Avoid the burnout pit

Every few weeks, I find myself on a tightrope - carefully walking the narrow wire to avoid the burnout pit below.

Usually I steady myself before falling, but I have fallen before.  In my previous career, mid-way into my first year with the company, I continually pushed myself to live up to the expectations of my boss, the executive director and the committee members of the organization.  I remember the visualization of trying to climb out of a hole but instead of climbing I was digging myself deeper. 

I remember the night that I stayed after hours and was the only one in the building.  I don't remember what triggered it, but I do remember starting to cry.  I was crying tears of despair, frustration, fear of failure and lack of confidence.  Then the tears led to hyperventilating and soon I felt fear, unable to know what to do because I couldn't see the end in sight.  

I was beyond "having a meltdown" - I was paralyzed to the point I couldn't move.  I didn't know what I wanted or what I didn't want.  How did I get to this state of mind?  How do I get out of this pit of despair?  Can anyone help me?

Fortunately, we are in a world where most people have cell phones.  I decided to call someone who was familiar with my situation but could provide feedback at arms length.  I trusted the person I called.  Trusted that I would not be judged or dismissed.  He answered my call.  I was able to say my name, but took several minutes to talk, through the hyperventilation episodes, to say what was happening to me.  

The details of the phone call, so many years ago, was not memorable.  I do, however, remember realizing later how strong I was to admit my fears and that calling someone I trust who had first-hand knowledge of my situation was the right choice.

I remember hanging up, promising that I would call if I needed to, then I sat at my desk weeping.  I was grieving about how I got into the burnout pit and not knowing how I was going to get out.  

I realized that leaving the job was not the answer.  I had similar levels of burnout in my prior professional jobs.  A postmortem evaluation of prior jobs made me realize that it wasn't them, it was me.  It was my approach to the job - expectations, deadlines, boundaries, and dealing with conflict.

I knew that I did not want to fall into the pit like that again, so I started reading about time management - David Allen's "Getting Things Done" and applying it to the mountains of projects that would always be at peak level.  I listened to podcasts from Marcus Buckingham about focusing on your strengths and not your weaknesses.

I took responsibility for my personal needs and spoke up when I would have been silent.  It was a turning point in my professional life.  I learned not to blame myself or those around me, rather I needed to find productive ways to adapt to the demanding work life that I had chosen for myself.

Six years later I started my first year of law school.  My husband and I left our full-time, benefit-providing jobs and moved to Des Moines with our six-week old baby.  We had money saved, debts paid off and a plan for the future.  It didn't take long for the savings to get drained and new debt, in the form of student loans, to begin accruing.  

My first semester of law school, I walked the tightrope every week.  I would feel myself starting to lose my balance but one thing straightened me up.  There isn't time to get burned out in law school.  Once you hit the bottom of the pit, it takes time to get out and there wasn't time in my schedule.  Instead, I started creating rules. The first rule, one I followed religiously and still follow today, is that I do not work (study) on Saturdays.  It is hard enough to get to Friday without the looming sixth day of the week looking the same as the previous five.  

I also made a rule that I was either in student-mode or family-mode.  To make this hard line less draconian, I told myself that family time was a vacation from school and school time was a vacation from family responsibilities.  There were other "rules" that helped me avoid burnout, but those are the 2 that I still apply today.

What can you do to avoid the burnout pit?

  • Walk short tightropes; give yourself scheduled breaks - and use the breaks as time to recharge.
  • Create your own tightrope walking rules:  only you can set your own boundaries and enforce them.
  • Make a mood-elevator list:  things you can do (almost anywhere) that results in positive feelings.
  • Stop what you are doing: sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing, take a break, come back later.

Burnout can happen anytime and anywhere.  You don't escape it when you leave your office at the end of the day.  Be on the lookout to know what state of mind you are in.  If you are in a good place, it is easier to make a plan to avoid the burnout pit.  If you are about to fall in, take small steps to correct yourself.