I had a question from a client this week variations of which I receive regularly.
“I feel I’ve hit burnout and I don’t know what to do about it.”
I opened with something like,
“I spent a while wondering how to answer you and thought about it while I walked my dogs and looked at the trees which, incidentally, I see in a new way since I read the book, “How To Read A Tree.”
I explained that I find great joy in such seemingly mundane observations these days and how it wasn’t always like that.
Having lunch yesterday with two old colleagues from my years in corporate business talk inevitably turns to shared memory from those days.
It didn’t strike me at the time that I was in the midst of burnout but it should have done because largely, my time was spent taking the long route to and from relentless meetings so that I didn’t have to be around anyone or wandering along to my friend’s office where we’d spend most of the day using a stress ball and old cardboard tube to play cricket.
Maybe it sounds like fun but I was catastrophically unhappy. At the time, I thought that was just how life is.
Nobody called it burnout but the stress that results from too much, too little, or painful emotional incongruity can become so unbearable that it feels instinctive to just push harder in the hope that you’ll eventually emerge somewhere more comfortable when you’re just travelling in the wrong direction.
A musician for most of my life, a guitar became a metaphor for decline. I’d stare at it in the corner wondering why I never felt like picking it up.
Nothing was interesting or engaging, feelings so energy-sapping that the longer they continued the worse everything became.
For me, salvation came in the form of a psychiatric unit and the beginning of self-discovery that both connected me with what I’d lost and that which I’d never known.
The most important lesson I learned about burnout is that there are only two solutions.
You either work less or you find more energy. That’s it.
The best route is found by combining the two of them.
When work seeps into every corner of life in a way that cramps the style of the things we love we lose touch with the essence of ourselves.
Waiting for space to appear or for more enthusiasm to well up within us is a wait in vain.
We don’t push against burnout when we start to feel better. We start to feel better when we push against burnout.
Whether it’s getting better at saying “No”, maintaining stricter working hours, making plans with the people we love to do the things that bring us joy or any other combination of self-care routines we have to clear the space for change before change can take place.
One of the lessons I learned from the book I mentioned at the beginning is that once a tree grows bark that part of it never grows taller, only thicker, which is why you will always be able to reach that branch you can reach even as the canopy lifts further into the sky.
The lower branches stop growing because they no longer see the light.
To keep growing we have to find the light and it doesn’t only shine in our work however much we think we love it.