• James

Are You on the Road to Burnout? I was. Coaching and Self-Care Saved Me.

Updated: Mar 6, 2018

The Mayo Clinic asks the following questions to assess one's risk of burnout.

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?

  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive?

  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?

  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?

  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?

  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?

  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?

  • Have your sleep habits or appetite changed?

  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints?

  • Do you identify so strongly with work that you lack a reasonable balance between your work life and your personal life?

If you answered "yes" to any of the questions above, you may be at risk for burnout. And that leads me to ask, why do some people succeed at levels beyond imagination, while others work with constant struggle and frustration? I believe it comes down to how they manage their psychology, physiology and productivity. Think about it. If you're having trouble mastering your mind, your body and your ability to get things done, then frustration, overwhelm and struggle are the likely results. But people who master those three areas (mind, body and action) change their lives in profound ways. And it's inevitable. When you take control of your mind, body and action, you do more than just survive, you thrive.

So what are you waiting for? If you answered yes to any of the above, the sooner you take action, the sooner your life will change for the better. And I wish I had taken action sooner. Ten years ago I was a young attorney, fresh from the bar exam, ready to take on the legal world. I was leaving my clerkship and headed to the public defender agency. I'd already interned there during my second summer of law school. And I thought I knew what to expect: a community of awesome people who believe as strongly in defending the accused—and our federal and state constitutions—as they do about getting outside and enjoying the wilderness that we're so lucky to share. What I didn't expect about the never-a-dull-moment, fast-paced action of defending people, was how quickly I would develop a 24-hour-a-day sense of anxiety and overwhelm. Why? Because I always wanted more time on every single case—more time with my client, more time to review discovery, more time for investigation, more time to write motions, more time to think about it all, more time, more time, more time. And more time simply wasn't available.

Public defense is the legal world’s equivalent of the emergency room. There isn’t more time. There is only now. The work is all about triage. Even if I were to get more time to work on case A, cases B – Z would roll in the door in the meantime. And I’d want more time on those cases too. Where would all of that time come from?

Working as a public defender feels like being a plastic surgeon working in a M.A.S.H. (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit, a battlefield operating room. You're doing everything that your time and the conditions allow, but you know that if you'd had more time, you could’ve fixed that guy's face a little prettier, so maybe he'd look like Brad Pitt from Fight Club rather than Sloth from Goonies. He's alive though! You did your job. You saved his life. It just wasn’t pretty. But I digress. The point here is that I literally spent every waking hour of my first year as an attorney thinking (i.e., worrying) about clients, their cases and how I was going to get everything done.

Despite the anxiety, I was successful in my work. And I quickly moved up the ranks of increasing responsibility. But every professional gain was, unbeknownst to me, sewing the seeds of a personal crisis. I was fueling and maintaining the work machine. But I was neglecting the all-important foundation on which my work depended, namely me, the James Machine. Little by little, the neglect took its toll on me. The personal decline began imperceptibly, like the boiling of a frog. You know the saying, toss a frog into boiling water and he'll leap out. But toss a frog into tepid water and you can slowly boil him for dinner. I've never cooked a frog and I have to believe there are more humane ways of doing it. But you get the point, failing to properly fuel and maintain the James Machine led me to waking up one day completely overwhelmed and with my personal life in shambles. I'd suddenly become aware that the water was boiling.

I was both the frog and the cook.

I felt stuck. I felt frozen. I felt powerless. It was utterly debilitating. I felt like all I could do was put one foot in front of the other and keep my head down as life hurled boulders down upon me. And because I was keeping my head down, I also couldn't see any way out of my situation. My wonderful girlfriend was unhappy with our relationship and I could tell she was on the verge of breaking up with me. And when she tried to talk with me about things, I felt like a deer in headlights—I couldn't talk about anything. I was immobilized, just waiting to be plowed over by the convoy of Mack Trucks headed my way. The only solution I could think of was running away from everything, which clearly wasn't an option. So I remained frozen. I kept my head down as the boulders continued to pummel me. I felt like I had zero personal resources to do anything beyond my work. And after a six-month period of five very difficult trials and months of neglecting my personal life, my girlfriend understandably broke up with me.

And she kept our dog. (To be fair, she won our custody coin toss. But that didn't make it hurt any less.)

That's when I hit rock bottom. I mean you can take a man's heart but taking his dog too? The dam that had been keeping all of that stress, anxiety and overwhelm just below the surface—behind a fortress of rebar and concrete—that dam broke to release a tsunami-like tidal wave and flood of biblical proportions. Not to mix metaphors but--I’m going to mix metaphors. Or maybe that was a metaphor and this is a similie: it felt like I'd been dropped from an airplane to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (or perhaps the Marianas Trench) and bounced off all of the space junk, mountains, rocks and sharp coral reefs on my way down. Literally, everything in my body hurt. I seriously hurt from the top of my head all the way to the tips of my toes. It was unbelievable. I went to psychotherapy, which helped to address the emotional component of my bounce-off-every-hard-thing-till-you-reach-the-bottom-and-bounce-once-more-for-good-measure fall. But therapy was patently unhelpful in getting me to take better care of the James Machine. That is, therapy helped me deal with the temporary emotional upheaval I was experiencing. But therapy didn’t give me the keys or the accountability to positively change my life for the better. In other words, therapy was shockingly bad at inspiring me and holding me accountable to do self-care.

“What the heck is ‘self-care?’" you ask. Well, I'm a fan of this definition from Wikipedia.

“In health care, self-care is any necessary human regulatory function which is under individual control, deliberate and self-initiated. Some place self-care on a continuum with health care providers at the opposite end to self-care. In modern medicine, preventive medicine aligns most closely with self-care.”

In other words, if you don’t take care of yourself then you're likely to end up asking a doctor to care for you. Self-care is as simple as that. It’s preventive medicine that may not involve “medicine” at all. Instead, it might involve eating well, exercising, meditating, reflecting, etc. Self-care involves you deliberately caring for the things in your life that are under your control. And that deliberate care is self-initiated.

Need some help with initiative?

That's where coaching comes into the picture. In many areas of our lives we know the things that we should be doing to be successful but we're just not doing them. We know we should exercise, eat well, reduce stress . . . . But often those things fall by the wayside in the face of what we see as competing obligations of higher importance. For example, we cut corners on caring for our body in order to have more time to work, more time with the kids, more time for whatever. Of course, there will always be a balance that we need to strike. And different things will always move up our priority list depending on whether it’s the roof that’s leaking or a wheel that’s squeaking. For me and many others, coaching has been helpful in striking that balance more gracefully and giving attention to long-neglected self-care in order to prevent some cataclysms before they happen. In other words, coaching can help prevent burnout at work, relationship failures at home and some health crises.

Here’s how coaching got me out of the depths of the Marianas Trench and back to living a vibrant life. For me, it was all about getting external accountability that supported my best self. I can make excuses for myself all day long on why I can skip exercise for work, or excuses for why X, Y or Z didn't get done in my personal life. And I can burn the work candle at both ends, at the expense of self-care. But now I know that the James Machine will physically fail without proper fuel and maintenance. The piper is going to want his due someday. Having a coach in my corner, who helps me cultivate my best self, helps prevent me from sacrificing the James Machine on the exalted altar of Work (without diminishing the importance of a job well-done). In other words, coaching helps prevent burnout by helping keep things in perspective. I can't get away with making excuses to my coach and my clients can't make excuses to me. Well . . . I suppose we can all try to get away with excuses, but we know our coach is going to call us on our bull.

So what have I accomplished and what have my clients accomplished through coaching?

  • waking each morning with ample energy and positive energy to set the tone for the day

  • achieving diet, exercise/fitness and mobility goals

  • cutting out alcohol and soda, cutting out junk carbs, developing a regular yoga practice, developing intermittent fasting and multi-day fasting protocols for health and longevity, losing weight, lowering cholesterol, reducing fasting blood glucose, reducing high blood pressure

  • experiencing sustained energy throughout the day (no afternoon slumps that demand coffee or cookies for energy salvation)

  • achieving mindset goals

  • developing a daily meditation practice, developing a daily gratitude practice, completing a 10-day silent meditation retreat

  • being unruffled, unperturbed, undisturbed by the previously-triggering actions of others

  • communicating better at work and in personal relationships

  • having a sense of calm confidence throughout the day

  • achieving lifestyle goals

  • making clear and confident decisions about career changes

  • reigniting long-neglected passions like music and painting

  • actively creating the life one wants to live versus the one that's playing out by default.

These results are just a sample of the incredible accomplishments that clients and I continue to make on a daily basis. Self-care starts with you. But it's not limited to you. I'm ready to help you move beyond the stress, the noise and the overwhelm that's been holding you back. I'm ready to help you build the happy and thriving life you deserve. If you’re ready too. Let's get started!

P.S. Now I have my own dog. (Or a more accurate description may be that Fozzie has me.)

P.P.S. Coaching is just one of many solutions. Regardless of whether you choose to work with me, I encourage you to take action and care for yourself to avoid burnout. The Mayo Clinic recommends:

  • Manage the stressors that contribute to job burnout. Once you've identified what's fueling your feelings of job burnout, you can make a plan to address the issues.

  • Evaluate your options. Discuss specific concerns with your supervisor. Perhaps you can work together to change expectations or reach compromises or solutions. Is job sharing an option? What about telecommuting or flexing your time? Would it help to establish a mentoring relationship? What are the options for continuing education or professional development?

  • Adjust your attitude. If you've become cynical at work, consider ways to improve your outlook. Rediscover enjoyable aspects of your work. Recognize co-workers for valuable contributions or a job well-done. Take short breaks throughout the day. Spend time away from work doing things you enjoy.

  • Seek support. Whether you reach out to co-workers, friends or loved ones, support and collaboration might help you cope with job stress and feelings of burnout. If you have access to an employee assistance program (EAP), take advantage of the available services.

  • Assess your interests, skills and passions. An honest assessment can help you decide whether you should consider an alternative job, such as one that's less demanding or one that better matches your interests or core values.

  • Get some exercise. Regular physical activity can help you to better deal with stress. It can also help you get your mind off work and focus on something else.

  • Get some sleep. Sleeps restores well-being and helps protect your health. Aim for at least 7-8 hours each night.

  • And of course there's always whisky. I'M KIDDING! (That's not a solution. But it is delicious.)


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