As the pandemic and its social impacts drag on, we increasingly hear reports of people feeling burned out. While it’s not the case for everyone, for a sizable portion of the population the uncertainty, instability, and new mechanics for both work and daily life are deeply confusing, even without layering on the immediate experience of illness or loss. For some, this is accompanied by a sense of guilt, exhaustion and / or overwhelm. If you fall into this latter camp, this Sensemaker is for you.
Many of us who succeed at demanding jobs got into these roles because we refuse to stop – because we’re always willing to put in the extra mile, take on the extra challenge, push ourselves a little harder to bend reality to be what we want.
And the challenge is that there really are some realities we can’t bend – that COVID is real, that the resources we’re used to counting on aren’t there, that many of the support structures we had from office life aren’t available, that we may have children or other people in our lives facing disruptions of their own and we simply can’t do it all.
When faced with that limit, many people whose self-structures are based on output go into spirals of guilt and shame – that if they can just do more, wake up earlier, go to bed later, that somehow everything can be taken care of. But it can’t. And the harder people push, the less energy they actually have to do things well. And as those things drop, the guilt voice just gets louder and demands more.
In other words, it’s a confusion spiral. We’ve all lost many of our everyday touchpoints (like being in the office) on top of macro uncertainty. This means that our brains are trying to make sense of a new, uncertain context, without the typical signals that help us make sense of it. When we can’t make sense of things, we’ll almost always retreat into fear narratives about ourselves and others. This, in turn, limits our ability to achieve the goals we actually care about.
So what can you do?
- Recognize the trap. See the guilt voice telling you to do more and remind yourself you’re human and that that comes with limits, and it’s ok
- Connect to what really matters to you. Your children and coworkers don’t need a machine. They need a human who can be with them and set that norm as they face these fears and disruptions themselves. If what you really want is to show up for those around you, then it might mean letting go of the idea that the main thing the people around you need is output, and that what they might need most of all is your honesty, vulnerability, and willingness to make being a limited human ok.
- Sync with those around you on where your work fits into the bigger picture. What is most important to achieve right now? Do your current goals / responsibilities still map to that, or has COVID changed that picture? What do you need to prioritize if your capacity is limited?
- Dial down your to-do list to the essentials. A lot of what you think has to be done in 6 hours can be done in 48 – the voice pushing the urgency is more often than not yours. No one’s going to die. And for the truly urgent work, identify it, then create space for it by pushing the other things out. See what happens when you worry less about how much you’re doing, and how present you can be for what really matters, based on what you clarified in the prior two steps.
- Communicate expectations clearly to those around you. Often times when we tell ourselves others are expecting something it’s just a hall of mirrors echoing the expectations we’ve set for ourselves (that they themselves may be responding to!) Normalize dealing with reality and the limits it brings. Let people know to expect longer response times on certain things, and that they need to be clear themselves on what’s urgent and what’s not.
- How has COVID affected your output (or not?)
- How have you related to that change?
- What stories do you tell yourself to feel good about yourself?
- Can you connect to other sources of meaning if you let those stories go?
Create two columns. On top of one write “firm”, on the other “personal.”
For each area, write down:
- The big picture vision.
- Your understanding of the current most important goals and how they support that vision
- How you understand those goals to have changed (or not) because of Covid.
Then take a moment to look at that picture, and write down a few hypotheses for how you could change your responsibilities or try new things to help achieve those goals.
For each new action you want to take on, pick one action in your current life to deprioritize that doesn’t as clearly link to those goals.