burnout

There Is No Finish Line
There Is No Finish Line 1080 565 Jason Lauritsen

Last week, my daughter ran her first cross country race. For those who aren’t familiar with cross country, at her age, it’s a mile and a half run in the “country” (i.e., on grass, through the trees, up and down hills, etc.).

She’s new to running and had never run any kind of race in the past, so this was all new territory for her. To help her prepare, we talked a little about strategy.

Most of our conversation focused on where she was in the race relative to the finish line. For example, one of the ideas that resonated with her was to remember that it is “only a mile and a half.”

She knew she could definitely run the length of the race, so the idea was to remember that the finish line was never too far away. She could push through the pain and struggle in the middle of the race because she knew for certain that it would soon be over.

I remember having that same thought when I ran half-marathons in the past.

“It will be over soon. Just keep running.”

Whether in a race, at work, or elsewhere in life, we crave the comfort and motivation that a finish line provides. We can endure anything for a short period of time, as long as we know when it will be over.

My Orangetheory trainers have a phrase they like to say just before asking you to do something difficult, “You can do anything for thirty seconds.”

Finish lines are powerful.

Why We Are Struggling

Last week, I listened to Brené Brown’s conversation with Amy Cuddy on her Dare to Lead podcast. They were talking about an article that Amy co-wrote for the Washington Post in August titled, “Why This Stage of the Pandemic Makes Us So Anxious.”

In this article, she and her co-author outline something called “pandemic flux syndrome” that they attribute as the reason so many of us are really having a tough time right now with where things are in the world, particularly related to the pandemic.

According to Cuddy, if you are feeling amped-up anxiety or depression right now, there’s a good reason for it. Listening to this discussion helped me sort out why the past few months have felt so challenging for me personally.

I suspect the same might be true for you.

The more I’ve reflected on what I learned, the more I’m convinced that our struggle with the pandemic has everything to do with our fixation on finish lines.

We desperately want there to be a finish line—a point when this is all over and we can return to some semblance of a normal and a predictable existence. The belief that there is a finish line can help many of us to get through the most challenging times in our lives.

Earlier this summer, we thought we were very near the pandemic’s finish line in the U.S. The July 4th holiday was supposed to be a declaration of our independence from COVID’s grip on our lives. We were ready to move on.

But that finish line turned out to be an illusion with no end in sight.

Ever since, we’ve been searching for the real finish line, desperate for anyone to tell us where it is. Our craving and belief in a finish line may be a big part of what’s dragging us down right now.

The Reality We Must Face

The pandemic isn’t a race.

There is no finish line. Not really, and not in the way we want there to be one.

There won’t be a day when we will wake up, open a browser, and see a news story declaring that today is the day it’s over.

Anyone who tells you that the finish line exists is probably just trying to give you something to fuel your hope and bolster your motivation to push through the ongoing challenges.

“Just keep running. You’re almost there.”

It seems that we keep running towards a finish line that doesn’t exist. No wonder so many of us feel so tired.

I think about my daughter’s cross country race.

What would have happened if they kept moving the finish line? What if the kids were left to just keep running in circles with no immediate end in sight? After working through their initial confusion, I’m betting it wouldn’t be long before many of them just gave up and quit running as they got progressively more tired.

Does that sound familiar?

People everywhere are quitting their jobs, moving to new places, making relationship changes, and more. These are all different ways of quitting the race. We are tired of running towards a finish line that never appears. So, we are trying to create our own.

Running towards a finish line that doesn’t exist is breaking us.

This Isn’t a Race (There Is No Finish Line)

It’s time for a mindset shift. I know I’m working on mine.

The pandemic isn’t a race. Things are shifting daily, and even when it looks like it might be nearing the end, another variant or another virus could emerge and erase all the progress we’ve made.

There is no finish line.

Figuring out the “return to office” and future of work isn’t a race. There is no singular right answer because even if you create the perfect plan and get it rolled out, something will change and disrupt the balance again.

There is no finish line.

We must learn to embrace the reality that we aren’t in a race; we are on a journey. Along this journey, everything is constantly changing.

Rather than try to “endure it” as we would the pain of a race, we must instead adapt and respond to it in a way that helps us find success and happiness.

What Is Helpful Now?

The idea of a finish line also implies that there’s a “new normal” on the other side of it. This leads us to believe that things will settle down and be somehow better when we get there.

It’s a mirage.

When we let go of the illusion of the finish line, we can stop waiting for it. Instead, we can start asking different questions and focusing on what we can do today to make things better.

Admittedly, this is no easy task. Whether you are trying to tackle this personally or figure it out for your organization, there are few easy and clear answers.

Here are a few things to consider as you chart a new path forward on this journey.

We need to take better care of ourselves and each other.

Living with constant change and uncertainty is hard. It’s okay to admit that this is challenging. And it’s frustrating that we can’t control what’s going to happen to us or around us.

The thing we do have some control over is how well we care for our well-being and that of those around us. Our well-being fuels our ability to show up and thrive regardless of the circumstances.

We don’t know how long this leg of the journey will be. We must take care of ourselves, to rest when we need it. No matter what lies ahead, if we are broken down and burned out, we will not be in any shape to meet it.

Focus on what is helpful right now.

A lot of plans made for this fall were built on an assumption that we’d be in the “post-pandemic” phase (i.e., we would be across the finish line). But that’s not what happened. And yet, I see many organizations (and people) trying to stay the course even when the finish line never appeared.

Instead of making plans for what happens “after the race,” we need to start embracing the reality that we have no idea when things will change again. So, let’s start asking a different question.

What would be most helpful right now?

This is a particularly helpful question when it comes to sorting out questions about where and when and how people should be allowed to work as we move forward. Debating if your organization is going to be an in-person or hybrid or remote workplace in the future may feel really important right now. But there’s a much more pressing question that should come first.

What do our people need right now to be able to do their best work in a way that supports their well-being?

If you focus on answering continually this question, you won’t need to worry as much about the future workplace question because you’ll answer it along the way. You’ll create whatever you need to support your people’s needs.

What Do You Think?

Are you feeling the drain of chasing a finish line that never seems to appear?

If so, how are you adapting? What are you finding helpful?

The journey is long and the road is winding. It’s not the end of the journey that should command our attention.

It’s traveling well.

We can do that together.

 

P.S. For those who are wondering, my daughter did great in her race. She ran better than she expected and learned a lot. She’s looking forward to her next race today. 🙂

Sign about burnout that says things will be fine
The Other Side of Burnout – What’s Working for Me
The Other Side of Burnout – What’s Working for Me 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you were likely along for the ride last summer as I wrote about facing burnout for the first time and working my way through it.

Your responses to those posts reminded me how important it is to “show our work” as humans. Particularly in a world where it’s so tempting to curate a finely crafted version of ourselves on social media that signals to others how much we have everything under control. 

And some people do. But most of us don’t. 

Behind the curated picture is a messy reality of joy, struggle, success, and failure, all mixed together. Sometimes, things are great. Other times they suck. And then there are those that are…meh. 

We get into trouble when we stop paying attention and being honest about where we truly are. It’s when we get washed away by our circumstances and forget to care for ourselves that bad things often occur. 

2020 was rough. 2021 hasn’t been any better thus far—and it’s going to be a while before that changes. That means that we (you, me, your family, your employees) are all likely facing some challenging stuff, even if we’re projecting an aura of “everything’s fine.” 

In the past few days, signs that things are not okay have been showing up all around me. 

A friend revealed she’s fighting depression. I’d talked to her recently and she seemed to be doing well, but that wasn’t the reality. This diagnosis was even a surprise to her. Mental health is tricky and dangerous that way. 

Another friend shared that she’s struggling with some issues on her team that she’s never experienced before. Trust and communication issues are popping up like a whack-a-mole game. She’s always maintained a healthy culture with her team, but people are raw. 

And then, an article came across my radar today about “hitting the COVID wall.” As I read it, it sounds a lot like “hitting the wall” is another word for burnout. Regardless, people seem to be succumbing to the circumstances. 

If we are to be compassionate leaders, we must be aware of the challenges and help support our people both in practicing self-care and throwing them a lifeline when they get swallowed up by it all. 

And, just as importantly, we need to take care of ourselves. If we aren’t whole and well, it’s really tough to support others in doing so. 

To that end, I wanted to share with you what I’ve been practicing for self-care to keep myself in a good place and prevent the burnout I experienced last summer. Before I do, a disclaimer:  

These work for me—that’s all I know for certain. It’s not meant as a definitive prescription but rather as inspiration for your own self-care practice or that of your team. 

Self-Care Practices to Beat Burnout

While I know a lot is said about how silly New Year’s resolutions are because people rarely follow through, I find the turn of the new year to be a powerful opportunity to punch the reset button. It’s a great opportunity to wipe the slate clean and recommit to what’s important. And that’s what I did this year.  

While nothing I’m doing now is new to me, per se, the way that I’m approaching it is. I’m keeping a simple daily journey where I essentially record my progress each day. Mainly, it’s a practice of self-accountability. 

1. Meditation

For years, I avoided even trying meditation because it sounded intimidating and complicated. But a few years ago, based on the urgings from a friend, I decided to try it. I discovered that it doesn’t have to be hard and is really valuable. 

Despite that, I’ve not been consistent about my practice. I’d do it regularly for a while and then stop. For 2021, I’ve committed to meditating each day, and it’s having a profound impact. 

Most simply, meditation is about cultivating greater awareness—awareness of both the world around you and how you respond to it.

Cultivating this awareness helps you stay in touch with what’s going on inside your head and heart. This, in turn, equips you to take action when needed. Meditation isn’t an end-all, but it’s powerful. 

If you aren’t sure where to start, there are some great apps to help you.  I’ve used both Headspace and Calm in the past. Currently, I’m using the Ten Percent Happier app. All of them are good, and they all have free programs to help you get started. All you need is the app and a little bit of quiet space to give it a try.  

2. Exercise 

In full transparency, I never stopped exercising even before my burnout. So, exercise alone isn’t an adequate self-care practice. I used to think it was. But, exercise for me is critical. 

And it’s been challenging at times during the pandemic to keep this commitment. A few months before all of this started last year, I’d become a member at Orangetheory, a group workout gym, and I loved it. But just as I was getting into the groove of it, it was taken away. 

As a runner, I turned to running and for the summer months, I ran a lot. But then, plantar fasciitis struck, and I’ve not been able to run for months. There are always roadblocks to getting more exercise, but there is always a way. 

When Orangetheory closed, they started publishing at-home workout videos. I’d never worked out to a video in my life but quickly discovered you could get a great workout at home if you open your mind a bit. 

We also decided to invest in a treadmill late summer so that even as the winter months closed in and the temps dropped, we could still run (or walk, in my case right now). There’s always a way to keep active. 

3. Diet

I’m a stress eater and drinker. When things are strained, nothing sounds more appealing to me than a pizza and a few beers. When I eat and drink like this, my sleep suffers. Then I get progressively more tired. 

When I’m tired, I crave carbohydrates and foods that aren’t great for my body. When I eat those, I don’t feel great, and I find it hard to do my best work. That leads to more stress, which leads to more poor eating and drinking.  

It’s become a common joke of the times to talk about your “COVID 19,” the weight gain many of us have added since the pandemic began. Mine was a COVID 17. I came out of my burnout and into 2021 weighing more than I had in years. This didn’t feel good at all, so I decided that I needed to control what I could. 

I know how to eat healthily. So, I made that change. I also cut way back on my alcohol consumption. While I can’t claim a dry January, I was close. As a result, my sleep is better, which makes it easier to control my eating and drinking. 

And, I feel better and stronger than I have in years. The COVID 17 is nearly gone. 

4. Clear Out The “Psychic Baggage”

Before you think I’ve lost it, let me explain what I mean by “psychic baggage.” One of the things I noticed coming into 2021 (perhaps due to more meditation) was that there were many things on my mind that required me to take some action but that I wasn’t doing anything about. 

One was a conversation with my son. Another was a relationship check-in with my wife. Several were as simple as emails sitting in my email box waiting on a reply. For one reason or another, I’d been putting all of these things off. And I realized that by doing so, they were occupying space in my mind that couldn’t be used for anything else. 

It was psychic baggage that I was unnecessary carrying around. And the weight of it was undoubtedly having an effect. So, I decided to start clearing it out. 

At first, I had to deal with the backlog. It was like moving through a checklist; but with every checkmark I added, I felt lighter. Eventually, I arrived at a place where I finished my initial list. The work now is not to pick up any new baggage. The mindfulness of meditation helps a lot with this. 

This practice is really about asking yourself, “what am I putting off that’s weighing on me right now?” This is a great journaling prompt (another thing I’ve been doing weekly). Once you identify your baggage, step into it and do what needs to be done to put it down. That doesn’t mean you need to solve the issue, necessarily—it just means that you take the next step. 

5. Self-compassion

Last but certainly not least is practicing what I preach on myself. I’ve written about the importance of compassion as a leader this year. That needs to first extend to ourselves. It’s about realizing that we are also struggling and won’t always get it right.

For me, this has been important. Despite my goal to not drink alcohol for the first two weeks of the year, watching the events of January 6 unfold on television derailed me. Self-compassion allowed me to extend care and forgiveness to myself, cut myself some slack, and start the next day anew.

We can’t always get it right. We are imperfect. But, we are worth the same care and concern we offer others. Be kind to yourself. When things don’t go well, forgive yourself and reconnect to your intentions. Then give it another go.  

The Key to Beating Burnout 

Wellbeing is a topic you’ll be hearing a lot about from me this year. If there’s one thing the pandemic has made crystal clear, it’s that we need to do a much better job caring for our people and ourselves.  

In the modern era of work, human beings are the mechanisms of production in the ways machines were to the industrial era. And while I know that sounds sort of harsh when put into words, it’s true. It’s our intellect, creativity, willpower, and motivation that drives our organizations. 

In the context of work, wellbeing is the degree to which we, as human beings, are able to offer our best contributions. It’s care and maintenance. And without it, we can never optimize engagement or performance. 

It’s also the degree to which we can offer our best contributions across all aspects of our lives. While many innovations will impact work in the future, none is more important than the progress we can make related to wellbeing.  

The best way to learn is to start with yourself. Experiment with self-care and learn what works for you. Then share your story with others as both inspiration and to act as a role model. 

 

Mark your calendar:

  • March 11, 2-3 p.m. ET – My What’s nEXt webcast in March will feature Mettie Spiess for a conversation about what progress we are making on supporting mental health at work (and what more we need to be doing). 
  • March 31, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. ETWellbeing 2021 – Humanity Comes to Work. This is a day-long virtual event I’m producing with AchieveEngagement and WELCOA that you won’t want to miss. 
Burnout and Putting Me Back Together Again
Burnout and Putting Me Back Together Again 1080 608 Jason Lauritsen

About two weeks ago, I wrote about my realization that I was suffering from burnout. The response to the post was both affirming and concerning. 

Affirmation came in the form of messages and comments signifying I wasn’t alone. Others saw themselves in my situation. They were feeling the same exhaustion and lack of joy. In those affirmations was born my concern. 

I’ve spent the last two weeks writing and speaking openly about my burnout and how I found my way through it. The more I talk about it, the more I hear from others who are suffering from something similar: burnout, COVID fatigue, stress, etc. 

As a result of what I’ve heard, I feel like I need to share what’s happened since I wrote that post. I took some very intentional and specific actions to get back to feeling like myself again and it’s had a dramatic effect. 

I’m a bit reluctant as I write this post for a couple of reasons. First, I’m in no way an expert on burnout or mental health. I’m only an expert on sharing my story and what I’ve learned from it. 

Second, I have found quickly that there are many different manifestations and intensities of burnout. My hunch is that mine was pretty mild and that I caught it relatively early, but I don’t know. 

Finally, I’m cognizant of the enormous privilege and advantages I have at my disposal. I am lucky. I have more flexibility (I work for myself), support, and resources than many do. Please know I am aware of this and that your situation may look a lot different than mine. 

I’m going to share what I did because it was incredibly healing for me. I literally feel like a different person today than I did when I wrote that blog. I’ll also share what I took from the experience as learnings. My hope is that something in there will be helpful to you or perhaps someone you know who might be stuck where I was.  


My Retreat

As I began to realize how worn down I felt, a friend of mine suggested that I take a few days and really unplug. Unplug from work, from tech, from the news. She suggested spending time just breathing and doing things like watching the sun rise and set. 

It sounded right to me, so I scanned my calendar and found four days where I had very little scheduled and anything that was scheduled could be moved. I blocked them off. 

When I told my wife about my plan to unplug, she made a suggestion. My parents were going to be gone for a couple of weeks camping, so why not go to their house to have some real time “away” from everything. That’s exactly what I did. 

Two days after I posted my blog, I packed my car and headed to my parents’ empty house. Ironically, while so many are struggling with social isolation right now, what I needed was some true time alone. 

Over the course of those four days, I had a few priorities. 

DISCONNECTION  I didn’t check email. I didn’t watch any news. I unplugged. The only people I talked to during the entire four days were my grandparents, who live in an assisted living facility near my parents’ home. Visiting with them in-person was good for the soul. In the evenings, I’d kick back and watch a movie I’d been wanting to see. 

SLEEP  I felt exhausted heading up there. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been sleeping. My Fitbit would have told you that I was getting about seven hours of sleep per night even as I was burning out. It wasn’t enough. Over my four nights away, I slept 9.5, 9, 9, and 8 hours respectively per night. My batteries were clearly run down.

SELF-HELP PODCASTS  The week before I left, a friend who had navigated through her own experience of burnout mentioned how much the Brené Brown podcast, Unlocking Us, had helped. I took her advice and binged a bunch of episodes along with several from the Dan Harris podcast, Ten Percent Happier. These were exactly what I needed. It was the closest thing I could get to some counseling or coaching as part of this experience. It was a reminder that just because you heard something or knew something at one point doesn’t mean you don’t need reminders and refreshers. One would think I should know that. Regardless, these podcasts and a few other random episodes from other sources gave me the tools I needed to reset my mindset. 

JOURNALING  Each morning, I spent about 30-45 minutes journaling. I use a technique for journaling where I decide in advance how much space I’m going to fill in my journal and then I write, without stopping, until it’s full. This part of the process was vital to pouring out my thoughts and making sense of what had been going on inside my head. By putting in the self-help content early, I had a lot to process and sort through over four days. Other than sleep, journaling was probably the most vital part of healing.  

EXERCISE  This is admittedly a regular part of my self-care routine. I run between 20 and 25 miles per week during the warm months. While on retreat, I kept up my running but also mixed in some long walks as well. Exercise alone isn’t enough for me, clearly, but it’s an important element. 

MEDITATION  Each morning, I spent 15-20 minutes meditating. I am still largely a meditation novice, but I love it and find it extremely valuable. I use the Calm app for guided meditations. 

Beyond these things, I allowed myself a lot of open space to do whatever felt like the right thing to do. One day, I went for a sight-seeing drive and listened to a podcast. Another day, I went for a meandering walk around town. Just the feeling of being off a schedule allowed some of my stress to ease. 

When I returned home from the retreat, I felt like a different person. I’d been able to isolate some really problematic mindsets and reset them to a more positive place. Plus, I felt whole and rested. I had energy and the joy had returned. I am not overstating this. It was transformative. 

What I think I learned

As I’ve had time to think about how I ended up in need of a retreat and how the retreat restored me, I’m going to hang on to a few things to hopefully help me prevent this from happening again in the future. 

  1. Retreats are powerful. The word retreat is defined as “an act of moving back or withdrawing.” That’s what I needed and it feels like what a lot of people need right now. We need to move back from the front lines of our lives, even if it’s just for a few days. When we move back and get away, we are able to get out of the busyness and see our situation from a different perspective. Creating space for retreat is incredibly important and valuable. 
  2. Ongoing self-care is vital, and exercise alone isn’t enough. I think when the crisis took hold in March, the adrenaline of needing to adapt and respond carried me through several months. I suspect that my exercise and sleep routine actually helped me stretch out how far that carried me, but I wasn’t tending to my mental health, and eventually I broke down. Going forward, I have a plan to be as disciplined about my mental health self-care as I am about my physical health. 
  3. We all need help in getting and staying well. I am fortunate that I have friends (and a badass wife) who provided me with suggestions and ideas for what I needed to do. I’m also grateful that I opened myself back up to some self-help content. My learning style responds really well to self-help, but it could have been counseling or coaching instead. The point is, it’s hard to climb out of a rut without some help. It’s also much easier to recognize and avoid the rut in the first place with help. 

As Paul Harvey used to say, “That’s the rest of the story.” My hope is that maybe it will be useful to you, someone you care about, or maybe in thinking through how to support your employees right now. 

And, if you are curious about what the mindsets were that needed a reset, the short version is this: I needed to replace judgment with empathy and scarcity with abundance. If you want to talk more about that, reach out and ask.  

Take care of yourself and those around you. We’ve still got a long way to go.