3 Ways to Break Through When You’re Burning Out and Ready for a Change
In the midst of particularly hard days when I feel that I can’t endure, I remind myself that my track record for getting through hard days is 100% so far.
On my birthday many moons ago, when Google and I were both a lot younger, I Googled “how to change your life when you’re burning out” to see what would come up. I had been feeling hopelessly trapped in a cycle of busyness—like I was racing around in circles every day without any meaningful progress. And it was time to find a better roadmap because I was literally getting depressed with the same old grind.
Granted, I was working 60+ hours a week, struggling with a failing business, and coping with the recent deaths of two loved ones. The stress and pace of life just seemed to keep me busy from sunrise to midnight every day without much time for self-reflection or mindfulness, and deep down I knew the head-spinning, circular path I was on wasn’t sustainable.
As I scrolled through Google’s search results I was fascinated by the overwhelming quantity of books, articles and quotes all designed to motivate a person to take positive action and make positive changes. Messages of “Let Go and Move On” or “Be Present” were plentiful! However, nothing truly clicked with me. I was looking for guidance that was a bit more specific—guidance like “Walk seven blocks down Main Street and turn right onto Sunshine Drive. Your ‘better’ path begins there.”
Finding Space to Self-Reflect
I continued to read and look for a new set of directions I could follow, and then it hit me. My losses and personal turmoil had me running and hiding from my problems. I was doing an incredible job being incredibly busy, but I had never stopped to sort out my thoughts and figure out exactly why I was doing what I was doing. My need to provide for my family and ease the pain endured from failure and loss fueled my mindlessness. I was using these circumstances as excuses for not sorting out my priorities, and thus I got stuck in a cycle of futile busyness that was burning me out.
I recognized that in order to truly move my life forward, I first had to step on the brakes. I had to give myself the time and space to sort things out.
When I did pause, I began to think of the summer after my high school graduation. My thoughts time-traveled back to those days when I felt like possibilities awaited me in every imaginable direction. I had been accepted to a great university, I was young and ambitious, and I was ready to conquer my dreams. But remembering this didn’t make me feel better. In fact, over a decade later, trying to look at the world through this youthful lens for more than a few minutes only made me feel more restless.
The Good Advice I Needed
Maybe it’s the life lessons I was forced to learn the hard way, or the toll of pain and failure, but I had to admit to myself right then and there that the youthful world of possibility felt a whole lot scarier and riskier this time around. I wanted to be passionate and productive again, but I didn’t know how, until my wise mom gave me some good advice. She told me that she could still see the positive, passionate young man inside of me, but that I needed to do some soul searching to reconnect myself to him.
As I attempted to follow my mom’s advice, I remembered that I used to have two quotes written on post-it notes hanging on my bedroom wall when I was a kid:
- “Accept what is, let go of what was, and have faith in your journey.”
- “Don’t be scared to walk alone down the path less traveled, and don’t be scared to love every minute of it.”
So, I wrote the two quotes down again just as I remembered them, and posted them up on the wall over my nightstand. I woke up to these quotes every morning for several years thereafter, and they helped keep me centered.
I also took tiny steps, day in and day out, until I knew I was finally moving down the right path again. For anybody else who feels burnt out and without a real sense of how to take the next step forward, I offer the following ideas. They are simple, actionable lessons that kept me moving forward when I decided it was time for a change. Perhaps they will help you, too…
1. Let visual reminders keep you focused and on track.
You can post meaningful quotes on your bedroom wall, or find a coffee a mug that has a motivational message on it (mine says “Every Day is an Opportunity”). But you can also take it a step further than that too…
Few good things come easy, and when the going gets tough we often take the easy way out even though the easy way takes us the wrong way.
To combat this, I create tangible reminders that pull me back from the brink of my weak impulses. For example, I have my laptop’s desktop background set to a photo of my family, both because I love looking at them and because, when work gets really rough, these photos remind me of the people I am ultimately working for.
And I’m not the only one who’s successfully using this strategy…
A friend of mine who has paid off almost $100K of debt in the past five years has a copy of his credit card balance taped to his computer monitor; it serves as a constant reminder of the debt he still wants to pay off. Another friend keeps a photo of herself when she was 90 pounds heavier on her refrigerator as a reminder of the person she never wants to be again.
Think of moments when you are most likely to give in to impulses that ultimately burn you out and take you farther away from what matters most to you. Then use visual reminders to interrupt the impulses and rebuild the momentum and inner passion that keeps you on the right track.
Your ultimate goal is living a life uncluttered by most of the impulsive distractions people fill their lives with, leaving you with space for what truly matters. A life that isn’t constant busyness, rushing and resistance, but instead mindful contemplation, creation and connection with people and endeavors that truly matter.
2. Stop waiting for that elusive spark of passion.
Even with a healthy set of visual reminders and good focus, the grind will sometimes burn you out…
Your body may eventually grow weary, you may lie awake some nights listening to your past regrets, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you overcome by negativity, or know your respect has been trampled on by unfriendly faces. Life happens! And there’s no doubt that it gets hard at times.
That said, there is one action for daily healing and “breaking through” that works every time: BEING passionate with the small task in front of you. That’s the only positive effort that a battered mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or doubt, and never dream of regretting.
And you don’t have to wait either. You don’t have to search around or “find passion” somewhere outside yourself. You can simply bring passion into the very next thing you do today. You can put your whole heart and soul into it! Again though, that’s easier said than done. Consider these questions I presented in a blog post a few months back:
- When was the last time you sat down, or picked up the phone, and had a conversation with someone you love, with zero distractions and 100% focus?
- When was the last time you exercised, and literally put every bit of effort you could muster into it?
- When was the last time you truly tried—I mean TRULY tried—to do your very best?
Be honest with yourself right now. If you’re still waiting to “find” something to be passionate about, what you need to do is the exact opposite!
Put your heart and soul into the small task at hand!
I’m certain you have plenty in your life right now that’s worth living for. You have people and lots of small circumstances you’re taking for granted. You have an endless reservoir of untapped potential within you, just waiting.
There is no next opportunity, only the one you have at this moment.
Put your heart and soul (and gratitude) into what you’ve got right in front of you!
3. Give things you can’t control a little more space.
“If you want to control your animals, give them a larger pasture.” That’s a quote Angel and I heard at a meditation retreat recently in a group discussion focused on the power of changing your attitude about the things you can’t change or don’t need to change.
I see “the animals” and their “larger pasture” as a form of letting go and allowing things to be the way they are—instead of trying to tightly control something, you’re loosening up, giving it more space, a larger pasture. The animals will be happier—they will roam around and do what they naturally do. And yet your needs will be met too—you will have more space to be at peace with the way the animals are.
This same philosophy holds true for many aspects of life—stepping back and allowing certain things to happen means these things will take care of themselves, and your needs will also be met. You will have less stress (and less to do), and more time and energy to work on the things that truly matter—the things you actually can control—like your priorities, your self-care, and your attitude about everything.
Ultimately, as you move forward, you want to keep in mind that one of the greatest secrets to peace and happiness is letting most situations be what they are instead of what you think they should be, and then making the best of them.
(Note: the three points above are part of a skill set Angel and I hone with our students in the “Goals and Growth” module of the Getting Back to Happy Course.)
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