A new survey finds the average worker is experiencing career burnout at the age of 32, and says working long hours from home in the pandemic is making it worse.
This fits the way people traditionally think about burnout in relation to stress. The common perception is that an overload of work or lack of free time leads to excessive stress that causes burnout.
Yet most of us know of business leaders, elite athletes, and other high-achievers who are able to put in tremendous amounts of time and energy to achieve outstanding results without getting burned out. What makes the difference?
From my work with CEOs and my own experience, I believe the more prevalent cause of burnout is not putting in a lot of hours on the job, but rather being out of alignment and action with our vision and our “why.” This can occur when we get into the routine of doing things for the sake of doing them, or become hyper-focused on hitting key benchmarks, metrics, or goals, but lose sight of the bigger picture of why we are pushing for these accomplishments.
When that happens, we get stuck in the act of doing. That can become frustrating because there’s no purpose behind it.
Of course, we have to make sure our core needs are met in order to be able to thrive. This includes making sure we get the proper amounts of rest, nutrition, and movement, as well as what I call internal training — meditation and other practices to help us manage our emotional and mental state. Self-care is essential.
Yet just as essential is staying aligned with our purpose. A lot of people either never name why they’re doing something, or they forget to get clear on the bigger picture of what they are accomplishing through their daily actions and the energy they put out.
When we lose sight of our larger vision, and we’re just trying to hit a number or trying to accomplish a goal, the number or goal becomes meaningless. All of a sudden, we have no emotional drive to fuel the efforts that we’re making.
Here are some keys to staying aligned with our vision and avoiding burnout:
- Create a clear and vivid vision of the outcome you are fulfilling in regard to your business, and a separate vision as to what that means to you personally. What is the vivid vision that occurs as a result of hitting those benchmarks or goals for the company, the people who work for you, your customers, and the world? Also define what it means for you personally. What opportunities are available to you as a result of hitting your marks? Maybe you can live a certain lifestyle that would not be possible for you otherwise. It could be trips you want to take, or sending your kids to a good college.
- Make sure you are taking care of the necessities you require physically to function at your best. Have a plan to make sure you get the nutrition, rest, movement, and internal (mental and emotional) training that you need.
- Rethink balance. A lot of people think of balance as devoting an equal proportion of time and energy between “work” and “life.” A better approach is to think about balance in terms of whatever is required to meet the outcome and the vision you set for yourself. Olympic athletes, for instance, live, breathe, and devote themselves fully to their training, along with the periods of rest and recovery that are necessary for them to optimize their performance.
- Set rewards for yourself for achieving your benchmarks on the way to fulfilling your vision. As I write this, I am looking at six weeks of back-to-back programs. I am basically working 15 hours a day during that time without a day off. But right after that, I have scheduled an entire week where I am just going to focus on being with my friends and family. I am also planning a trip to Mexico where I am going to take surfing lessons from a professional instructor. While I may have little time for family, friends, or hobbies in the short-term, I know that time for those will open up once this intense period wraps up.
- Manage your internal state. When we are heavily focused on achieving goals, it can be easy to think thoughts such as “I have no life,” or “I am missing out on things I enjoy.” But we can flip the script by replacing such thoughts with ones such as “This is what I choose to do.” Return to the “why” you are doing this, for yourself, your co-workers, your customers, clients, and your world to ultimately fulfill the vision you have named for yourself.
Passion and enthusiasm is not a byproduct of what we are doing, but how we relate to what we are doing.
We see this in high performers in business such as Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, and others who are known for putting in a lot of hours every day for extended periods of time without getting burned out. They have such a clear vision and a strong why that the energy they put in does not occur to them as work, or a burden, or overwhelming. Instead, they see the opportunity before them. They see how they are changing the world. They see the difference they are making and how all of what they are doing has a purpose and a reason. They are doing what they do not because they have to, but because they love doing it.
If you are doing something that you don’t like doing, and can’t get a vision for, and are not able to create what you want, then it is time to do something else. Likewise, if you are in a job where your personal integrity or ethical structure are in conflict with what you are required to do, these strategies are not going to keep you from burning out. You cannot show up against the grain of who you are every day and have it work for very long.
Performing at a high level without getting burned out is also a matter of managing your energy expenditure so that it is proportionate to the outcome you want to fulfill. A sprinter has to put out an extraordinary amount of energy for 100 meters, while a long-distance runner needs to spread that energy out over 100 kilometers (60 miles) or more.
In business, if you have a sales goal to meet or a technology infrastructure to build by a certain deadline, you will need to sprint and put all your resources into meeting that goal. You just need to understand that you can’t sprint for 60 miles, so you need to find what is sustainable for you.
That is something each of us needs to assess for ourselves as individuals, but also as it pertains to the teams we lead. If you ask your team to sprint all year long, they’re not going to be able to do that. But they can sprint in windows if necessary and if they’re incentivized properly. That gets back to understanding the vision, their own why, and what they stand to gain.
When you have a really strong, impenetrable why, you align yourself with passion and enthusiasm for what you want to create and the vision you want to fulfill. You are in an energy-producing state. When you line yourself up emotionally and mentally with your purpose, not only will you avoid burnout, but you will be able to drive yourself to extraordinary success.
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