Coming back to the UK after an intensive, three-day consulting trip, I was on the edge of a panic attack. For a few seconds, I had a vivid “day-mare” of myself in the hospital, surrounded by doctors, with no way to cope or communicate coherently. As the vision passed, I became aware, for the first time in a long time, of a great heaviness and tiredness in my body. I realized – with some surprise – that I was burned out.
On the back of an envelope, I calculated that I had been working in over a dozen countries over the last few months — sometimes three countries in a single week. Because my collaborators and clients span time zones, the days were often long. Maybe I should have seen this coming.
It’s not like there were no warning signs. Some of these were pretty big: I’d had writer’s block for months, seemingly unable to start my new book. Some were smaller but no less tell-tale: it took me five weeks on an assignment in Singapore to even realize the hotel overlooked a beach!
Why was I so oblivious to being on the edge of burnout – or, more accurately, descending further into burnout? Perhaps because I love my work and often don’t frame it as “work.” If this is a “problem,” I reasoned, it’s one lots of people would love to have. I feel very lucky to do work I am passionate about, and I like the people I get to work with.
And yet such positivity, I’ve learned, can backfire. Because I love and appreciate my work, my mental “immune system” had nothing to reject. It had become too much of a good thing; the axiom “a strength overplayed can be a liability,” leaps to mind.
Here’s the tricky part. Therapy, coaching, exercise, or meditation may relieve the symptoms of burnout and help us cope — or even thrive — in these conditions, but they won’t necessarily change the conditions themselves.
For people who have already tried mindfulness and deep breathing and other exercises, and are still struggling with burnout, we might also need to challenge some fundamental assumptions around how much we can really do – and develop the capability and permission to “not do.”
We don’t have the capacity to “do it all,” just as we cannot “have it all.”
In a world of excess doing, we need to develop the capacity to mindfully choose not to do. This is far from easy, as it means confronting deeply held beliefs, many cultural as well as personal, that have served us well to date. “Time is money,” “If it’s not done perfectly, it isn’t worth doing,” and even the tyranny of the seemingly positive “Carpe Diem” in which we must make every moment count.
At what cost? The truth is, we are much more fragile than we think. We need moments of not doing – we need moments that don’t “count.” It’s these moments that spur creativity and productivity when we turn back to “doing” mode.
For example, with my writer’s block in full swing and our new book completely stalled, my co-authors and I had a meeting where we shared our frustration at our lack of progress. Frankly, I was wondering whether to abandon the project altogether, and be done with the feelings of guilt and shame for not contributing. We decided that, rather than push ahead with more commitments and more check-in dates, we would give ourselves permission not to do anything, just for a few weeks. Just to notice and be with our own thoughts, curiosities, and preoccupations, accepting where we were. Paradoxically, it was at this moment that suddenly I found myself full of ideas and eager to put them down on paper.
In busy organizational lives, with deadlines to meet and clients to serve, “permission not to do” is far more subtle and needs to be negotiated with others. As I’ve tried to make peace with not-doing, there are three things that have helped me:
Becoming more aware of “close enemies.” Close enemies is a Buddhist concept that describes two things that sound very similar, but produce opposite results. For example, it might be “endurance” and “resilience.” They sound closely related, but an executive working on endurance may find themselves feeling more and more depleted as they try to do more and more. If you’re focused on building resilience, however, you ought to feel replenished. Notice which activities genuinely replenish you, and which are simply another thing to get done.
Welcoming gaps as opportunities to rest, not inconveniences. When caught up in the pressure to do, we are often hyperaware of all the gaps in our day: waiting in a queue or commuting. To a doer, the inefficiency of these gaps can feel frustrating, so we check our mobiles while we wait, or schedule calls for our commutes. But if we’re comfortable with not-doing, we can take these as opportunities not to do, but to rest.
Instead of pulling out your phone, just try breathing in and out, making the out-breath twice as long as the in-breath. As you breathe, rest in the tiny space between the out-breath and the in-breath, then start the process again when you need to take an in-breath. Coming back to the breath and body produces what Dr Benson, Harvard Medical School, calls the relaxation response and calms the nervous system.
Creating a “not do” list. A “not do” list includes behaviors you know are not helpful for you. You might include not spending time on social media in the evening, or not checking your phone while talking with your family or loved ones. You can also list tasks you plan to outsource or delegate, or work tasks that you will do – eventually – just not today. This has helped me feel less guilty about whatever it is I’m not-doing and has helped me focus more wholeheartedly on the task in front of me. Share your “not do” list with close friends or colleagues you trust to build accountability and support.
Steven D’Souza is the Director of Deeper Learning Ltd, an Associate Professor at IE Business School, Madrid, and Associate Fellow of the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. He has authored or co-authored three books: Made in Britainwith Patrick Clarke, Brilliant Networking, and Not Knowing with Diana Renner, which won the CMI Management Book of the Year. He is listed on the Thinkers 50 Radar and HR Magazine’s ‘Most Influential’ list. He is working on a forthcoming book with Diana Renner and Robert Poynton. You can reach him on twitter @stevenxdsouza.
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