“Burnout is what happens when you try to avoid being human for too long.”
~ Michael Gungor.
Burnout. There is so much resentment in this word. We try to do it all sinking in a rat race. We forget how to take care of ourselves forsaking our longevity and productivity, sacrificing our body and our spirit. One day we hit the wall. Our engine stalls.
So, what steps can you take to recover from burnout? This is a strategy that I applied to reignite myself.
Step 1. Take a step back.
First, you’ve got to stop moving. Only when you give up the chase you will be able to look at your life dispassionately and see where things went wrong in the first place.
When people ask: “How are you?” we say: “I am ok.” We mechanically repeat it so many times that we start to believe it ourselves.
Come to the realization that it is ok not to be ok. It’s ok to stop growing and it’s ok to stop grinding. However, it is not ok to keep marching forward with a fake smile on your face pretending that everything is under control.
Bob Ross said: “It’s hard to see things when you’re too close. Take a step back and look.” A step back is not fleeing in panic. It is a strategic retreat to detect things that impede your progress and eliminate them. And then move forward, stronger.
Step 2. Build up the resolve.
The second step to recovery is to admit that the problem exists. Face up your status quo. You are burned-out. That’s ok. Exercise absolute acceptance.
Once it’s done, the main work is to reprogram your mind. Deploy autosuggestion. You know you haven’t always felt this way, you won’t be feeling like this forever. This is not your normal state of mind. Your condition is impermanent.
Even if some objectively unsurpassable obstacles to your escape from the dead zone exist in the present moment, continue this mental rehearsal. You have to convince yourself that healing will inevitably happen, sooner or later. Life develops sinusoidally, it has its ups and downs, you just happened to roll off the slope. Now, to win back your positions you must remember — positive affirmations don’t work unless you combine them with actions.
Step 3. Take your time.
You’ve got to withstand a test by a pause. Learn how to embrace the moments when nothing is happening. It’s ok not to have a plan, and there is nothing wrong with not knowing all the answers. Give yourself internal permission to make peace with the state of uncertainty about your future, at least temporarily.
I remember my burnout. The apathy was real. I had lost the sense of purpose in all things, everything was meaningless. I had slept late, waked up late, and had zero motivation to get up and move. Nothing made any sense. I settled for what seemed to be the only one remaining solution: escapism. My lethargy was pernicious, I realized that, so I gave myself a word that this unhealthy state will last for 7 days before I start reclaiming my life. Hibernation is a harsh but potent remedy for drained willpower.
It may sound like counterintuitive advice but the best way to overcome inactivity is to do nothing. Stand still in the center of the room and just be. Do literally nothing. 10 minutes in and you will have it — an itch, an irresistible internal impulse to move. Direct this impulse into something productive. No need for a master-plan. Start slow, one step at a time.
Step 4. Master the Art of Small Steps.
“What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step.”
~ Antoine de Saint -Exupéry
Clean your house.
Chores is a meditative practice designed to be a perfect first step to instill order in your mind. Organizing your living space is a manifestation of ongoing internal self-organization. It’s a physical representation of your power to bend material reality by the effort of will. Discipline over chaos, mind over matter.
Every material object possesses a specific informational structure attached to it, a “thoughtform”, a so-called egregore. Let’s take a pen, for example. Even a quick glance at it incites the whole spectrum of information: “It’s a tool. It is made of plastic. It has blue ink. I can write with it. I can draw with it, etc.” It seems as if the information that was contained within the object unfolds itself in your mind fueled by the energy of your attention.
That is what all the material stuff in your house does to you. It expends your attention resources. Material things occupy your mental space in the same way as they occupy the physical one. Their presence erodes your focus and most of the time you are not even aware of it. “Thoughtforms” of things accumulate and pollute the informational field of the environment creating a feeling of constant external pressure. People “suffocate” from excessive possessions. The saying: “out of sight, out of mind” is applicable to not only people.
Get rid of (don’t buy) things that don’t add up value to your life.
I keep coming back to one question on Quora: “What are the things you wish you knew in your 30s?” Here is my favorite answer:
“I’m 76. My high school and college classmates are dropping like flies. My time is coming fairly soon. I’ve had a varied and active life from stealing food from hotel corridors to survive to owning 4 successful companies and retiring at 49 to backpack the world with my kids. 35 was my best year. I was young enough to do it all and smart enough to see the traps ahead of me. One thing I wish I knew back then, not just philosophically, but at the basic level of my soul: It doesn’t matter. Nothing really matters. There is no point to all of the pain, stress, arguments, hassles, and the rest. I can buy a Lambo for cash and have my clothes custom-made, but I drive a 2,000 Toyota 4Runner with 242,000 miles on it, my pants are almost as old as my sons, I wear shoes I bought in 1999 that still have miles on them, my favorite food is spaghetti, and I tossed my smartphone six years ago. It drives my sons nuts. They want my wife to buy me a new Toyota Sequoia, a smartphone, and something other than the $9 tee shirts I get off Amazon. But I learned something years ago, long after my 30s: It doesn’t matter. None of that stuff made me happy. It gave me pleasure, but pleasure fades and the darkness falls unless you are happy at your core. I am. So, I’d have liked to know not to take life so seriously. It cost me my first marriage and bad relationships all over the place because I tried to grind my way up the “ladder of success”. And it didn’t mean a thing.”
Decluttering can be done again in a form of 30-days challenge. Throw away one thing every single day for 30 days. Freed up space will be like a sip of fresh air.
One of the best things I’ve ever done was creating a zen experience on my phone. I removed all icons and now my homescreen displays nothing but a clean beautiful wallpaper. All useless apps were erased. I turned off all notifications on my phone and surprisingly, the Earth didn’t stop spinning. All ringers and buzzers disrupt your attention deteriorating your ability to concentrate. Do yourself a favor — isolate yourself from intruders. Create a space of calm.
Don’t know how to stop the voices inside your head? You don’t have to. You just need to stop believing that what these voices mumble is true. Let them speak, but listen to them with distrust. Disassociate — observe your thoughts without creating a relationship with them. Exercise witnessing.
The only reason why I didn’t hit rock bottom of the burnout pit was that I had spent years training. I escaped falling in despair because my hands were strong enough to cling to the edge when I slipped. Develop the body. Physical pain is a tool to cleanse the spirit. There is only one way back from depression, and it has to be earned.
Reading Medium became a key element of my recovery. Hundreds of inspirational stories contributed to my come-back. Some made me smile, some made my heart sink, yet all of them found special resonance. Seeing people who rise early to fight for what’s important for them helped me to remember what’s important for me: I have no right to feel weak. I told myself that if they could get their shit together so can I.
Negative thoughts have such an overwhelming effect because they chaotically swirl in your mind stinging you from multiple angles at a time. Paralysis is a natural state when you are confused about which knot of the noose around your neck you should untangle first. Once your thoughts are captured on paper, they lose their demoralizing power. Empty your mind, extract all thoughts that burden you, give them a physical form. Let go.
Return to nature.
Nature reminds us of who we truly are — lost children who have abandoned their belonging in exchange for the comfort of concrete prisons. Walk barefoot, swim in the ocean, hide in the forest, get on the top of a mountain — the serenity you’ll find is inherent in human nature. Spending time outdoor exposes our pathological tendency to make a fuss over things that upon a closer view are trivial and vain. Recall how tiny your problems are on a scale of planetary existence.
Change the environment.
Immerse yourself in a new medium. Make a list of environments that intrigued you for a long time. Identify the one that is the easiest and fastest to enter. Execute. Just place your physical body in a new social situation and see what happens. Entrust yourself to serendipity. New connections will inject you with fresh ideas and unusual energy. Let the change occur. Accept the metamorphosis.
Spend time with your loved ones.
Don’t feel ashamed to rest in love of people who see the real you, those who disregard what you become when you feel lost. Let them stitch your wounds, let them heal you. There will be days when you will have to be there for them too. And you will be because that’s what bonds are all about.
Step 5. Set a new goal.
What sets apart a man with ardent eyes and that whose gaze has dimmed? What kind of inner fuel sets eyes on fire? The answer is simple: it’s a sense of purpose. You must find a goal that would relume your expiring hope. The energy to act comes from it. Similarly to the gravitational potential energy, the energy to achieve your goals is also a function of position — the position of your goal with respect to your current status. In other words, your energy depends on how high you set the bar for yourself. The bigger the goal, the higher the energy.
Once you feel that you made significant progress on your road to recovery it’s time to start over. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you can set new goals at any age. It’s never too late.
There is something intimidating yet exciting about new endeavors. I know it from writing since, for me, writing became the new audacious project. What started as scribbling of my daily reflections has turned into the book you are reading. This book saved me. I mean it.
Escape the escapism. Cut everything that doesn’t move you toward your goals. You know what happens when you waste your life working on things that aren’t your dream.
“There was probably a 12-year period of my life where I didn’t take a drink, I didn’t go out on the weekends, I was so set on my goal. It created a serious circle of protection and an elevation because I refused to do anything that wasn’t in my best interest. It’s hugely important that if you have a dream, you have to dedicate your life to it and every hour of every day has to be dedicated to bringing it into fruition.”
~ Will Smith
Step 6. Gain momentum.
Doubts multiply in sloth.
It is the action that dissolves indecisiveness.
Start doing something, at first maybe even mechanically. Cope with the emotions that arise in response to the internal resistance induced by the action. The resistance is natural, the word “movement” implies friction by definition. “Rent yourself out” to the process — be a robot whose function is to execute on what has to be done. Allow yourself to be dragged by the process.
Step 7. Look back.
When your doubts resurface don’t forget to look back at your progress. Your negative self-talk will be coming back to sabotage your sense of self-worth, shut it by noting how many things you have already succeeded to accomplish. Life hit you hard yet here you are. It failed to break you. You are still in the game and you are stronger than you think.
It’s ok to doubt yourself. What is not ok is to let your doubts control you. When life gets tough, I tell myself:
You’ve been through some serious shit and yet you’ve made it this far.
There is enough of you to take one more step.
Just take one more fucking step.
I don’t choose my words carefully when it comes to dealing with self-pity. Neither should you. Be relentless to yourself.
I love one scene from the “Skyfall” — a scene where James Bond meets the villain, Silva. Silva is bragging about how much destruction he could do with a single click on his laptop. Bond smiles: “Well, everybody needs a hobby.” Silva looks puzzled, he ponders for a second and goes: “So what’s yours?” 007 replies:
Bond is not bulletproof. He is vulnerable. But that is exactly what makes his toughness so magnetic. The way he handles his vulnerabilities — that’s what makes him James Bond.
We don’t always make smart decisions about our work- and lifestyle. We get ourselves burned-out. But whatever happened has happened. The only question that matters is: what are you going to do about it? Between being someone who flips the adversity and being someone who drowns in it lies a choice. You create your reality by shaping your perception.
Times when you feel helpless suck but they serve a fundamental purpose — only through the dark side of life, your stronger self can emerge. You rise because you fall, and when you do rise, you feel on top of the world. That is the moment of true glory.
Thank you for reading my book “Meditations of the Millennial”.
If you want to support me on my mission, please, share this book with someone you love. Maybe they will find what they seek on its pages.