About two weeks ago, I wrote about my realization that I was suffering from burnout. The response to the post was both affirming and concerning.
Affirmation came in the form of messages and comments signifying I wasn’t alone. Others saw themselves in my situation. They were feeling the same exhaustion and lack of joy. In those affirmations was born my concern.
I’ve spent the last two weeks writing and speaking openly about my burnout and how I found my way through it. The more I talk about it, the more I hear from others who are suffering from something similar: burnout, COVID fatigue, stress, etc.
As a result of what I’ve heard, I feel like I need to share what’s happened since I wrote that post. I took some very intentional and specific actions to get back to feeling like myself again and it’s had a dramatic effect.
I’m going to share what I did because it was incredibly healing for me. I literally feel like a different person today. I’ll also share what I took from the experience as learnings. My hope is that something in there will be helpful to you or perhaps someone you know who might be stuck where I was.
As I began to realize how worn down I felt, a friend of mine suggested that I take a few days and really unplug. Unplug from work, from tech, from the news. She suggested spending time just breathing and doing things like watching the sun rise and set.
It sounded right to me, so I scanned my calendar and found four days where I had very little scheduled and anything that was scheduled could be moved. I blocked them off.
When I told my wife about my plan to unplug, she made a suggestion. My parents were going to be gone for a couple of weeks camping, so why not go to their house to have some real time “away” from everything. That’s exactly what I did.
Two days after I posted my blog, I packed my car and headed to my parents’ empty house. Ironically, while so many are struggling with social isolation right now, what I needed was some true time alone.
Over the course of those four days, I had a few priorities.
DISCONNECTION I didn’t check email. I didn’t watch any news. I unplugged. The only people I talked to during the entire four days were my grandparents, who live in an assisted living facility near my parents’ home. Visiting with them in-person was good for the soul. In the evenings, I’d kick back and watch a movie I’d been wanting to see.
SLEEP I felt exhausted heading up there. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been sleeping. My Fitbit would have told you that I was getting about seven hours of sleep per night even as I was burning out. It wasn’t enough. Over my four nights away, I slept 9.5, 9, 9, and 8 hours respectively per night. My batteries were clearly run down.
SELF-HELP PODCASTS The week before I left, a friend who had navigated through her own experience of burnout mentioned how much the Brené Brown podcast, Unlocking Us, had helped. I took her advice and binged a bunch of episodes along with several from the Dan Harris podcast, Ten Percent Happier. These were exactly what I needed. It was the closest thing I could get to some counseling or coaching as part of this experience. It was a reminder that just because you heard something or knew something at one point doesn’t mean you don’t need reminders and refreshers. One would think I should know that. Regardless, these podcasts and a few other random episodes from other sources gave me the tools I needed to reset my mindset.
JOURNALING Each morning, I spent about 30-45 minutes journaling. I use a technique for journaling where I decide in advance how much space I’m going to fill in my journal and then I write, without stopping, until it’s full. This part of the process was vital to pouring out my thoughts and making sense of what had been going on inside my head. By putting in the self-help content early, I had a lot to process and sort through over four days. Other than sleep, journaling was probably the most vital part of healing.
EXERCISE This is admittedly a regular part of my self-care routine. I run between 20 and 25 miles per week during the warm months. While on retreat, I kept up my running but also mixed in some long walks as well. Exercise alone isn’t enough for me, clearly, but it’s an important element.
MEDITATION Each morning, I spent 15-20 minutes meditating. I am still largely a meditation novice, but I love it and find it extremely valuable. I use the Calm app for guided meditations.
Beyond these things, I allowed myself a lot of open space to do whatever felt like the right thing to do. One day, I went for a sight-seeing drive and listened to a podcast. Another day, I went for a meandering walk around town. Just the feeling of being off a schedule allowed some of my stress to ease.
When I returned home from the retreat, I felt like a different person. I’d been able to isolate some really problematic mindsets and reset them to a more positive place. Plus, I felt whole and rested. I had energy and the joy had returned. I am not overstating this. It was transformative.
What I think I learned
As I’ve had time to think about how I ended up in need of a retreat and how the retreat restored me, I’m going to hang on to a few things to hopefully help me prevent this from happening again in the future.
- Retreats are powerful. The word retreat is defined as “an act of moving back or withdrawing.” That’s what I needed and it feels like what a lot of people need right now. We need to move back from the front lines of our lives, even if it’s just for a few days. When we move back and get away, we are able to get out of the busyness and see our situation from a different perspective. Creating space for retreat is incredibly important and valuable.
- Ongoing self-care is vital, and exercise alone isn’t enough. I think when the crisis took hold in March, the adrenaline of needing to adapt and respond carried me through several months. I suspect that my exercise and sleep routine actually helped me stretch out how far that carried me, but I wasn’t tending to my mental health, and eventually I broke down. Going forward, I have a plan to be as disciplined about my mental health self-care as I am about my physical health.
- We all need help in getting and staying well. I am fortunate that I have friends (and a badass wife) who provided me with suggestions and ideas for what I needed to do. I’m also grateful that I opened myself back up to some self-help content. My learning style responds really well to self-help, but it could have been counseling or coaching instead. The point is, it’s hard to climb out of a rut without some help. It’s also much easier to recognize and avoid the rut in the first place with help.