, nor do they care.” This is so true especially in tasks that are rote in nature like some of the clerical, manufacturing or housekeeping roles. Everyone regardless of the job they fill wants to know that what they are doing makes a difference. They want to know that they add value, purpose and that they can contribute to the good of the company. In my opinion this is one of the main mistakes leaders make in not ensuring nor communicating that each person, regardless of title or role, has a purpose. When we feel we have no purpose, we become depressed which leaves us with a feeling of listlessness and indifference. After time those feelings wear us down and burn us out. As a leader it is essential to ensure there is purpose, large or small, in everything you and your team members take on. And if the purpose is not there, stop doing it or change it to make it more meaningful. Don’t let lack of purpose be the reason your and their individual light gets extinguished.
Trying to “look good”
Yes, I said it! A major cause of burnout is incessantly trying to look good in front of other people. I am not referring to physical looks (although that can be exhausting), I am talking about this silent fear many of us have that our actions are not good enough or that if we are not perfect we will look bad in other people’s eyes. I admit it that I still fall prey to this behavior from time to time. There is this little reel of tape that plays in my head that says “You better make sure what you do is perfect because if you make a mistake, people will think you are weak and incompetent.” Or another common caution flag that appears now and again is, “Don’t do that new thing or take that risk, what will other people think?” And if I buy into either of those messages, I become stressed, immobilized and feel defeated. Not a good place to be when you strive to be a strong leader and role model for others. So what do I do instead?? I remind myself that my brain wants to keep me safe and most often the thing it is warning me not to do is the thing I am supposed to do. When I was writing my book “People Leadership”, I can remember hearing over and over again, “What will people think about this book? What if they don’t like it? Maybe you just don’t have what it takes to be a published author.” Yet, here I am two years later, a published author and having the time of my life reminding others they are people leaders! I had to thank my brain for trying to protect me and move forward with confidence and approval from myself (no one else). And every single time I push through my concern about looking good and just doing what I believe is my best, the fear dissipates and I feel energized and inspired. Don’t let trying to look good burn you out, just do it anyway!
Burn out is a silent and sneaky killer of dreams, relationships, health and passion. Be aware of the natural tendency to multi-task in today’s fast paced world, slow down and focus on one thing at a time even if you have multiple balls in the air. Make sure there is a purpose in everything you do and if it is not obvious create a purpose or stop the activity. And last and certainly not least, don’t worry about other people’s views about you. Do whatever your best is and move forward with confidence and vitality. Leaders don’t let their lights burn out, they keep them shining brightly always.