How connection, rest and exercise can shift you from feeling burnt out to shining brightly
“Oh Susan, you’re always so busy,” my mother says to me. I’ve heard this my whole life – usually from people who watch as I run circles around those who appear to have a calmer exterior. I remember my grandmother saying this to me when I was a young girl; my father when I was in grade school as I mused about what I was going to do on my one day free after school that week; my husband still says it.
When are you going to be less busy?
And I’ve been known to respond to this question, with a quizzical look, uncertain how to answer.
“I’m not sure, I like being busy.”
I’ve learned that I have the capacity to juggle many things on my plate at the same time – just as you likely do if you find yourself drawn to reading this article. It’s not uncommon. And it’s not a problem (says the recovering workaholic) unless you find yourself becoming burned out.
This topic has come up for me recently as I have noticed a few people in my business community experience real burn out.
I know this because they have had to take official leaves of absences from work. They have gotten so sick they were forced to rest for weeks to recover. They have disappeared from meetings and commitments with no explanation. They’ve been hospitalized due to stress.
Burnout is real.
Which led me to wonder what the signs of burnout are, and what the phrase really means.
A look at the dictionary brings me to:
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands, says one source.
Oxford tells me that: Burnout is the state of being extremely tired or ill, either physically or mentally, because you have worked too hard.
Interesting – still related to work.
Then Oxford goes on say it’s also, the point at which a rocket has used all of its fuel and has no more power.
Love that – the point at which a rocket has used all its fuel and has no more power.
No more power.
No more fuel.
The fire that keeps the rocket going is burnt out.
Which leads me to question, is the problem that you – aka ‘the Rocket’ – have run out of fuel, or is it more so that you’ve spent your fuel doing things, or going places, you’d rather weren’t in your rocket, or you weren’t going to in the first place?
Probably a bit of both.
Which is why those dictionary definitions probably tie burnout to work, assuming work is uncontrollable and you have no control over how much or how little you do. I can think of other times you might not have full control – parenting young children or a newborn, caring for an aging spouse or parents, something – anything – where there’s no end to the task at hand that you don’t enjoy, in foreseeable sight.
What if you’re a solopreneur and you can control the amount and type of work that you put in your rocket? I have written many blog posts around taking control of how you spend your time. You can find some of them here:
Meanwhile, today I want to focus on the type of fuel that you put in your rocket.
I recently read a book called Burnout by sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski. I will admit to rolling my eyes just a little and wondering what they could possibly have to say that might be new on the topic, and here I am writing about it because I really liked one particular addition they made to solving burnout.
The Nagoski sisters cite social connection as a form of nourishment, like food. Like food, they say, our need for connection changes across our life-spans, but our fundamental need for connection does not. They also go on to say that, as with food, the culture we live in constrains the choices available to us to connect with others.
“Being alone as an infant isn’t just lonely; it’s a matter of life and death – and it’s not just that babies die if they aren’t fed and kept warm and held out of reach of predatory carnivores. Babies can literally die of loneliness itself, even if their other needs are met. Contact with another person is a basic biological need; loneliness is a form of starvation.” – Burnout
Even as adults, connection nourishes us in literal and physiological ways, regulating our heart rates and respiration rates. In fact, recent research indicates that social isolation and loneliness increases a person’s odds of early death by 25 to 30 percent.
One Chief Medical Officer described loneliness as having the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
In 2018, the UK’s government created a Commission on Loneliness, framing it as a public health issue with the same health impact as living with a chronic disease like diabetes.
Being lonely, or experiencing lack of connection with other human beings, is serious business.
And an important antidote to burnout.Connection is an important antidote to burnout.Click To Tweet
As someone who has worked as a solopreneur for almost 18 years, and being an extrovert who gets her energy from being around others, I have had to be very purposeful to ensure that human connection, teamwork, and community remain a part of my regular existence. I have incorporated it into my service offerings as a personal leadership coach for professional women and women in business, and yet somehow I continue to be amazed by how much people desire community and human contact.
Here are a few things I know:
- The Lean In Networks and Circles I’ve created are well attended and greatly appreciated. I continue to hear women say things like “that was the best networking event I’ve ever been to in my life!” (seriously) and “It was so amazing to witness what women go through in their work.” And “that was the best event I’ve been to all year.” And the magic sauce? Community. Creating opportunities for people to authentically connect with each other.
- The Accelerate! Mastermind for emerging entrepreneurs continues to draw new members every round. Why? Because running a business by yourself can be lonely, and going it alone can easily lead someone to burnout. Not just because they are doing too much, but also because they are not nourished by and with meaningful connection.
- New organizations supporting women continue to pop up in the city I live in, Calgary, Canada. You can pretty much find an organization on any topic with the primary purpose to promote community and build connections. The market is not oversaturated. In a time when we seem to be more virtually connected than ever, humans continue to long for real, human connection.
In a time when we seem to be more virtually connected than ever, people continue to long for real, human connection – Susan ElfordClick To Tweet
Of course, deciding if you are overloading your rocket ship with too much busyness is one thing, but making sure you have enough fuel, and the right fuel, is another.
For busy entrepreneurs – especially the solopreneurs who I work a lot with – ensuring you are fueling yourself should be a primary concern for you. Stay-at-home Moms, the solo business owner, remote working employees, retirees, caregivers who are caring for a sick partner or young child – all of these groups are particularly susceptible to the lack of meaningful connection factor.
What are some other ways you can prevent or control the looming possibility of burnout?
7 Ways You Can Minimize or Prevent Burnout
1. Positive Social Interaction
The Nagoski Sisters declare connection as “a primary source of strength as any basic biological need.” They also site a relatively new area of neuroscience study: connected knowing. Connected knowing is where you put yourself in the shoes of another person, to try on their point of view. I also consider this to be empathy, or deeply relating to others. When you truly connect with another, you see the world outside of your own head, and intrinsically, you will know you are not alone.
2. Make Meaning
‘Meaning’ is one of the main elements that promote happiness, according to Martin Seligman. This doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily fun, but it does “seek to use and develop the best in oneself” as opposed to seeking pleasure, and often means that person has contributed something positive to the world before they die. Of course, these things are not constant, and we can change our definition of meaning throughout our lives. The point is, if we believe we are making a meaningful impact, we will be happier on a daily basis and be less prone to burnout.
3. Redefine “Winning”
Do you set unrealistic goals for yourself? I often think of the Olympic athlete who places second, or worse, fourth. How does it feel to be fourth in the world at anything? Best in your high school, best in your city, best in your country, yet fourth in the world? What would have happened if we stopped at a national victory? These are all mind games. You get to decide what winning means for you. Not your parents, not your friends, not an Olympic panel of judges. You can choose to cast aside your ideals of perfection, of imperfection and of winning. You can choose when enough is enough.
4. Authentic Connection
In the private coaching work I have done over the years I almost always work with my clients on their values. The vast majority of my clients cite “authenticity” as a primary value. And “authentic connection” being the obvious extension of that. So many people are craving connection in an authentic way, I bet most of us don’t even realize we’re being inauthentic. Think about the next time you go home and breathe out a sigh of relief. How were you not showing up relaxed and as yourself that day? Be more you and you will come home feeling less drained.
5. Mental and Physical Rest
I know the idea of physical rest is not new to you. We must sleep – our sleep apps tell us this, we have tools to help us sleep more, no blue light one hour before bedtime (like that’s realistic). What if the blue light gives us rest? Mental rest? Where we can daze off into the Instagram eyes of smiling babies and hilarious memes? However you find it, mental rest has been proven to contribute to slowing or eliminating the pace of burnout. We need mental rest. “Mental rest is not idleness, it’s the time necessary for your brain to process the world.”
6. Physical Exercise
My daughter is studying Kinesiology at university. When we asked her what she was learning, she simply said, “Exercise is the antidote for everything.” Honestly. Is it really that simple? Just move! Move your body every day. Get outside, preferably. All the experts say it is so. And I know it’s so.
The Nagoski Sisters share that the last 20 years have seen an explosion of research that shows us how much better people do when they engage in less self-criticism and more self-compassion. We are our own worse critics, as many psychologists have told us. What I love about Burnout, however, is the conjuring up of the concept of your inner ‘Madwoman.’ This reference is to Jane Eyre, the Charlotte Bronte classic that has Rochester’s insane wife locked in his attic. How many of us have an insane anything locked in the attics of our minds? And honestly, why are they there? Let them out!
Burnout is real folks – get outside every day, build real, authentic connection in your lives and pursue a life of meaning – and while I can’t guarantee that you’ll stop continuing to choose a life filled with activities that burn you out, at least you’ll know what to choose when you decide to wake up to what’s most important to you. Harsh? Maybe. I don’t want you to burn out.
To your success, in business, in your career, and in life,