Beating Burnout//

Living Life vs. Managing Life

Four lessons on bouncing back from burnout from a senior Microsoft researcher who's been there and back.

StockSnap / Pixabay
StockSnap / Pixabay

Finding passion, purpose, and joy in one’s chosen career is a privilege. Working 100 hours a week to make the most of that privilege is a slippery slope and can often lead to burnout. As I traveled that road, I found myself trying to get 61 seconds out of every minute. I was managing life, as opposed to truly experiencing it. Because I was driven by passion to create positive change and a desire to learn, as opposed to an unhealthy work environment, I didn’t see that I became a hostage to external demands. Like a device that’s run out of battery and needs to be charged, I needed to figure out how to replenish my batteries. Since stress has a direct connection to health and well-being, interventions needed to be explored for ease of mind.

I spent time learning about the history of the words “worker” and “leisure” and had my spiritual Sherpa walk me through how to be present. I also spent time exploring every “self-care” routine, regime, app I could find while reading ancient Greek philosophy about fulfillment to act as journal prompts.

Here are four things I learned.

1. Leisure is a necessity

Last December while on a beach in Mexico, I found myself reading business books and taking notes about organizational leadership rather than opting for a drink in the sunshine. I wasn’t allowing myself to live in the moment. I enjoy what I do for a living and never saw an issue with that. The act of leisure felt like a self-indulgent luxury to be pursued on brief occasion, rather than essential part of life.

I came across this definition leisure in a book worth reading by Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture. He defines it as: “Moments of unburdened contemplation and presence. The absolute attentiveness to life. Leisure lives on affirmation. It is not the same as the absence of activity or even as an inner quiet… It’s not a Sunday afternoon idyll but the preserve of freedom, of education and culture, and of that undiminished humanity which views the world as whole.”

That description changed the lens I use to organize my day and life. With it, I started saying “no” more and started finding joy in the absence of activities. I began asking: “What are the conditions for my success in live, love, work to be fulfilled? What leisure activities in which contexts are useful? When can I start incorporating them?”

2. Live in choice

Exhaustion can occur in the never-ending race for “balance.” In Three Marriages: Reimaging Work, Self and Relationship, David Whyte explores “work-life balance” in a refreshing way. He implies that we need to build an ability to choose what to think, feel and do rather than living in stress about conflicting demands. 

I actively choose to set one to two full workdays a week as “focus time.” This uninterrupted space is a boundary that allows me to contemplate and create with no distractions. Focus Assist helps me do that by turning off notifications, sounds and alerts to allow me to focus on the task at hand; it then catches me up with what I missed. 

I also like to create pie charts of how time is spent vs. how I want it to be spent each month. Doing so helps create moments for conscious choice. I use MyAnalytics for this — it summarizes your time at work and suggests way to work more efficiently.

3. Create mindful transitions

As a diver, I know that ascending too quickly in the ocean can lead to fatal consequences. It’s important to adapt to the changing pressure by rising slowly in the transition between the deep sea and shallow waters. That lesson holds true with life and the temperamental transition zones between the busy pace of work life and less intense pace of personal life. We need carefully constructed zones that can’t be cut short. We need to design transitional moments that are adaptable and variable for different situations.

I now create visual maps of my transitions between moments. For example: I journal and listen to a podcast during my hour commute from work as a way of ascending to a different pace of thinking. That, coupled with two hours of exercise each day, promotes clear-headedness, as opposed to the anxiety and physical angst that can come with a forced switching between contexts.

4. Embodied self-awareness

I have an analytical mind and pride myself on daily reflections. I’ve always been self-aware conceptually, but learned I lacked embodied self-awareness. According to Amanda Blake’s Your Body is Your Brain, embodied self-awareness is a real-time presence and attunement with the physical versus the mental. It is feeling versus thinking about what’s happening.

Our bodies have communicated with us since the beginning of humanity. Sometimes this happens in a language we can understand. For example, our stomachs growling which may tell us we’re hungry. Other times it’s difficult to intuit what’s happening. Learning how to be body self-aware helps us understand what our bodies are trying to tell us. This is important because when we sense something and don’t act, it’s a form of self-betrayal.

This practice has helped me avoid interacting in the world in a way that contradicts my inner needs and beliefs. I check in with myself often which has helped me identify and prevent stress before it happens.

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