Her email was all too familiar: “So I have a little problem and I’m hoping you can help me. I’m completely exhausted! I’m having trouble knowing what’s due to my situation and what’s due to the way I’m leading. Can we schedule a coaching session? Soon?”
When I met with my dear, desperate leader friend, she shared how she felt she was being pulled in 18 different directions, all at the same time. She was wiped out and not sure how to prevent the inevitable burnout she saw on the horizon.
Ever been there? I know I have.
The Burnout Bug
I had a couple of years when I was running on empty. At the end of every day, I would collapse into my bed and pray for a few hours of sleep, only to find my mind so wound up that sleep wouldn’t come. When the alarm went off the next morning, I would force myself out of bed, dreading the demands of the day.
Fueled by double shot lattes and a strong sense of responsibility, I would take on every request for one more meeting, one more volunteer need, one more social gathering, and one more snuggle and story—all the while daydreaming of running away from my cell phone and living above a bakery on a tiny island where I would spend my days sampling new cupcake flavors while working on my tan. Or maybe I would change my name to Sister Mary Something-or-Other and join a convent in the Alps and live a life of simplicity with nuns who also happen to perform Broadway shows. Too bad I was too tired to decide which one was the more viable option. (Hey, no judging my sleep-deprived daydreams!)
I was overworked, over-caffeinated, overcommitted, and overwhelmed. I felt depleted in every way possible. And eventually, I found myself infected from head to toe with a widespread epidemic: exhaustion.
I had the burnout bug. (Note: this isn’t a real disease.)
As with any physical ailment, there are symptoms associated with the burnout bug. These warning signs start popping up everywhere, but we’re often too tired to take notice. See if you recognize any of these symptoms:
- Having difficulty sleeping consistently because you can’t “turn off your brain.”
- Feeling mentally scattered or constantly distracted.
- Having trouble psyching yourself up for another day of working/volunteering/parenting/facing difficult people.
- Seeing people as interruptions or a drain when you would usually find them energizing or engaging.
- Having a hard time making small, insignificant decisions, like where to go for lunch or which movie to watch.
- Losing patience quickly with those closest to you, like team members or family.
When our bodies are weak from infection, we’re more susceptible to other diseases. Similarly, when we experience exhaustion on any level, our defenses are down in potentially devastating ways. We make bad decisions and give into temptations. We struggle with depression and suffer from physical illnesses. We can even experience all of this at once.
Surely this isn’t the life God has in mind for us, is it? Was this what he meant by “abundant life”? A life chronically bursting at the seams?
All You Who Are Weary
I wonder if this kind of bone-deep exhaustion is what Jesus was speaking of in Matthew 11:28–29: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Years before catching the burnout bug, I would read this passage and think, Well, isn’t that sweet—Jesus is inviting me to take a nap. But now, after experiencing years of exhaustion, I read his words and catch my breath at the invitation to breathe deeply—the invitation to rest at the core of who I am. What he’s offering is more than a quick pick-me-up. It’s true refreshment, and it goes beyond just my mind or body. It’s refreshment for my soul.
So what do we do with the life we’re in now, with all the demands that seem to be pulling us in so many different directions? How do we manage our current situation? As I shared with my friend, we can make small daily choices to avoid the risk factors that lead to the burnout bug. Here are five of my favorite all-natural, proactive immune boosters:
1. Schedule Sabbath
Plan for a weekly time of worship, rest, and activities that bring you joy. Save your to-do list for the other six days.
2. Fuel Up
Eat healthy foods, move your body, and get a full night’s sleep. Take care of your physical body—not just every once in a while, but every day.
Clear out the clutter in your life. Whether it’s your closet or your schedule, clear out anything you absolutely don’t need in order to create physical and mental space for soul rest.
4. Define Boundaries
Limit your availability and accessibility to toxic people, work demands, and annoying interruptions. Be focused and present with the people in your path or projects on your plate.
5. Invite Others
Allow others to care for you, take responsibilities off your shoulders, and hold you to keeping your boundaries. Invite them to join you in preventing the exhaustion epidemic from spreading.
Unfortunately, there is no quick cure for this frantic flu—no shot or mandatory spa day will wipe it out. That’s just not how it works. (Mind you, I would love to give the mandatory spa day a try, for research purposes.) But our intentional actions and our healthy lives are equally contagious. When you choose to live differently and avoid the burnout bug altogether, others will take notice. And who knows, you might even start getting emails from friends asking for help because they’re also tired of being exhausted and fearful of burning out.
Julie Pierce is a TCW advisor and a certified leadership coach. She has one big dream: to empower women leaders to change the world. You can follow her on Twitter at @julie_pierce or on her blog at EmpoweredByPierce.com.