In the 12 months from June 2017 onwards, I studied for a week abroad as part of my degree. I completed 20 hours of Home-based July Provision. I worked for three weeks at a Summer Camp. I began my second year in a new school. I was grieving the loss of a friend and colleague. I was starting my thesis as part of my masters. I was creating a twenty-hour behavioural course. I was running a voluntary after-school club twice a week alone. I was playing a sport and training four times a week. Two people close to me became quite sick. In June 2018, I was burned out.
Each of those things consumes significant time and energy. Combined, they ground me down. It’s not something I have discussed widely but the 12 months from June 2017 up to June 2018 took a major toll on me and changed me forever. During that period, I had to plan my life to the minute detail to ensure that I could sustain my responsibilities. I scheduled reminders to phone friends and family to check-in. I timetabled exactly when I was training. I planned exactly when I would study. I ordered prepared meals for the week delivered to school because I couldn’t prioritise cooking or being at home to receive them. I found myself studying until midnight and up at 4 am the following morning to fulfil different obligations and meet deadlines. I wrote articles in hospital canteens and my car. At one stage, I was asked to rerecord some audio content because my tone sounded depressing. That’s because that was how I was feeling.
In hindsight, and with what I know now, what to do seems so simple. Stop the voluntary after-school club. Step back from the team I played with. Communicate that two people close to me were sick and I may have to extend deadlines. But instead, I did what most people do. I told nobody and soldiered on. I was physically and emotionally exhausted but would not release any responsibilities. I wouldn’t talk about it. I convinced myself it would be weak to admit overwhelm. I told myself that it wasn’t about me. I developed feelings of anxiety that I never had previously, I was hiding how stressed I was, I had a panic attack, I suffered all those things that people read about and think “why didn’t they say something?”. At the time, I felt that everything was incredibly important and must be completed. Pick out each commitment and there was a noble reason why I felt it was important to sustain. I’d still be inclined to justify each one. Although, now I realise that when it’s obvious that life is unsustainable, you have to change something to protect yourself.
To pick some positives from the wreckage that was that year, I transformed the way I thought and acted for the better. I eventually pieced myself back together and feel more resilient for it. I’m passionate about helping people avoid the feelings I experienced so I’ve put together three habits that protect me from returning to a similar place ever again.
I have kept a journal for three years now. I range from answering reflective questions that I pick up from online or that I’m pondering from time to time. Mostly, however, I keep it simple and journal 3 different things every day. I write 7 things I am feeling excited for. This could be as small as a nice breakfast or as big as an upcoming event. This sets me up every morning to search for positives and is simple, quick and effective. I write a to-do list with 3-5 key tasks I want to complete for the day. Finally, I have a Likert scale (strongly agree, agree, don’t know, disagree and strongly disagree) I roughly draw at the bottom. The question over it is: Did I finish the day WANTING to do more? Not “feeling like I should” or “needing to”. Actively desiring. If I’m strongly agreeing or agreeing, I know I’m living sustainably. If I’m strongly disagreeing or disagreeing, I’m alert that what I’m doing is unsustainable over the long term and I will reflect on whether this is a short term situation or something I need to address.
I meditated as part of yoga for a long time before I felt the benefits. I read a great one-page description in 365 Daily Meditations that captures what it does for me. It brings my mind to a single point and focuses it. When my mind is unfocused, my thoughts are scattered and I feel frazzled or discontent more easily. I gravitate towards stress without realising. When I meditate, it encourages me to pause. When I get up from a ten-minute meditation, I feel like I’m no longer in that autopilot state. I am ready to decide on what I want to do and how to react to situations. I now meditate outside of yoga. I use the Headspace app and find it great. I’d recommend sticking with it through that period of thinking its worthless and one day you’ll realise that there’s something to it. I’ve read lots of people say that it takes 12-18 months of practice to feel the benefits and I share that experience. The Dalai Lama discusses happiness as something you train your mind for and seek actively. I subscribe to this as it makes me feel I have ownership and a choice.
Set Your Boundaries
This sounds like a harsh one but I have felt the benefits of it. Learn to say no. Draw your line. Have awkward conversations. The reason I burned myself out was partly due to my feelings of I “should” do this or I “have” to do that. Neither of those is true. I learned there is little in life we should or have to do. If you don’t set your boundaries, someone else will set them for you. With the best will in the world, waiting for your employer or someone else to prioritise your wellbeing is misguided. You need to take control of your health and wellness. You must acknowledge that you have to pick your poison. Either you suffer awkwardly rejecting someone’s request in the early stages or you suffer having to fulfil obligations you don’t want to or you know will stretch you past what is sustainable. I often say no to people because I want to get eight hours of sleep or go for a run. They’re often shocked, disappointed or disgruntled. They may try to persuade me. But, I set my priorities. By all means, accept people’s requests, but do it mindfully and accept them happily and wholeheartedly when you do. Avoid the trap of accepting and complaining. Set your boundaries.
These are only three of the things that helped me. I could write a book on the other mini-steps I had to take to recover my inner contentment and happiness. There were ups and downs. Progress was not linear. The take-home message, from my experience, is to develop habits in your life that will help you prevent reaching burnout and if you feel you’re already there, hold your hand up and say something. My emails, DMs and phone are always open or reach out to friends, family or professional help. Don’t be a martyr and push yourself to the breakpoint. You’re more use to yourself and others if you can sustain your efforts.
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