Burnout is something that can creep in very slowly, without you even realizing it. It doesn’t matter what sector you work in – be it nonprofit, corporate, or as an entrepreneur; if you are in a demanding and high-stress position for a long enough period of time, you are at risk of burning out.
As someone who has experienced burnout firsthand (involving experiences working at nonprofit organizations, where I’ve never worked harder in my life), and now coaching some of my clients through severe burnout, I wanted to share some of the strategies and steps you can take in your work and life to recognize and prevent burnout from occurring in your leadership.
1. Make your actions purposeful
Reflect in order to learn. If an action is purposeful and if there is learning in between, there is less of a chance that that action will lead to burn out. So in your company or organization, for example, if you wonder why you are doing the same thing over and over again, this may be a sign that you’re headed for burnout. But if you know that what you are doing is growing you and your organization in some way, you are much more willing to do it. This is equally true for your employees. Connect the action of the employees to the greater purpose of the organization – remind them why they are doing it and what their role is. Have them reflect on it.
There was a point in my leadership where I would just do. There was very little time for reflection. There was just “stuff” that needed to get done. I said yes to things that came my way without really thinking through their purpose and how they related back to the bottom line impact I was trying to make. This included setting up unnecessary recurring meetings with teams that I did not realize were an inefficient use of my time.
I’ve since changed how I work. Each morning, as part of my practice, I write a list of the 6 things that will make me most happy and most productive in my business. Those become my targets for the day. Because I am such a “doer” and love the sense of accomplishment, it is important for me to be strategic about what it is I get done in a day. And sometimes, I make sure I reflect and do a little journaling at night. I don’t just DO. I have a purpose and I reflect so my actions seem less like they are coming out of a loose cannon and more like they are strategic darts.
2. Have walking meetings
One of the things that leadership often does to you is pin you to your desk, or to meeting after meeting, or to eating out a great deal. Many leaders I talk to have trouble figuring out how to build self-care into their work lives.
One of the best things to do is to try going on a walking meeting. When we are up and moving, different parts of our brain are active than when we are idle. We may think of new ideas and even become more creative.
Give yourself to a different environment and the opportunity for other parts of your brain to ignite. Walking meetings have become such a staple in my life that when I set up meetings with people, I usually recommend we meet and walk somewhere instead of meeting somewhere to get a coffee. I have also integrated walking into my coaching sessions for my local clients.
One of my friends and thought leader, Nilofer Merchant, gave a Tedx talk on this very topic. She is a staunch advocate of the walking meeting. Check it out here.
3. Do not multitask
There are several studies that have come out proving how detrimental multitasking is to our brains because it can overload our working memory. Check out this article for more on that topic. I remember years ago listening to women’s leadership talks about how women are better leaders and have an innate ability to multitask. It was always positioned as a good skill to have.
Undoubtedly, the ability to multitask can come in handy. However, this means you are overloading your brain’s circuitry, and not fully in concentration on one thing. You might make mistakes, you may not be thinking things through fully, and believe it or not, you’re probably going to burn yourself out over time.
4. Work smarter
Pacing and working smarter is the name of the game. And a big part of working smarter is working more strategically. Ask yourself, do I have to have this meeting NOW? Ask yourself, do I have to check my e-mail NOW? One of the recommendations I have is to read e-mails as they come but to schedule time twice daily to respond to them. (And please, do not make responding e-mail a first thing in the morning priority. Use the morning time to do more creative, expansive work).
For me personally, I decided to only link my personal e-mail account to my phone, and to disconnect my work e-mails from my phone. I understand that may be difficult for some of you to do given your line of work, but try reading your e-mails during the day and picking strategic times to answer them. (You can check out this article for more tips on managing e-mail).
Also, remember that we have attention spans that last about 20 minutes. So, taking frequent breaks is a great way to rest and keep you going, as is sectioning off uninterrupted bouts of time (90 minutes) to get your work done – no e-mails, calls or meetings during those 90 minutes; just work!
Often, as leaders, we forget to look back and celebrate our accomplishments. I remember one of the greatest exercises an executive coach did with me was having me and my board list all the things we had accomplished in the past year. The list just kept going on and on, and I hadn’t even realized we had done so much and at what pace we were running. It almost gave me license to slow down a bit and pace myself. It was also a great exercise because it made the board see how far we had come as a team as well.
6. Set boundaries with regularly scheduled activities
Having a regularly scheduled activity can be a great regulator for managing burnout. One of my colleagues who is the CEO of a renowned national nonprofit told me once that she always left the office around 4 or 4:30 every day to get her kids from school. She made the choice to be that type of mom. She had a boundary in place yet I’m sure she could have easily found reasons to work more.
When I was running my organization in the early years (when I was working all the time), I used to leave the office early on Tuesdays and Thursdays to get to dance class. It was just the right break I needed, and it kept me motivated throughout the day because I was equally as passionate about dance as I was about the work I was doing.
7. Know when your time has come
This is not an easy thing for many leaders. Some people are starters, implementers, maintainers, or growers. Know where you are at, and when the lifecycle of the position no longer warrants your skill, so you can move on. It’s more important for your company or organization to have fresh thinking and leadership, vs. someone who is tired and at the helm. I realize this deserves its own post at some point, so I will come back to it.
What have you done to manage burnout in your work or life? I touched on some strategies, but know there are many more from the trenches. I’d like to hear from you!
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