It happens to all of us. We take on far too much, by choice and by necessity, and then we want to do all of it well. Our workplaces are perpetually in flux, with employees constantly needing to adapt to new managers, processes, technologies, and more, often with little training and mentoring. Our family members are busy and stressed themselves, and they need us too. We feel like we’re pedaling harder and faster but not moving forward. We. Are. Burned. Out. So this new year, resolve to stop burnout in its tracks. Here are some strategies for reducing the destructive energies that lead to burnout, and freeing up the restorative energies that allow you to achieve your goals.
Break the negativity loop
Much has been written about our primitive brain and the negativity bias—for instance, our tendency to recall the one less-than-stellar piece of feedback on a performance evaluation rather than all the praise. Studies suggest that we remember negative events more easily and vividly because our brains evolved to detect and respond to danger. It’s why we tend to focus on what we might have failed to do, rather than what we achieved. To counter this, each week conduct what I call an appreciative inquiry. Review your calendar from the past week and choose three to five accomplishments. They can be work or personal, quantitative or qualitative. For each, answer the following: Why is this accomplishment important? What would further progress look like? What are my immediate next steps to move forward?
Play the pick 2 game (maybe 3, but no more)
You need to be constantly moving forward on goals that are important in the long term but not immediately urgent in order to grow your team and organization. So each quarter, sit down and decide your top two or three goals outside of your usual day in and day out work. Choosing just two goals may mean setting aside others for a while, but remember, focusing on too much at once leads to overwhelm and burnout. How do you move those more long-term projects forward? Read on.
Make a schedule, then trim it
We all write to-do lists. This year, also try scheduling each item you put on it. Be sure to schedule in breaks and leave plenty of cushion between each item. While making your schedule, try planning less. Ending the day feeling disappointed in all you didn’t get done saps energy. When you put less on your list, you are more likely to end the day with a satisfied feeling that builds momentum. Once you get the hang of it, this habit of scheduling frees up large chunks of space on your calendar—space that you can use to schedule those long-term important, but not immediately urgent, goals that you identified in the previous step. Your list should be what I call a “whole life to do list” that includes both personal and work items.
Take steps to cut down on workplace tension
A lot of us believe that politics and tension with colleagues are par for the course, but the energy drain from negative daily interactions with others can be a huge source of burnout. My favorite tool for building better relationships is the Tracom Social Style, but you can also try the DISC or the Myers-Briggs. These tools help you understand how people exhibit different behaviors when they experience tension, and some help you evaluate your colleagues’ styles and predict their future actions just by observing their behavior. Suddenly it makes sense why one person won’t speak their mind in a meeting or another always takes over when things get tense.
Take a technology break
You’ve heard it before but it bears repeating: our brains need down time to rejuvenate. Stop yourself from reaching for your phone and instead let your mind wander for a few minutes. Really. You can do it.
Build a team of people who are good at things you’re not
One of the biggest paths to burnout I see with clients is self-judgment around not being good at everything. It doesn’t mean you’ll never have to do work that’s not in your area of strength, but letting go of the “should” around it lifts a weight off your shoulders. And here’s something you may not have thought of: Our areas of strength, where we have the greatest impact, are those that feel the least like work, which means your strengths are hiding in plain sight. If you are early in your career, pay close attention to the projects or jobs that energize you. If you are further along, look back at peak moments in work and think about what has energized you. My favorite tools to help you do some of this work are the StrengthsFinder 2.0 and the Seven Stories exercises.
Develop a spiritual or meditation practice
It doesn’t matter what works for you—a religious practice, maybe, or regular meditation. But pausing to step out of the relentlessness of work and life does matter. Take regular vacations; longer than a week if you can. Let your team know that you won’t respond to email on the weekend, and then avoid the temptation to use their email for your idea download on their weekends as well.
As you enter this new year, if you feel like you’re on the verge of burning out, look back on some of these strategies and see what might work for you. You don’t have to try all of them. Pick one you like, and give yourself the gift of trying a new way to reduce the destructive energies that eventually lead to burnout.
Claire Steichen '93 is the founder of Clear Strategy Coaching, an executive coaching firm in New York City. She is a coach for various Columbia University programs, including the Business School’s Leadership Lab.