Burnout Comes From Everything, But Not Anything!

If you ask a young child what they want to be when they grow up you might get answers like firefighter, policeperson, astronaut, professional athlete, musician, actor, teacher, scientist, doctor or veterinarian.  Any of those careers – and the countless others not mentioned – are great things for a child to aspire to.  However, the problem is when the child puts the conjunction “and” between these things instead of saying “or.”  Most of us have been brought up to believe that we can be anything that we want to be.  However, just because we can be anything doesn’t mean that we can be everything.

Famous Focus

You wouldn’t expect Einstein to be a professional dancer.  He’s perhaps the most influential scientist of the modern age, but that doesn’t mean that he’s great, or even good, at everything.  When even very famous professionals attempt to transition from one sport to another, the results aren’t always stellar.  Michael Jordan is famous for his basketball playing and his Nike-branded Air Jordan shoes, but his results with the Chicago White Sox weren’t great.  By any measure, he’s a great athlete, but even he couldn’t reach for the gold ring in another sport.

We idolize some famous people, but we generally idolize them for one thing – not for everything.  We instinctively expect that people will only be truly great at one thing, but we secretly expect that we’ll be great at everything.

Prioritize One

You can want to be the world’s best parent, spouse, friend, and child.  You can strive to be the best professional the world has ever seen in your chosen profession.  However, somewhere, there will be a conflict, where one aspect of your desire will compete with another.  Your parents will want you to come help them remodel a room the same day your son has a championship little league baseball game.  Your wife will want to take a vacation when you’re set to deliver on a huge project at work.

It is unfortunate, but when you try to be everything, you’ll find that you don’t have time.  You’ll have to prioritize one thing that you hold most dear.  If you want, for instance, to be a pilot, you’ll have to accept that you’ll spend some time away from home, and that may put a strain on your marriage and your desire to be present for your children.  If you prioritize your wife and children, you will have to adapt your career to fit.

Time is a Fixed Quantity

Like it or not, we all have 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, and 52 weeks in a year.  We can’t change that.  We can change how we spend that time, but not its quantity.  The result is that we can do anything we set our mind to, but there’s simply not enough time to do everything that we might like to do or even believe we should be able to do.

We see people who seem to have it all together.  They’ve got a successful career, a loving family, and an Instagram following in the hundreds of thousands.  What we don’t realize is that these are sequential rather than parallel things.  When they’re focused on their family, all is well with the family, but the career seems stalled.  When they’re focused on their career, their family feels the strain.  Like spinning plates, it can appear that they have it all together by swapping from one thing to the next – right up to the point when it all fails.

Deciding What to Drop

The problem is we still want to do everything, and we don’t know what to drop.  It’s not easy or comfortable.  It can feel like you’re giving up or being defeated.  However, you can also look at the process of letting go like you’re losing dead weight that is just slowing you down and isn’t helping you reach your goals.  It’s not easy to tell a child, a parent, or an employer “no” or “not now,” but sometimes it’s necessary to keep the demands of life from completely draining your personal agency.

Hope to Prevent Burnout

People who are experiencing burnout often wonder how they will get out of it.  There is a simple answer, but it requires a complex explanation.  The simple answer is “hope.”  The problem is that this simple answer doesn’t make sense when viewed from a position of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  How can such a little word make such an important difference, and how does one find hope in the grips of burnout?

Burnout and the Gap

We explain how burnout works with two models – the first model is the personal agency, or bathtub, model.  In the model your personal agency, or ability to get things done, is a bathtub.  It’s a reservoir of capability to effect change.  It says that when your personal agency is empty, that you’re in burnout.  The results you get, the support you receive, and the self-care you do all fill up your bathtub.  The demands that are placed on you (and that you accept) drain your personal agency bathtub.

The second way that we describe burnout is by comparing the gap between your expectations of yourself and your perception of your results.  When you expect too much and see too little, you’ll find yourself in burnout.  It doesn’t matter if either – or both – ends of this spectrum are unrealistic.  What matters is that you feel the gap as being too large and you lose hope.

Nothing Ever Changes

The problem with the gap between results and expectations isn’t in the momentary problem.  It’s not in the temporary case where you’re working hard and not seeing results.  The real challenge is when you begin to expect that this will always be the case.  When you believe that all your hard efforts will never be rewarded with the results you expect – that’s when burnout comes.

That moment, when you believe things can’t change, is the moment when you lose hope.  You somehow forget that life is constantly changing, or you feel oppressed by the thoughts that the world is there to make things worse and not better.  In your mind there will be a perpetual gap between what you expect of yourself and what you accomplish.  The world will never quite be “right.”

Understanding Hope

Hope is the most powerful thing that the world has ever encountered.  Whether it’s the legend of Pandora’s box or the fact that every major medical study must control carefully for the placebo effect – which occurs when the hope people have that the treatment will be successful results in improvement without any medical treatment.  With this powerful force, it’s easy to understand how it’s loss could leave people powerless against burnout.

Hope itself is seen as an indivisible entity but the work of C.R. Snyder indicates that hope is made of two components: waypower and willpower.  Waypower is your ability to see a path forward.  It’s the ability to break down the goal in a way that seems achievable.  Even the hope that folks cling on to that is far-fetched generally has a way of happening even if that way is a “higher power” magically intervening.

Willpower is, like most people expect, the willingness to push through and make things happen.  Of course, there’s not much willpower needed for the “higher power” option – but even there people need to be willing to make the plea.

Finding Hope

Once one has lost hope it can sometimes be hard to find again.  Seeking it comes with requisite amounts of viewing the universe as helpful – or at least neutral – and the belief that you have the capacity to make things better.  Even if you don’t have the skills today to make things better, you can find a way to get the skills you need, and then you can make things better.  Often taking additional classes or reading books to educate yourself on the skills you need can be enough to revive hope and break burnout’s hold on you.

Burnout from Maximizers

It’s good to have high standards, right?  Virtue is “moral excellence,” so wanting excellence is a virtue, right?  Certainly, having high standards can be good; however, when you move from wanting good to expecting only the best, you lead yourself down the road of broken expectations towards burnout.

Maximizers and Satisficers

Herbert Simon began with a simple goal of understanding how people make decisions, and the outcome was two different kinds of decisions people make.  Evolution made the first kind of decision.  These are called “satisficing” decisions.  These decisions are made with the available information at hand, so they’re “good enough.”  The second kind of decision is the “maximizing” decision.  These decisions review all the possibilities and identify the optimal solution.  Here, the point is simply “best.”

The good news for the maximizers is that they objectively do better with life.  They have higher salaries.  They generally get more from life than their satisficing peers – except they’re not as happy.  The driving force for maximizers is “the best.”  When they make a decision, they’re primed to regret it when something better comes along.

In contrast, the satisficers with their, sometimes high, standards seek a solution that meets their needs.  They aren’t worried about whether there’s a deal that can save them a few percent or something ever-so-slightly better.  It seems like the reason for this is they intuitively understand the decision-making costs.

Decision-Making Cost

In every decision, we must work with incomplete data.  Whether that’s because we’ve not done an exhaustive search or because we can’t predict the future, decisions are necessarily limited by the amount of available information.  Maximizers are quite willing to do the work to find the absolute best – or what they perceive as the absolute best.  Satisficers are willing to search only until they find an acceptable solution.  Once their criteria are met, they make the decision and move on.  Satisficers largely don’t worry about next week’s sale that would have saved a few dollars or the new innovation that might be five percent faster.

Satisficers recognize that the mental energy of trying to find the absolute best has a psychological and temporal cost.  The basic math becomes an evaluation of the cost of doing a more detailed search to the possible benefit, and it becomes not worth the additional benefit.

Not People

One of the key discoveries since Simon’s work is that people aren’t universally maximizers or satisficers.  In some things, we may be a maximizer, and in others, we’ll behave as satisficers.  One person can insist on the absolute best home but be fine with a car that is basic transportation.  It’s an oversimplification to say that people are maximizers or satisficers.  It is not, however, too much to say that each of us has a tendency towards more or less maximization in our life, and that maximization drives us towards burnout.

Missing Expectations

The problem with maximization is that it’s a standard that cannot be met.  Burnout is the gap between our expectations of our abilities and our reality.  If we believe we can find the absolute best and learn later that there is something better, we’ll necessarily experience regret.  We’ll be disappointed that we couldn’t find the best fit for our needs.  It’s this unrealistic expectation of perfection that drives us towards burnout.  When we maximize and miss – as we are bound to – we invite burnout into our world.

Converting to Satisficing

Through a bit of twisted – but broader – logic, it is possible to realize that satisficers are actually getting the better deal.  Sure, they’re not making the same money – but they’re happy, and money doesn’t buy happiness.  If you want to avoid burnout, perhaps the best way to do that is to do more satisficing and less maximizing.

Burnout Rubber Bands

Rubber bands are amazing things.  The can power flight in the form of balsa wood planes.  They can hold things together.  They may just be strips of stretchy rubber, but they can be useful for a variety of purposes.  The limitations of rubber bands is that, when you stretch them too much, you break them, and their seemingly magical properties are gone.

Burnout is like a rubber band.  When the tension between what we believe we should get accomplished and what we believe we have accomplished is pulled too far apart, it snaps.  The good news is that, unlike a rubber band, we can recover from burnout if we can return the tension to a normal level.

Burnout History

When Herbert Freudenberger first spoke of burn out, he spoke of its presence in high achievers.  It wasn’t work that triggered the characteristic exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  It was something that the patients cared about – which was often, but not always, work.

The people that Freudenberger spoke about could be explained as having high expectations.

High Expectations

Some people naturally expect more of themselves than others.  Whether it’s genetics, upbringing, or both (as is suggested in the research), there’s something that drives them to expect that they should make a difference.  Sometimes the difference shows up as being President of the United States.  Sometimes it is earning an impressive salary.  Sometimes it’s changing the world through a cause.

However, expectations didn’t always used to be so high.

Grandfather’s Gas Station

My grandfather worked for and eventually owned a gas station in a small town of 9,000 people.  He was well respected as a member of the church and a community leader.  He enjoyed fishing and hunting.  He was a solid provider for his family and his children.  The important part is that this is all he ever expected to be.

It didn’t cross his mind to be president.  He didn’t aspire to change the world.  He was grateful for a modest house, a way to make money, and some time to enjoy some hobbies, which, coincidentally, helped to put food on the table.

Never once in my memory did my grandfather seem burned out.  The term had been coined by the time he had to close down his gas station and retire.  Even when he reached the end of his productive years, he faced them with resolve and not much in the way of emotion – he wasn’t an emotional man.

Expectations Today

Looking back on grandfather’s gas station, I began to realize that the thing that helped him avoid burnout is that his goals were modest.  He felt like his results matched his expectations.  He’d always tell me to pay myself first and save for retirement early.  By the standards of his generation, he was well off but not as rich as his farm friends.

Today, people owning a gas station might look to expand.  Perhaps they want to franchise, or revolutionize the way that gas is sold.

We’ve trained society that just okay isn’t okay.  We’ve trained people that they’re unique and special and different, and that we expect great things from them.  If these are your expectations, you’re bound to be disappointed.

The Tension

The desire to strive to make things better is a noble cause.  The desire to do great things is powerful in the way that it can move people and a society forward.  However, just like the rubber band, we can hold the tension between our results of today and our desires for tomorrow too far apart for too long, and find that we’ve snapped the rubber band that drives our proverbial plane forward.

By setting the right amount of expectations for ourselves and allowing grace for when we don’t meet our expectations, we can take flight – instead of being grounded with a broken rubber band.

Blocking Burnout in Your Organization

“I felt like I slammed myself against the wall,” says Jan Byars, Ph.D., president of LeadSync, which provides professional training and coaching. “I just kept pushing through, even to the point of my legs feeling numb.” Soon after, Byars says, she couldn’t push forward any longer. It was more than exhaustion; there was a disconnect that was impossible to see. It was a hidden problem burning inside of her—and burning her out.

“Now that I’ve been through it, I see it developing in many of my clients,” Byars says. “It’s actually built into our culture.”

Buildings typically have firewalls designed to prevent the spread of a fire should one break out in part of the building. However, most organizations don’t have protections in place to prevent burnout from spreading from one person to the next.

Tamra Perry, human resources coordinator at Blazer Industries Inc., a modular building manufacturing company based in Aumsville, Ore., recalls her concern that a previous organization had become so large that it lost the “team” aspect and was vulnerable to burnout. The community that had once been able to look out for and support its members just wasn’t the same.

Burnout impacts us on multiple levels. Personally, people struggle with the physical and psychological symptoms. Organizationally, burnout prevents engagement, teamwork, productivity and employee longevity. However, this doesn’t have to be the case: Burnout is avoidable, and if employees are already there, it’s reversible.

Read more at https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/all-things-work/pages/blocking-burnout-in-your-organization.aspx

Letting Go of Burnout

Sometimes the feeling of burnout creeps in under the radar.  There’s the random thought that shows up in the middle of dinner, while driving home, or in the shower.  It’s something that “has” to be done, and it prevents you from attending to whatever is happening right now.  Left unattended, those thoughts can steal your ability to be present in the moment and burden you with the fear that you’ll forget.  However, there’s a quick way to put those thoughts at bay and return to enjoying the moment.

The Zeigarnik Effect

Quite simply, the things we don’t get done are remembered more strongly than the things we do.  This bias is called the Zeigarnik effect.  We’re wired to pay more attention to the incomplete thought or action than the complete one.  It’s no wonder then that people at the end of their life are more focused on the things they didn’t do (or complete) than the things they did.  This powerful effect operates on us even if we’re unaware of it.  It’s the driver behind these random thoughts and tasks that interrupt our consciousness while we’re doing other things.

There is, however, an out to the Zeigarnik effect – at least in the context of keeping these random thoughts from interrupting our flow.  It’s to capture the thought in a way we’re sure will result in eventually closing it.

Old School Reminders

We’ve all probably written notes to ourselves, and most of us have “to-do” lists scattered on our desks.  It’s the old-school way that we have to “ensure” that things get done.  At the same time, we’ve probably all experienced the note getting lost, buried in another file, or slowly slipping into oblivion.  The old-school approach to writing to-do lists and crossing items off as they get done is still an often-used and valid approach today.  However, we’ve got a set of options that are more useful than the old-school reminder.

Today, nearly all of us travel with personal communications devices in the form of smartphones, which keep our calendars, allow us to access email, and connect us with our contacts.  A simple approach that builds on the old school to-do lists is to keep an electronic one where the paper can’t disappear.  Alternatively, if you don’t want another application, you can send yourself email messages with reminders for things to do.  Both approaches, while valid improvements over paper lists, don’t solve another important problem.

Remind Me When

To-do lists, whether electronic or paper, aren’t typically prioritized.  There are no due dates or ways to know which things need to be pulled off the list next – particularly when you’re distracted by life.  However, just like a calendar reminder can be an important tool for preventing us from missing a meeting, reminders can now be scheduled to remind us not just what we need to do but when.  The old-school method is to put these on your calendar and to leverage the calendar reminder functionality to alert us when we need to pay attention to something.

A better, more modern approach is to tell your favorite electronic personal assistant to set a reminder for you.  Siri, Alexa, and OK Google are all happy to set a reminder for you – for a specific time.  If you need to call a daughter-in-law to wish her good luck before an interview, you can get a reminder.  If you need to water the plants when you get home, you can get a reminder.

Trust and Letting Go

The good news is that once you learn to trust that you’ll get the reminders when you need them, you’ll be able to let go of these random thoughts, focus on being in the moment, and not feel like you’re dropping things.  If you’re meeting your own personal expectations that you’re doing a good job, you’ll avoid that nasty feeling of burnout.