It happens to everyone sooner or later. You’re producing great work, everything seems to be running smoothly, and in short – you’re on fire. Then soon you feel the first pangs of that fire turning on you, and within a short while you’re running on empty.
When this happens, ideas don’t flow as easily, and everything you try seems to take much more effort than you have available. Yet you still have to produce. You have to deliver the results you’re being paid to produce, and there is little reprieve from the pressure of the create-on-demand world.
So what do you do when you’re burned out? How can you begin to reclaim your creative energy and get “back in the game”?
Step One: Admit that you’re overextended.
This is critical, because many people are too afraid to admit such a thing because it breaks the illusion of invulnerability. Sometimes we’d rather perpetuate that illusion than engage in the kind of honesty that helps us be more effective. It’s important to accept that you have limits.
Sometimes it’s also helpful to share how you feel with your manager, though if it’s a season in which everyone is overextended, you’re likely to get the “yeah, me too” glare. Still, teams that are able to have these kinds of conversations openly and honestly are less likely to have massive explosions of distrust and anger down the road. (If you’re a team leader, encourage people to have these kinds of conversations with you, as it helps you gauge team members’ expectations and true limits.)
Create an inventory of your current commitments, upcoming obligations, and anything else that demands your focus, time, and energy. Get a good sense for where you are, how you got there, and the true scope of your current situation.
Step Two: Prune Relentlessly
The reason that you get in over your head is that you are trying to do too much with too few resources. You are inverted. To get back to a place of productive capacity, you need to prune activities and commitments from your life so that you have the space needed to do the work required of you. When you cram activity into every spare moment of your life, it feels immediately productive because you’re being efficient. However, efficiency in the short-term is often the enemy of effectiveness in the long-term. To bring your best work every day, you must be choiceful about the commitments you make.
Is there anything that needs to be pruned from you life to create space for your best work?
Step Three: Default to saying “no”
Again, there is a belief in the workplace that time available means availability. However, time is only one facet of engagement. You must also have the capacity to focus, and the energy needed to bring your best work to the table. As such, it’s important to manage each of these resources regularly if you want to stay in a place of productive capacity. (Establishing checkpoints is critical, as I share in chapter nine of The Accidental Creative.)
I default to saying “no” to any new commitment, unless I’m given a good reason to say “yes”. Why? Because the creative process is one that requires me to default to saying “yes”, but when I’ve said “yes” to too many things, it limits the space I have to say “yes” to my truly important priorities. As such, I’ve learned that I have to create the space necessary to be able to explore, re-direct, and even fail. That margin is often not available when I’ve said “yes” to too many other things.
Moving forward, default to saying “no” to discretionary commitments. This will allow you the margin to say “yes” and truly deliver on the priorities that are critical to your effectiveness.
Burnout is never enjoyable, but it can sometimes provide a much needed nudge to do some re-organizing of life and work. By acknowledging it, pruning your priorities, and defaulting to “no”, you will be better positioned to bring your best work each day and stay prolific, brilliant, and healthy over the long term.
Have you ever been burned out? How do you deal with it?