How to Avoid Burnout: Thoughtful Advice From a Fellow Entrepreneur
For those launching or running their own business, the sense that we could and should be doing more and working more efficiently can feel both overwhelming and unavoidable. The to-do list is long. Time and resources are limited. And there’s a lot at stake. It’s easy to find yourself on the treadmill-like track toward burnout.
So how can you avoid burnout while working toward the big beautiful dreams you have for your business? Today we’re exploring this question with Jocelyn K Glei, an author and creator whose mission to “help people find more meaning and creativity in their daily work” strikes as us the antidote to burnout.
Read on to hear Jocelyn reflect on the symptoms and causes of burnout, reimagine a better relationship with work and productivity, and provide practical advice to make it a reality.
Your work centers around helping people “find more meaning and creativity” in their daily work. That’s a beautiful and specific mission. What’s the story behind how it took shape?
“Well, through the many unexpected twists and turns that my career took, I ended up becoming a kind of “productivity expert” many years ago. I oversaw a now-defunct Webby Award-winning website called 99U, as well as a big conference we did every year at Lincoln Center in NYC and a bestselling book series — and all of our content was focused on how creative folks could be more productive and creative.
In many ways, my work was about demystifying the creative process and understanding how people really made their ideas happen. Which meant digging into the nitty gritty of how they organized their days and got sh*t done, how they tracked their ideas, how they built their careers — so many things!
Over the course of that time in my life, I read tons of research about both productivity and creativity, I interviewed super-successful people about it, and I put people on stage to speak about it, so I just absorbed so much information and insight about that sphere of work. In the process, what I realized was that our obsession with productivity, as a culture, was really getting in the way of our ability to be creative, our ability to be connected to ourselves, and our ability to find meaning in our lives.
So my new mission became about really interrogating our obsession with productivity and unpacking what it was doing to us with a goal of leading myself, and anyone else who was reading/listening alongside me, back towards ideas, habits, and approaches that focused on inviting in more creativity and meaning — as opposed to just being on the productivity hamster wheel.”
What did burnout feel like for you? What were the biggest consequences of burnout for you?
“I like that you framed this question personally, rather than more broadly, because I think burnout can feel like a lot of different things to different people. For me, it showed up as a lack of presence and empathy for anything that was happening outside of work. Sometimes, people think burnout means being disengaged from your work or exhausted at work, and it can mean that. But for me, the problem was that I was too engaged with my work. It was pulling way too much focus in my life, to the point where I was neglecting to take care of my body, I couldn’t be present in my romantic relationship with any kind of real depth or empathy, and my stress levels were just off the charts. I had voluntarily taken on way too much at work, and the pressure was killing me. If you look at the textbook definition of burnout, it looks a lot like an addiction that increasingly alienates you from the people around you. In other words, it works a lot like any other addiction.”
Was there a specific belief, goal, mentality, or way of relating to work that put you on the track toward burnout?
“I think I tied my self-worth into what I had (or hadn’t) accomplished in life, which is no surprise because this is exactly what the dominant culture, capitalism, whatever you want to call it, trains us to do. We are socialized to believe that we do not have value if we are not producing something. We are taught that we must constantly be ascending this ladder of self-improvement until we arrive at some sort of mythical “best self.” I was raised to be a very achievement-oriented person, and I was super keyed into this ideology — it really motivated me. And it continued to motivate me until I ran myself into the ground. Much of my work since then has become about unwinding from these ideas and learning how to motivate myself in a more sustainable way.”
Can you explain what “tender discipline” is and why it’s such a powerful concept?
“Sure, we just started to dip a toe into it with the last question. Tender discipline is the name of a course I recently offered and a concept that I have been exploring for many years, starting with a podcast entitled “Who are you without the doing?” The concept begins with my belief that everything in our culture revolves around productivity and a very corrosive set of values that come with it. Values like extraction, efficiency, unlimited progress, and exponential growth. There is a sense that we must always be optimizing ourselves and everything in our surrounding environment. I think this worldview, and these values, influence so much of how we motivate ourselves and how we move through the world. And I think that they are highly toxic, which is why so many of us end up in burnout, as described above.
Tender discipline is about opting out of this value system and aligning with a new set of values that center humanity rather than productivity. So rather than constantly optimizing ourselves, we are more focused on accepting ourselves. So that rather than relentlessly belittling ourselves for our shortcomings, we are learning to see our basic goodness and recognize our enough-ness. So that rather than tuning into this relentless internal loop of harsh self-critique, we can learn how to communicate with ourselves with more tenderness and compassion.
We think that discipline is something that comes from the outside, something that we have to force ourselves into, but true discipline, tender discipline, arises naturally when we are able to treat ourselves with love and compassion. And when you read that, it can sound sort of airy and abstract — or even corny! — but it is an actual, literal truth. The more I have learned to work with tenderness, the easier and breezier my work has become. Things don’t have to be so hard.”
In your Reset course, you talk about a “speed-obsessed” vs. “heart-centered” approach to work. Can you tell us a bit about these approaches?
“We started to touch into that with the previous question. Tender discipline as a concept, came to me a little further down the road, after I created RESET, so it’s continuing to work with, and evolving, a similar set of ideas. By speed-obsessed, I mean our cultural obsession with speed, efficiency, and convenience.
This overall yearning to constantly optimize how you get from point A to point B, with the assumption that the best way to get from A to B is always in a straight line and FAST. But many of the best things in life, in fact perhaps ALL of the best things in life, are not better if you make them more efficient. Think about going for a walk in nature, having incredible sex, eating an amazing meal, or talking with a loved one. These are not things that would be improved were they more efficient or if they happened more quickly. But this also applies to work, and particularly to creative work.
The creative process naturally proceeds in fits and starts, doesn’t follow a straight line, and is completely unpredictable. It actively resists efficiency. And by trying to make creativity efficient, we end up approaching the process all wrong and creating a lot of heartache for ourselves. There is also the aspect of speed and efficiency that we learn from the apps and technologies that we use every day. There is a quality of on-demandness, instant gratification, and convenience that we have become accustomed to because technology and computers can offer that to us. They are available 24/7. They never have to stop working to rest or eat a meal or have fun. And by being in proximity to that mode of working, to that kind of always-on, efficiency, we have absorbed some of that ethos into ourselves.
We have begun to treat our bodies like computers that we can command to do something at the drop of a hat, or that can work ceaselessly, without breaks. But in fact, we are living, breathing, animals that have needs outside of work and that have limits on how much we can do. So working from a “heart-centered” place is also about acknowledging our humanity and learning to work in a way that is actually sustainable. We can learn to work tenderly with our minds and our bodies rather than always working against them, as if we had to subjugate them to our will.”
What do you see as the big burnout-causing traps that entrepreneurs and creatives fall into? What traps did you fall into?
“I think the biggest trap is falling into what writer Oliver Burkeman calls “when-I-finally” mindset in his excellent book Four Thousand Weeks. It’s this idea that when you finally achieve this goal, meet this business milestone, get that promotion… that then, and only then, can you finally be happy, can you finally rest, can you finally feel that you’ve done enough. In this way, we are constantly placing satisfaction and self-acceptance — a feeling of enough-ness — out in the distance. The problem with this is that, of course, you never arrive at that future destination. As soon as you achieve whatever ambition you laid out, you mentally move the goalposts again and say, “well, when I finally achieve this [insert new goal], then I’ll be happy.” This never-ending cycle is what leads to a chronic feeling of dissatisfaction with oneself and ultimately to burnout because you can never stop pushing because you never really reach that horizon.”
Are there some super practical examples (perhaps tools or strategies) that we can embed into our workday to help us avoid some of these traps?
“The simplest way to avoid the trap of this “when-I-finally” mindset and its many discontents is to recognize, and have compassion for, your limits and make a practice of deciding what “enough” is in advance in as many ways as you possibly can. So that can mean creating a very realistic to-do list — say one that fits comfortably on a Post-It note, or it could mean setting a monetary goal for your business this quarter, or it could mean setting a limit for meetings in a day. I talk a bit more with entrepreneur Paul Jarvis about this concept on my podcast here.
So it’s about paring down, being focused, and setting clear intentions about what you want to get done. As I like to say: Productivity is really about what you don’t do. So one of my recommendations that comes via Jim Collins is to make a “stop-doing” list. Take time to really sit down and think about what’s keeping you from focusing on the meaningful work that would actually give you satisfaction and make a brief list of those things. Paste it on the wall by your desk to keep those items top of mind and to keep you intentional as you move through your day.
Another key idea is to learn how to work with your body rather than against it. We are not designed to just work for eight straight hours without breaks — and doing that, or working even longer than that, is how we start to tip into burnout. Based on science, working in 90 minute sprints, punctuated by 15-30 minute breaks to rest and relax, can be an ideal rhythm. So I recommend that folks build “white space” into their schedule/calendar for breaks to recharge. It’s also important to align with your circadian rhythms: For most people, their peak window of mental performance is roughly between 10am-12pm. So most of us are checking email or sitting idly in a meeting when it would be most aligned to do our most important mentally challenging or creative work. I talk about this concept of harnessing your golden hours and lots of other tips for working more sustainably in my RESET course, which is going to reopen for registration in January of 2023.”
What are some more conceptual tips, or perhaps self-care tips, you recommend for recharging and creating a healthy mindset about work?
“I had a great discussion with Alex Pang, a writer and futurist, on my podcast a while back. One of the things we touched on was that research shows that what really helps people recharge isn’t actually doing nothing. It’s not laying on a beach with a good book for 7 days — though that can certainly be nice, and I’d quite like to do it myself here in the depths of winter. What actually helps people recharge is doing something different. So it’s not so much about rest as it is about variation. We tend to think about self-care as a bubble bath or a massage, but self-care can also look like cultivating a rich array of different hobbies. Or having any hobbies, as for so many of us, work has become our singular hobby, or we’ve made something that was a hobby into our work/startup. Which is all good, but the point is we need variety.
Our brains aren’t meant to operate like computers: Focusing on one task relentlessly until it’s complete. I think the most important self-care tip is to give yourself the freedom to mix it up more in your day — especially for entrepreneurs or the self-employed who have a say in how their day is structured. Experiment with going for a run in the middle of the day, experiment with stepping away from your computer and doing a task on paper instead (just because it’s more pleasurable!), experiment with walking meetings. Work doesn’t have to be so hard. Experiment with how you can use variation to invite more pleasure into your workday.“
Do you have favorite thinkers that you turn to when you’re looking to cultivate “tender discipline” or simply get inspired?
“The phrase “tender discipline” arose out of my reading of Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa’s book Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. Trunpga himself was a complicated and flawed figure, but I think what he says about tenderness being at the heart of courage is quite beautiful. Pema Chodron is another wonderful writer in this spirit; she also studied with Trungpa. Her books When Things Fall Apart and The Wisdom of No Escape are particular favorites. My friend Sebene Selassie writes a beautiful newsletter, The Call for Connection, that offers much compassion and wisdom, and I always enjoy Tara Brach’s podcasts for their gentle insights.”
If you could give one piece of reassurance or advice to your younger self, what would it be?
“Detours are an integral part of the journey. I often felt in the past that what I was doing wasn’t quite in alignment with who I really was. But it was only in hindsight that I could have an appreciation that those detours were helping me figure out who I really was, what I wanted, and what my work in this world is. Little by little, I am learning to focus on the destination less, and enjoy the ride more.”
Did this interview resonate with you? If so, we encourage you to check out Jocelyn’s work. She hosts Hurry Slowly, a podcast about “personal and collective transformation,” and offers a course called RESET, a cosmic tune-up for your workday that focuses on how to create a workflow that is intentional, energizing, and inspiring. You can learn more here.