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.

Extinguish Burnout Podcast on Next For Me

Terri and I recorded a podcast with Next For Me, which was released in their Mindset Makeover newsletter last week. In it, we speak with Jeff Tidwell about why we started writing about burnout and how burnout affects both people and organizations.

You can listen in on the Next For Me website here: https://nextforme.com/extinguish-burnout-by-terri-and-rob-bogue/ .

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.

Trade Imbalance Burnout

Have you ever wondered what might be causing you to feel tinges of burnout?  Your life’s going well.  You just got a promotion at work.  The kids are succeeding in school and sports.  But there’s something wrong that you can’t put your finger on.  Perhaps the cause of your burnout isn’t that things aren’t going well, but you’re instead making investments into people and projects, and you’re just not seeing the returns you expect.  Sometimes the cause of burnout can be as simple as fixing a trade imbalance.

Trade Imbalance

Sometimes, the things you do for other people generate massive value.  If you’re an electrician and you help a friend fix an outlet, you’ve generated a relatively large amount of positive value from a simple interaction.  It might have only taken you five or ten minutes to help solve the problem, but to your friend, the problem was either unsolvable or meant a $150 service call from an electrician.  Here, there’s a “trade imbalance” – but a positive one.  It’s a small amount of your effort for a large return for them.  The key learning here is that the value the other person places on something you do isn’t related to the effort on your part.  Instead, it’s about the value they get from it.

All is good when you put in little effort, and the friend or colleague gets a large return.  However, what happens when the tables are turned, and you put in a lot of effort, but the other person doesn’t value it – or doesn’t value it in the same way?  Parents may be familiar with this, when they work hard to produce a healthy and delicious meal that their children turn their noses up at.  Just because the dish is more difficult to make doesn’t mean a three-year-old will value it more.  The simple palates of young children are more interested in spaghetti than sushi.  Here, a negative trade imbalance exists, because the effort to create the meal is greater than the value everyone obtains from it.

Looking for Negative Trade Imbalances

When we’re feeling burned out, we can sometimes trace it back to situations and relations where we feel like we’re giving more than we’re getting.  The first places to look are where we feel like we’re using a large amount of energy and see if that energy is being returned.  If not, we need to decide whether to disengage from that trade all together or change the way we go about it.  If your children don’t value the meals you’re putting together, perhaps you can make something simpler that they’ll like just as much or more, and you’ll reduce the trade imbalance.

The second source of trade imbalances are those places where reactions are always or nearly always negative.  Even if you’re not putting that much into something, to have someone constantly tell you it’s not good enough is draining.  If you find the other person doesn’t appreciate what you’re doing, then perhaps it’s time to stop.

Finally, another place to locate trade imbalances is in those things that you do “just because.”  Some of these “just because” items are really your self-care.  They’re what you do because they fill you up.  However, even these can become a burden when you’re no longer enjoying them.  Sometimes, the trade imbalance is with yourself: you expect these things will bring you joy because used to, but you no longer enjoy them.  If that’s the case, then just stop.

Balanced Trade Agreements

It’s time to enter into a balanced trade agreement with yourself.  If you can’t – in sum – have a balanced agreement, where you’re getting out of things what you’re putting into them, then you’re putting yourself on the road to burnout.  If you want to avoid the road to burnout, build more positive trade imbalances and limit or remove the negative trade imbalances, even those with yourself.

Trapped in Victimhood on the Road to Burnout

Have you ever been to a tourist trap?  The kind of mini-museum that promises oddities or a comprehensive look at medieval torture devices that you won’t believe?  You know, at some level, that you’re not going to be entering a life-changing experience.  It’s something that’s amusing enough to kill an hour or so and separate you from a moderate amount of money.  These places are fine places to visit occasionally, but it’s not like you would want to spend your whole life there.

Victimhood – the very real and palpable sense that we’re a victim – is similarly a fine place to visit when it’s appropriate but an awful place to take up permanent residence.

What’s Wrong with Being a Victim?

Nothing’s wrong with being a victim per se – if you really are one.  When someone pulls the rug out from under you, it’s appropriate to feel victimized.  However, being a victim doesn’t help you grow.  Being a victim can teach you to be more vigilant in the future for similar kinds of situations where you might be taken advantage of.  But, by and large, being a victim doesn’t motivate you to action.

As humans, we learn from our mistakes – or at least we should – so considering and reviewing the situation that led us to being victimized can help us to prevent it from happening again.  This is a natural, healthy, normal response.  The problem isn’t that we take the time to reflect, the problem is when we get stuck in our reflection – or, rather, we transition into rumination.

Rumination

If remembering and reflecting are good, then why can’t rumination be OK?  The problem is that rumination doesn’t teach us anything or free us from burdens but instead layers more and more onto the situation, making it harder for us to free ourselves.

Have you ever seen a candle being made?  Traditional tapered candles are made by repeatedly dipping string into hot wax and lifting it enough to cool and harden it.  Each time the wick – eventually, the candle – is dipped, more wax sticks to it and it gets larger, making even more wax stick the next time.  The process of rumination is like this: the situation gets larger and larger until it’s difficult to break free.

The difference between reflection and rumination is that, in reflection, you seek to prevent future hurts.  In rumination, you relive the event.  You play it in your mind like an endless loop.

Breaking Burnout

Burnout is about feeling you’re ineffective.  You can’t feel effective if you’re caught in an endless loop of victimization by ruminating over when you’ve been victimized.  Escaping burnout is as simple – and difficult – as breaking the cycle of rumination.  Instead of focusing on what happened, you can focus on what you’re going to do to prevent it from happening again – or, perhaps more importantly, preventing it from hurting you like it did.

This isn’t an invitation to close down emotionally or to never speak with anyone again.  It’s an invitation to explore how your choices to make yourself vulnerable need to be considered for their value and not just assumed that you must always – or never – be vulnerable.  Evaluate what you can do so that someone victimizing you again won’t be so impactful.  The truth is that we need to trust others, which means sometimes our trust will be betrayed.  The key is understanding how to live with this reality.  Understanding this can break the rumination loop and keep us out of burnout.

Courage to Confront Burnout

It takes courage to confront burnout.  It takes courage to acknowledge that you’re in it and to confront the factors that are keeping you in it.  If you’re in burnout, finding or creating the courage to confront it may seem impossible, but it isn’t.  Creating the courage to confront burnout is not only possible for anyone but it’s possible for you.

What is Courage?

There is some confusion about what courage even is.  Many folks believe that courage is the absence of fear.  However, nothing is further from the truth.  If there is no fear, there’s no need for courage.  Courage shows its power only when it conquers fear.  So, courage is going forward not without fear but despite fear.

Knowing that you don’t have to eliminate fear to be courageous is the first step in being able to take the steps necessary to confront and ultimately conquer burnout.

Do What?

The challenging part isn’t that courage can overcome the confines of burnout, it’s realizing what the burnout is being caused by and where the courage is needed.  Like anything else, there is a source to burnout.  When we realize burnout is caused by our belief that we can’t be effective, we can look to those places where we feel the most ineffective.

Whether it’s a relationship with our parents or peers that we don’t feel is right or a recognition that we feel we deserve in the form of a promotion, there is almost always at least one specific cause of burnout that can be tackled.  So, the courage we need isn’t to say some magical, anti-burnout chant.  The courage we need is to break through some barrier that we feel exists in our world and in our capabilities.

Invisible Walls

It seems silly now, but in early 1954, everyone believed that no human could possibly run a mile in less than 4 minutes.  There were many who had tried, but in the eight years since someone ran their 4:01 time, no one could best the record.  Somehow, everyone had become convinced that a man who ran a mile in less than four minutes would keel over dead.  That is, until one man did it, Roger Bannister, and then he was followed by dozens more.  All it took was for one man to run the mile in less than four minutes and then suddenly (in evolutionary terms) everyone was doing it.

What happened was an invisible wall.  It was a wall that prevented runners from breaking the 4:01 record for just shy of a decade.  It wasn’t a result of human physiology but instead a result of human psychology.

Searching with Sonar

With courage at the ready, we escape burnout by finding those hidden barriers that we don’t even realize are there.  With friends, we ping ideas about how to get unstuck and how to use our courage to demonstrate our efficacy.  Our friends may even respond with ideas that would have never occurred to us alone, creating the opportunity for us to step into that space and attempt ideas we would have never thought of.

When we leverage others’ perspectives, we can sometimes get a different sounding of the hidden barriers that are blocking us.  Then all we need to do is apply our courage in that direction to push through the wall that we didn’t realize was blocking us.  Eventually, with enough attempts, we’ll find a way to move forward instead of feeling stuck in burnout.

Self-Acceptance

Will you pass gas in front of your friends and loved ones?  For some the answer is a squeamish no, for others the question is met with a shrug and a timid “sure”, and occasionally you’ll get an enthusiastic “yes!”  The question may seem odd or innocuous, but it may indicate something larger.  It may be a pointer to whether you accept yourself – all of yourself – or not.  There are certain social norms that we’re not supposed to violate, but we know that we all do.  No one wants to admit their farts stink – but everyone’s has some stench.

Somewhere in the shrug is the acknowledgement that not everything about a person can be bright and rosy.  Every person has good and bad in them.  It’s easy to say that everyone has things that they don’t like about themselves.  It’s much harder to say this is a part of me that I don’t like about myself.  It might be a lack of exercise, lack of motivation, a feeling of shyness in certain situations or one of a few hundred other things that most of us struggle with from time to time.

A lack – or, rather, a low level – of self-acceptance leads to burnout because of our missed expectations.  We expect perfection, because we believe we see it in others.  Though celebrities are in the news with their drug and legal problems, there are many celebrities who aren’t in this category.  We see only their new, multi-million-dollar contracts and wonder what it takes to get one of our own.  We see our friends through Facebook having great vacations, promotions at work, and children who are off saving the rainforests or becoming the youngest CEO to ever reforest an entire country.  Whatever metric we use, we can find someone doing it better – and therefore there’s a part of us that doesn’t measure up to the unrealistically high standard.

Sometimes our level of self-acceptance is lower than that.  Sometimes we treat ourselves with a degree of self-loathing that we would never allow anyone else to say to a friend in our presence.  We believe that other humans are worthy of respect and decency but not us.  Somehow there’s some aspect of us that invalidates our right to be included with the rest of humanity.  The truth is there’s nothing that we can do to separate us from our humanity.  No matter what we’ve been told or even what we’ve done, we remain human and deserve the same level of care, grace, and acceptance that we would afford to a stranger.

By quieting the negative voices of self-loathing and moving towards more self-accepting self-talk, we create a greater opportunity to resist the pit of burnout.  We may feel sucked in by circumstances or feeling like we’re not meeting the expectations we have for ourselves, but if we can approach ourselves with self-acceptance, we can float over these depressing times and arrive at the other side fully intact.

Removing Your Mask

Have you ever found yourself trying to fit into a role that really didn’t match your core beliefs yet you wanted to be chosen for?  Maybe it is the person always chosen to host an event or coach a team.  You may not really want to fill that role, but you want to be thought of and considered.

When the desire to be someone else, or at least be seen as someone other than yourself, drives our behavior, we find ourselves fighting a battle that cannot be won.  We can pretend to be someone else for a period of time, but we cannot continue this charade over the long run.  We try to fit in and hide what we believe is our inadequate true self.  This conflict places us firmly on the path towards burnout.  It is exhausting and disheartening to attempt to be seen as someone who is not the person we believe our self to be.

When we listen to the stories we tell our self about not being good enough or needing to be different, we find our self listening to lies that somehow have gotten into our head and sound like the truth.  Too often, the voices we hear in our head tell us that we are not enough, or a burden, or even unlovable.  We are not always good at recognizing our good attributes or being self-compassionate.

As we become more aware of the self-talk we are engaging in, we can begin to validate our beliefs with facts and even trusted friends.  In areas that we believe we do not meet even the minimum bar, we may discover the truth: we are actually much better than we tell our self we are.  With the facts in hand, we can begin to fight the self-talk that says we have to be seen as someone other than who we are to be accepted.

When we become more aware of our own value and integrate this into one self-image, we can break free of the person we want the world to see and be the amazing person that has always existed.  With this more honest view of our own worth, we are able to embrace our identity and remove the mask that we have been wearing.  By accepting yourself as you are today and being willing to continue to grow, you can truly become the best person you can be.