First Things First
Episode #2 of the course Life in the time of burnout by Dr. Kimberlee Bethany Bonura
If you’ve been thinking about burnout since yesterday, you have probably realized that, sometimes, burnout sneaks up on you. Your to-do list grows. Your obligations increase. Your exhaustion, stress, and frustration continue to pile on. One day, you’re not just a little tired, you’re full-on, to-the-bone exhausted, and you’re fantasizing about running away from yourself.
Or maybe you’ve been feeling that burnout is like a truck that slams into your car, leaving your life instantly wrecked. In a crisis, burnout can come on hard and fast. Medical professionals working continuous shifts during a pandemic like COVID-19, faced with gut-wrenching decisions over how to prioritize supplies and care, may experience burnout like a car crash into a cement wall at 100 miles per hour. We’ll talk more about surviving burnout in critical situations tomorrow.
Modern Society Exacerbates Burnout
The unfortunate reality is that modern life exacerbates burnout. We work long hours, and then stay up late socializing or catching up on streaming videos or social media. We have long commutes, we lose connection to the people in our lives, and we lose easy access to the green spaces of nature.
Our jobs, and our socially imposed expectations about them, are part of the problem. As a culture, we’ve embraced the idea that work is good, more work is better, and that time off from work is a waste of time. We look at self-care, things like exercise, healthy eating, and rest, mostly as ways to make ourselves stronger, more efficient, and more productive. We lose sight of the bigger picture of balance. We tie our self-esteem and our sense of self-worth to our accomplishment in one area only: our career success. Author Rahaf Harfoush  calls this mindset productivity propaganda, and makes the important point that to truly be successful, knowledge workers need to be creative, and in order to be creative, we need to be rested.
In order to be rested, you need to treat yourself as a priority. You’ve probably heard before that you should put your workouts on your calendar, so that you fully commit to them as an appointment with yourself. Consider using this strategy across your wellness and self-care activities: block off time on your calendar, on a regular basis, for exercise, for preparing (and eating!) healthy meals, for time with friends, for relaxation activities. And that doesn’t mean just adding more to your probably already overbooked schedule. It most likely means taking some things off your schedule – cancelling some meetings that don’t really add value, saying no to some activities you do out of obligation but which you don’t really enjoy, reducing the chores you do.
Carving Time in Your Schedule for You
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how to survive if you work in essential services during a crisis. Because, of course, if you’re a doctor or a nurse in the time of a pandemic, a police officer during a city riot, or a factory worker working double shifts to fill a shortage of essential supplies, your only option is to just get through it.
For all those other times, when you do have a little bit of time, and space, and freedom in planning your schedule, you need to figure out how to make the hard choices necessary to prioritize your own wellness and prevent burnout.
I want you to look at your schedule for today, the coming week, and the coming month. Consider your calendar, your at-home to-do list, your pending to-do list for work, and all the standing activities you don’t write down but always do. Also consider all the things you want to do (dinner with your spouse, movie night with your kids, that phone call with your best friend), plus all the things you need to do (like exercise and medical appointments). Grab paper, and different colored pens and highlighters:
1. Pick one color for all the things you actually have to do, for yourself, your family, your job, the non-negotiables.
2. Pick another color for the things you really want to do – the things that bring you joy and restore your physical and emotional well-being.
3. Build a schedule for the day, week, and month with those two categories first.
4. Then, consider everything else, and be realistic about time.
Prioritize getting 7 or 8 hours of sleep a night. Consider how long your commute to and from work is, how long it normally takes to convince your kids to put their shoes on, the time you’ll spend waiting in line at the pharmacy to pick up that necessary prescription for your parents. Be honest with yourself in building a to-do list and a schedule that you can realistically achieve. Be gentle with yourself in letting some things that are not necessary go.
My point, for today, is that one of the first things you must do to prevent burnout, and to deal with and recover from burnout, is to cut yourself a break. You are competent, and by setting more realistic goals for your daily life, you’ll begin to feel competent.
 Check out Rahaf Harfoush’s 2019 book Hustle & Float: Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive in a World Obsessed with Work and TED talk.
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