The Burnout Kickstart Program: step 5

How did you go with your goal from the last module? Was it easier than you thought? Harder than you thought? Were there challenges you didn’t expect? Did you lack the energy to follow through with it? These are some of the things we’ll explore in this module.

Often when you first start making changes, you don’t get it all perfect first try. You need to make tweaks and changes as you go. Experiment. You may even discover that what you initially thought was the problem was actually just a symptoms of a deeper problem. And as you peel back those layers, you discover the real underlying issues. And you can’t rush that process of self-discovery and analysis.

Journalling questions as you reflect upon your experience of trying to achieve your goal so far:

  1. What worked well?
  2. What didn’t work well?
  3. Has it uncovered other issues that need to be addressed?
  4. Has it brought to light new barriers to making change and achieving your goal?

Temptation and Barriers

When we identify a new goal, and make a plan for how we’ll achieve it, we often think of the best-case-scenario as we consider the practical implementation. Especially if we can really see the benefit that goal’s going to give us, and we’re really excited about achieving it. I hope you have found a goal that you feel a bit like that with. But the danger is that we start trying to do it, we hit the first hurdle, and we decide it’s all too hard and give up. And when you’re already depleted and burnt-out, this is going to happen even more easily.

So, what we’re going to do in this step is try to identify as many things as we can that might put up those hurdles or stumbling blocks, and plan in advance what we’ll do about them.

Temptations and Barriers

The environment around you has a large impact on how successful you are in achieving behavioural changes. If you have something around you that’s frequently tempting you to revert to an old pattern of behaviour, or behave in a way that wont help you to reach your goal, then it’s obviously much harder to follow through with your intentions. 

This environment is something you can usually modify to a certain extent, and if you can do this then you reduce mental barriers and require less will-power or self-control. You can also reduce physical barriers, by reducing the amount of steps you need to go through to achieve the altered behaviour, or to make it so that less physical energy is required to accomplish a task.

Let’s start use an example to demonstrate how this works in practice. For this scenario, let’s say you have realised that your evenings watching TV by default aren’t providing the enjoyment or relaxation that you really need in your life right now. As a result, you’ve decided that you’d feel much more refreshed and recharged for the next day if you could spend some of that time drawing – a hobby you loved many years ago, but which dwindled away as you became busier and burnt-out.

If you draw on the couch, where the TV is, then there will be a mental temptation to watch TV instead, or not draw for as long. By drawing in a different location, you reduce that temptation and increase your chances of following through with what you intended and reaping those benefits you really want.

If you store your drawing supplies in the back room, in a box, behind the spare bed, then there’s a physical and time barrier to getting them out to use. Especially when you’re tired after a long day, that extra effort will feel like too much. By moving the supplies you need to somewhere easy to access and near the location you want to use them, you make it much more likely that you will draw. If you keep them in clear sight, then it also provides you with a visual reminder that you want to do that task.

Print out this worksheet and complete the first section, identifying anything in your environment that may act as a mental or physical barrier, and what you could do to reduce the barrier and optimise your chance of completing your goal.

Managing a slip

Any time you want to make a change in life, it’s inevitable there will be slips along the way. For some of you, these slips might make you even more determined to achieve the goal. For others, they’ll be discouraging, and make you feel like you want to give up. When it does happen, try not to see it as a failure, or a sign of weakness. It’s normal. We need to use this as opportunity to show ourselves kindness and compassion, which is something that of us are not particularly good at. But it’s not helpful to berate ourselves, and give ourselves a very stern lecture! In fact, the evidence shows that this type of harsh response reduces your chance of success.

The trick with slips is to try to view them in a more positive light, and to have a plan so that you can get back on track so that the slip doesn’t turn into a relapse into old patterns of behaviour.

Using the same PDF you printed for ‘Temptations and barriers’, you can complete the ‘Slips Management Table’. First, you will identify triggers that are likely to cause a slip. You might need to think back to any previous time you’ve tried to address this goal (or a similar goal). If you observe your behaviour patterns over the next few days as you try to implement this change, you’ll notice new things that you can add to this table later.

For each trigger, write down what your usual response is. Then, write down what the alternative response is which helps you achieve your goal.

Let’s say, for example, you’ve noticed that when you get stressed at work you end up eating excess sweet foods, and this leaves you feeling tired and doesn’t actually help the situation. Instead, your goal is to go outside and get some fresh air when you feel stressed, as you have found that particularly helpful in the past. You might complete the table like this:

Each slip is a new learning opportunity. Try to observe yourself with curiosity, and reflect on what happened and why. If you can identify the circumstances and triggers, then you can use your plan to reduce the chance of it happening again or plan for an alternative action. It can be helpful to process this in a way that helps you view the situation from a different angle – you might write your thoughts down in your journal, or talk through the problem with a friend or health professional.

When you have a slip, it’s also helpful to look back through your goal plan to remind yourself of why you’re doing this, and what those strategies were that you originally came up with for achieving it.

And remember the self-compassion and kindness we nee to show ourselves in these moments. You might say to yourself a phrase such as:

I feel disappointed and sad that I have had this slip. But everyone has slips when they try to make changes or achieve new goals. I need to be kind to myself right now.

You might provide some physical comfort along with this – a hot cup of tea, a snuggle in bed with a good book, or some pampering.

Give yourself time and comfort. Read back over your plan, remind yourself of all those things you hope for as you recover from burnout, and that this first goal is moving you further towards that. Then move forward gently.

Seek Support

Humans are naturally social creatures. Even people who are shy and withdrawn are strongly affected by their place in society and their connection with others. The importance of these relationships is equally relevant when we’re trying to reach goals or make changes.

It’s helpful to find someone who you can share this process with. A trusted friend, a family member, a colleague, or maybe someone acting in a professional role such as a doctor or psychologist.

If you can tell someone else about your intentions, then you’re more likely to stick to it. You may tell someone else who wants to commit to the same goal, which adds an extra element of understanding and comradery. But it doesn’t have to be – it may just be someone you trust to share your thoughts, successes, disappointments, and struggles with.

The idea of communicating with someone else about your struggles might feel daunting. When we’re burnt-out, we lack energy and motivation, we’re exhausted, and the last thing we feel like is socialising. We’re exhausted. We struggle to have the emotional energy to hear about how other people are going and provide any support that they need. It’s easier to withdraw, and so we often end up quite socially isolated.

But re-engagement with our social networks is a really important part of recovering from burnout. And you don’t want to be waiting until you feel like it. It’s good to push yourself a little bit and connect with people even when you don’t particularly feel like it.

You don’t have to suddenly start going out to parties or opening up publicly about your struggles. At this point, it’s about finding at least one person who you trust, and you know has your best interests at heart.  Generally, your friends want to be there for you. They want to support you. So if you share your struggles with burnout, you’re not going to be a burden to them. You’re providing them with an opportunity to share you and strengthen your connection. These are the kinds of things that deepen our relationships and benefit everyone involved.

So I challenge you to be vulnerable. Let someone know your struggles, and invite them to be a part of supporting you as you try to achieve this first big goal towards recovery.

Celebrating Achievement

As we’ve talked about before, when we’re burnt-out, we tend to be very self-critical and judgemental. Even moreso if we have perfectionist personalities, and feel that we never quite live up to those high standards we hold ourselves to.

When we find things difficult, or don’t meet the expectations of ourselves or others, we need to be gentle and kind to ourselves. We need to learn the valuable skill of self-compassion.

But what about when things go well?

When we achieve something, we often don’t truly see it as an achievement. We brush it aside as insignificant. We might see it as unworthy of celebration when it sits in the midst of our perceived failures in life.

This response isn’t helped by our basic human psychology. We’re hard-wired to look out for threats, and pay attention to them. We need to know if a lion’s coming at us, or a fire’s approaching. And these things need to stand out in our mind so that we can not only respond to them in the moment, but consider afterwards how we can prevent it from happening again or handle it better in the future. In contrast, our mind minimises positive things. We don’t notice positive things as much, and we forget them more quickly.

We have to be quite deliberate about it if we want to try to combat these natural psychological tendencies. We need to take note when we observe these positive elements of life passing by, and grab onto them before the memory disappears.

When something good happens, we can magnify it in our mind so that we can really feel that happiness or achievement. If we can do that, it gives your brain a little hit of dopamine, which activates the pleasure centre, and your brain will want you to repeat that behaviour to get that next hit of dopamine. This has a positive effect on our mood for days, weeks, or even months.

So as you embark upon the process of achieving this new goal, I want you to consider how you’ll celebrate. And not just at the end, but along the way.

What little milestones will you reach along the way? How will you celebrate? Will it be a mental pat on the back and self-congratulations? Or is there a more physical way that this celebration will take place?

And what will you do at the end, when this goal is achieved, or when the new habit or behaviour is established? How can you reward all that hard work?

Goals are not always easy to achieve. Changes to your behaviour are difficult, especially if It’s been going on for a long time and become habitual, which is usually the case with behaviours that have contributed to burnout. You only have to consider how many people set lofty new year’s resolutions each year and keep them for mere days or weeks (or hours!) to realise how hard it is.

So you earn a sense of achievement every step of the day.

Take a moment to use this worksheet to plan your rewards.

Well Done!

You’ve made it through steps 4 and 5, which are both quite heavy modules, as you’ve worked your way through selecting a big relevant goal, clarifying that goal, and setting up a structure around it so that you’re prepared for challenges and give yourself the best chance of success.

Keep going with implementing your new goal this week, using your worksheet from this step to help you.

Don’t forget about those things we covered in steps 1-3 as well. As we go through this process, you still need to be creating time in your schedule for self-care, and eliminating any unessential commitments.

In the next step, we’ll look at how draw together all the things you’ve learnt in this program into a solid starting point that you can sustain as you continue with burnout recovery.