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🙋♂️ I Might Be On the Edge of Burnout...
🔥 If you are currently in fire-fighting mode and concerned that some degree of emotional debt has already accumulated—the first order of operations is to acknowledge that there is a problem and that the default path is unsustainable. With so much going on we all lose sight of the broader perspective at times, so it’s vital that we have regular check-ins.
❓ Questions to Ask Yourself
Q1. How do I genuinely feel? How does my body feel? Am I tense? How is my quality of sleep? When was the last time I felt deeply relaxed and rejuvenated?
Q2. Have I accumulated emotional significant debt? Does this way of living and working feel sustainable? Do I have tendencies to numb and distract myself? Am I prone to emotional outbursts?
Q3. What is my immediate recovery strategy? What are the non-essential tasks that I can delegate or eliminate to free up time for recovery and self-care? How could I set clear boundaries with my time and energy? What are the activities that nourish me and restore my vitality? Do I need to take time off?
🕵️♂️ Have the Courage to be Curious
Burnout symptoms vary significantly depending on the individual and their respective levels of mental and emotional exhaustion.
Self-care practices are essential for returning to baseline, but it is vital to note that these are ultimately insufficient if not paired with self-inquiry to bring awareness to the underlying internal stressors.
Remember that no matter how much in each moment you are suffering, there are always two choices:
- Numb the pain. Distract, ignore + push down. Close down and carry on.
- Get curious. Have the courage to enquire + feel into the discomfort.
This might sound simple but it is not easy. It takes courage to choose the latter and engage with discomfort. One of the great ironies of walking the path of resilience is that in the moment it feels like weakness.
In the short term, it will be tempting to stay in autopilot, to continue to numb by working longer hours or pretending that the problem will go away, at least until some version of rock-bottom is reached.
😨 Identify & Address Shadow Stressors
For those ready and willing to engage with practices for self-enquiry, a powerful starting point is the following question whom the executive coach Jerry Colonna is fond of asking: ‘In what ways are you complicit in creating the conditions you say you don’t want?’
The word complicit is chosen deliberately since it implies that you are neither fully responsible nor a victim of the circumstances. The question invites honest conversation and self-reflection.
Don’t go down this path alone. Having a coach, therapist or trusted group of fellow leaders on the same path will increase the odds of staying on track when it gets challenging. Below is a sampling of internal stressors with suggestions for countermeasures:
Believing that we have to seek permission from others or ourselves to switch off and recharge.
Permission. Grant yourself permission slip to take time for mental rejuvenation, creative play and physical recovery.
A belief that as leaders we need to be self-reliant and capable of navigating all challenges without outside assistance.
Ask for support. Be willing to ask for emotional support and guidance from trusted peers, family members, therapists, coaches or mentors.
Mistaking commitment for workaholism, stubbornly forging ahead and not listening to physical or emotional warning signs
Self-enquiry. Asking what story or belief might be underneath a perpetual desire to forge ahead, lose sleep or keep your nose to the grindstone at all costs.
Believing that ‘this is just the way it is’—not appreciating that nervous systems and brains are neuroplastic and thus have the capacity to learn and rewire.
Growth mindset. Viewing certain stressors as an opportunity for growth and reframing their context with personal values e.g. “I’m stressed about [XXX] because I deeply care about [YYY]”
Lack of perspective.
Catastrophizing, projecting into the future and imagining current challenges to be insurmountable.
Equanimity. Can be trained through mindfulness practice, untangling identity from work and remembering that ‘this too shall pass’.
Leaders often report experiencing a harsh ‘inner-critic’ which gets in the way of self-care practices.
Kind words. Start collecting ‘kind words’ in a note file on your computer as a reminder of how you have helped others.
📆 Schedule Emotional Regulation Activities in the Calendar
Emotional regulation and self-inquiry practices are the missing piece from many leaders’ toolkits. We define these as self-guided or facilitated practices designed to relieve the burden of accumulated emotional debt.
Gathering information and resources is the first step, but without committed and consistent routines and rituals, meaningful progress will be limited. As a proverb from a Papua New Guinean tribe goes ‘Knowledge is only a rumour until it lives in the muscle’.
As with climbing out of financial debt, they may need to be front-loaded in the beginning and then scheduled on a less frequent basis once the majority of the debt has cleared.
To be clear, strong emotions like anger or frustration will still arise—what will change with practice, is the efficiency with which they are processed and integrated, often resulting in greater self-awareness.
This work is not easy and there is no silver-bullet solution. What matters is a commitment to the process. We recommend diving in and keeping track of your resilience experiments and the insights that emerge. The list below is by no means exhaustive but aims to share some techniques we believe to be effective.
⛑️ Emotional Debt Relief
- 🌬️ Micro-breathwork practices: two minutes of box-breathing, the 4-6-8 technique or alternate nostril breathing have been shown to significantly reduce anxiety, down-regulate the nervous system and increase heart-rate variability. Get started with the Breathwrk app.
- 📝 Expressive writing: a journaling technique that involves writing in a stream-of-consciousness style, for four days in a row, for 20 minutes, about the stressful experience. Backed by over 30+ years of research, this technique has been shown to reduce negative emotions and process emotional debt. Learn more here.
- 🌳 Time in nature: Spending time in the great outdoors is simple yet powerful practice. Studies on forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku) have demonstrated remarkably improving immunity and inflammatory indexes, significantly enhancing people’s emotional state and obvious alleviation of anxiety and depression.
- 🥶 Cold stimulation: taking cold showers or ice-baths are highly effective at increasing heart-rate variability and diminishing stress-related symptoms (you can buy and convert a used chest freezer to use at home)
- 🌬️ Neurodynamic breathwork: this technique of intense breathing for 45-90 minutes has been shown to help nervous system regulation and releasing emotional debt. The method has been adapted from the 3-hour ‘holotropic’ sessions pioneered by Stanislav Grof, to shorter 45-90 minute sessions that are facilitated remotely. We recommend Michael Stone's sessions.
- 🧘 Self-enquiry meditation: specific mindfulness practices can be effective for eliciting and releasing challenging emotions. For example, this free guided meditation designed for cultivating emotional resilience and unpacking sources of internal stressors via the Insight Timer app.
- ✊ Executive coaching: if budget is available—working with an experienced coach to identify blind spots, marshall support to assist with leadership growth and emotional resilience.
- 👪 Virtual peer support circles: one of the simplest and most impactful actions you can take is to join (or create) a virtual peer support circle. These vary in format, but the essence involves creating a safe space to express emotional challenges and forge meaningful connections.
- 👨🏼⚕️ Somatic Therapy: Talk therapy is helpful up to a point (Talkspace is a popular online marketplace) but if possible we also recommend working with a trauma-aware therapist, such as Dr Peter Levine’s somatic experiencing (SE) therapy.
- 🧘 Meditation retreat: Many meditators report not really learning how to meditate until their first retreat. Although not for the faint of heart, 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreats are a common option, popularised recently by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (NB. no need to go all the way to Myanmar). If meditation feels like too much of a leap, try just taking a week off the grid to disconnect, ideally in nature.
- 🖋️ Annual review: Setting aside time to take stock of your life and career, to reflect if you feel aligned and in sync with your life values and current trajectory—as well as set clear intentions and design a roadmap for growth in the year to come.
👪 Community Contributed Resources
🧘 Metta Meditation // "It's a form of meditation that focuses on loving kindness and compassion for yourself and others around you. Little has been as effective for lower my blood pressure and change my mindset. It's especially helpful when in conflict with others"—shared by @jkleske
👪 CTO Craft // "Peer mentoring community for CTOs and other tech leaders, with Mentoring Circles and Coaching. I began the community in response to a lack of support for startup CTOs and a growing rate of burnout and failure among first-timers"—shared by @andyskipper
🧰 Additional Recovery Tools
🧘 Guided Meditation Introductions
- Waking Up App // In-depth 30 day course for beginners by Sam Harris
- Headspace // In particular their series on relieving anxiety
- Responsive Meditation // A guide that unbundles various meditation techniques.
- Oak Meditation // Breathing App (simple and delightfully designed by Kevin Rose)
🌬️ Breathing Techniques + Breathwork
- Breathwrk App // Short breathing practices for nervous system regulation
- Neurodynamic Breathwork // with Michael Stone (try a free session)
👨💻 Wearable Technology + Health Tracking
- MUSE headband // a headband that translates brainwaves into feedback (how it works). Muse also have excellent research + journals.
- Oura Ring // minimal HRV and sleep tracker that gives helpful biofeedback.
🙅♂️ Setting Boundaries
- How to Say No // Templates to help you say no in any situation.
📝 Journaling Courses + Apps
- Reboot your anxiety // free 5-day email course via Reboot
- Reflection.App // beautifully designed journaling app via Holstee
📚 Deeper Reading Guide
📝 Articles & Guides
- Recovering from Burnout by Kieran Tie
- How Micro-stressors can lead to burnout via HBR
- How to take personal development off the backburner via FirstRound
- How to build social connections on a remote team via KnowYourTeam
- The 7 Things the Most Successful People I Know Struggle to Be Happy via Leo Widrich
🎙️ Podcast Episodes
- Podcast Listening Guide (p.52) via Reboot
- Breathwork, The Cure For Anxiety? via Curious Humans
- Interview with Brad Feld via The Tim Ferriss Show
Atomic Habits by James Clear
- Deep Work by Cal Newport
🙋♂️ Recommended Executive Coaches
We aim to populate this list with vetted and world-class coaches who are nominated and highly recommended by those we trust.