Sharing My Story …
I have already shared my personal story of brain overload and burnout with some of you, as well as some of the advice in this post, and I want to share it here again as I believe that, while we all have a bit of time out from our normal routines during the current crisis, it is a good time for a re-think of how we’ve been working and how we want to work going forward.
In 2014, I was blissfully unaware on a conscious level that I was overloaded and at risk of burnout. My business was growing at a double-digit rate, our client base was expanding, our team had doubled in size, and we were designing and releasing several new products and services. I loved being so busy and I thought I was managing my busyness and stress levels, but I was in fact ignoring my own health and wellbeing by not taking time to look after my body, mind, and spirit. I was overwhelmed.
It impacted not only my health and capacity, but also my family and my business. When I went to the doctor for my routine annual ‘warrant of fitness’, I was shocked to find out, for the first time in my life, my blood pressure was 160/110. A 24-hour assessment proved that this was not an outlier. I had a problem.
My always-on lifestyle had become a habit. I habitually said yes to everyone. I habitually multi-tasked and checked my phone while talking to colleagues and friends. I habitually filled my calendar with appointments without enough time between them and went back to my office after dinner and on weekends. I habitually read every single email and article in my line of sight. I habitually walked past my home gym and left my bike in the shed and ate easy processed food. And I habitually ‘hardened up’ and carried on like a ‘good Kiwi’.
The cracks had begun to show and it was inevitable that this would eventually lead to burnout as well as the manifestation of my physical illness.
Over time, through various channels, I discovered strategies which helped me change my habits and quite literally turn my life, health, and business around. I’m not claiming to follow all this advice all the time, but I realise that even making some small changes can make a big difference. In this article, I share with you my learning and insights in the hope that they may also be useful to you and your business.
Are You and Your Business Overloaded and Overwhelmed?
Most small or medium-sized enterprises are characterised by lean teams, limited resources, and tight finances. As a result, they face many challenges.
As a business owner or entrepreneur we wear multiple hats. We must be managers, leaders, coaches, sales superstars, marketers, administrators, accountants, and more. Our never-ending list of responsibilities pushes us to decide faster, change faster, communicate faster, sit faster, stand faster, eat faster, dress faster, drive faster, read faster, sleep faster.
We are expected to achieve higher, perform better, and help others achieve higher and perform better. It can sometimes feel like nothing is enough.
In recent interviews, 51% of NZ SME owners said that work/life balance was one of their biggest issues and 41% reported that they had problems with time management.
As well as burnout and health issues, a poor work/life balance and a feeling of being overwhelmed and overloaded are linked directly to staff inefficiency, low morale, and poor business performance.
When we are hyper-focused on day-to-day detail and have too much input coming in through the senses, we have no time to step back, ask for help, look at the big picture, or reflect, especially when we add our good ol’ Kiwi pride to the mix.
If You’re Overwhelmed And Overloaded, There’s A Good Chance Your People Are Too
One thing often overlooked in studies of leadership and in leadership development programmes is the truth that followers pick up far more from their leaders than competence and functional success; they also pick up ways of thinking – philosophy – about how to live and work.
Pause for a moment and ask yourself: If your colleagues all became more like you, would that be good for them? What if they were to eat like you, drink like you, exercise, sleep, and relax like you? What if they formed and maintained relationships like you do, managed their finances and planned their lives like you?
Are they fulfilled and productive or overworked, unhappy, and candidates for burnout?
Remember that your mindset and energy is projected outwards, for example in your behaviour, so will affect those you work with, your customers, and your business as a whole.
What Contributes To Brain Overload, ADT, And Ultimately Burnout?
You may recognise some of these contributing factors in your own life:
- Torrents of information coming in through your senses
- Too many tasks on the to-do list and coming in each day
- Relentless requests from staff and clients
- Constant change of context and goalposts
- Having too big a wish list and expecting to achieve everything on it
- Wearing too many hats and not giving staff ownership
- Email, phones, text messages, and being ‘on call’
- The pressure to regularly interact on social media
- Continually figuring out & trying to keep up with new technology
- The need to stay up-to-date in fast-changing industries
- Family and social commitments
- Addiction to speed. Expecting everything yesterday.
In my case, I experienced quite a few of the things on this list and it was clear that the way I was living and working was simply not sustainable.
Global Wave Of Brain Overload And Attention Deficit Trait (ADT)
It’s not just us! Brain overload, and the recently recognised neurological disorder Attention Deficit Trait (ADT), is increasingly common in the workplace and especially amongst entrepreneurs and small business owners. Unlike Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), which often requires medication, ADT is entirely dependent on environment and, with commitment, is preventable and curable. ADT isn’t an illness, says Psychologist Edward Hallowell, who coined the name, but a response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live.
In New Zealand, we are already in the early stages of an epidemic of stress-related illnesses. The stats have been telling us this for a while now, but perhaps most of us think it won’t happen to us. For many people, pills, caffeine/alcohol, or quick, cheap thrills mask it or make it slightly easier to cope with, until their health packs up completely.
We cannot continue in survival mode long-term without facing serious consequences. It gets worse and worse until we reach burnout and our immune system (which is always set to the stressful ‘fight or flight’ mode with no respite) becomes overwhelmed.
Signs & Symptoms Of Brain Overload And ADT
Studies have shown that as the human brain is asked to process dizzying amounts of data, its ability to solve problems flexibly and creatively declines and the number of mistakes increases.
Here are some of the common signs and symptoms of brain overload and ADT:
Lower attention span and easily distracted
Impatience, boredom, irritability
Feelings of panic/anxiety or ‘inner frenzy’
Pretending everything is ok
Dropping the ball
Guilt that you can’t keep up
Survival mode and feel rushed in everything you do
Hard to think clearly
Black and white thinking – rushing tasks and decisions
Reduced sense of humour
Increased friction in relationships
Losing sight of big picture goals/purpose/values
Blaming others, going into denial or avoidance mode
Headaches, migraines, tight muscles
What is your dashboard telling you? Have you noticed any changes in your general state lately? What about the quality of your connections with the people around you?
If you start to feel overwhelmed and overloaded, try one or all of the following:
Stop what you’re doing
Move around or change to an easy task
Ask for help
Spend five minutes doing a mundane task (preferably away from the computer screen) such as a crossword puzzle, word search, or playing a musical instrument. These little tasks quieten your lower brain by tricking it into shutting off alarmist messages and puts your frontal lobes back in full control.
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7 Strategies To Avoid and Manage Brain Overload And Burnout
The world we live in is not going to slow down any time soon and the amount of information and the number of distractions will only continue to grow. This is why most common advice such as managing your time, multitasking better, and being more organised are not enough. Instead, you have to retrain your attention and manage your energy.
ADT can be prevented and controlled by engineering one’s environment and one’s emotional and physical health.
Here are some tips to help you and the people you work with in your business, prevent, limit, and control ADT and overload which can lead to burnout:
1. Promote positive emotions and create a positive and connected environment
- Ensure expectations are realistic and achievable.
- Choose carefully the people you have on your team. Healthy relationships and connections nourish the soul, while unhealthy ones deprive and crush it.
- Make time for connection with others. Business leaders who work in physical isolation are more likely to suffer from ADT. In a survey, 80% of NZ business owners reported a sense of isolation as one of their biggest issues (Statistics NZ). We all need support. Find a close friend or business coach and get together on a regular basis to talk about your business culture, environment, and how to make them work better.
- Give as much importance to your employees’ emotional health as you do to their productivity. Emotional state drives the quality of our focus.
2. Take physical care of your brain and your body
Underestimating and undervaluing the importance of sleep is a huge mistake. When we sleep our body repairs itself, regenerates our cells, and recharges our batteries. If you’re still expecting to function optimally on little or poor quality sleep, have a read of Ariana Huffington’s books The Sleep Revolution and Thrive as a starting point.
A good rule of thumb is that you’re getting enough sleep if you can wake up early feeling refreshed without an alarm clock.
Many hardworking people habitually consume refined carbohydrates and sugary foods, which cause blood glucose levels to yo-yo. The brain does much better if the blood glucose level can be held relatively stable. Try to rely as much as possible on the complex slow release carbohydrates found in fruits, whole grains, and vegetables. Protein is also important and the omega-3s and the E and B complexes promote healthy brain function and are thought to help stave off Alzheimer’s disease and inflammatory illnesses.
For professional and personalised dietary advice, visit a nutritional health professional, someone unbiased who isn’t influenced by the latest fashion and fads, to check your allergies and intolerances and set some achievable dietary goals. Don’t be tempted to go to extremes – small changes can make a big difference and I believe the ‘everything in moderation’ rule is still valid.
Set some personal fitness and health goals that are achievable for you. It doesn’t have to be intense – just get moving. A 5-minute morning stretching routine, regular breaks from your desk to move and stretch, walking briskly up and down the stairs, or parking further away from the supermarket can all make a difference.
Light physical exercise induces the body to produce an array of chemicals that the brain loves, including endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, as well as two recently discovered compounds, brain-derived neurotrophic factor and nerve growth factor. Both of these compounds promote cell health and development in the brain, slow the ageing process, lower stress, and keep the brain in tip-top condition.
Build any exercise into your routine so it becomes a priority in your day – not just for when you ‘have the time’.
Get your blood chemistry checked by your GP. Order ‘the works’ from the lab. Hormones, PSA, lipids; everything! Go back every year for a W.O.F. If you’re over 40, get a skin spot check, and a digital prostate check or mammogram and smear. And see a cardiologist to benchmark your cardiovascular health and your fitness. Don’t compromise on this!
If your finances are not in order, this can create a lot of stress and impact your mental health. Meet with your accountant or a financial adviser (or even a close friend who is savvy in this area) to eliminate tensions and unhealthy debt on your personal balance sheet and income statement. Set some financial goals.
An experienced business coach will be able to help you find where you are losing money in the business and help you get back on top.
3. Organise your time, energy, and space
- Organise energy rather than time. It’s normal to have peaks and troughs in energy and therefore productivity. Allow for these and plan critical tasks for when you have the most energy in your day and week.
- Create a to-do schedule rather than a to-to list so you don’t keep everything in the back of your mind and feel disappointed attend of each day when you haven’t achieved everything on your list.
- Break large tasks into smaller ones and celebrate the small wins.
- Keep your work space as clear as possible at all times. Clutter stresses the mind.
- Set just a few times a day to check and reply to emails (emails are not meant to be instant messaging!). Set expectations and rules in your team about quantity and purpose of emails and messaging. Make sure they are used effectively.
- Keep torrents of documents at bay by using the OHIO rule: only handle it once. If you touch a document or email, either act on it, file it, or throw it away/delete it.
- Identify the tasks that get you into flow and try to increase time spent on these.
- Identify tasks that are not your strengths or don’t get you into flow and look at minimising or re-distributing them to relevant people.
- Actively try to slow down when talking.
- Actively try to listen to others, ask questions, and process what they’re saying.
- Keep a part of your day just for you. To do nothing. To relax, to think about the big picture (not the nitty gritty day-to-day detail!), meditate, or chat with a colleague about non-work things. Allow your team members this as well.
- You might like to play relaxing and feel-good music if that helps you work better.
- Talk and be open with friends/colleagues/family/coach.
- Encourage standing or walking meetings or go to a café or another different environment.
- Limit input!
4. Manage your team more effectively
Ensure each individual and team are clear about your expectations of them in the business. Review how tasks are currently distributed among them. Think about which tasks each person is trusted for the most/the least. Re-distribute tasks according to strengths so they’re working in flow and engaged. Encourage understanding and collaboration based on mutual understanding and shared language. This will help create an open, safe, and trusting culture for people to thrive in.
5. Reach out for guidance and support
Friends and Family
After realising I had to change my ways to overcome burnout and move forward, I decided to share my ‘news’ with a few friends. Far from judging me, they cared deeply, and encouraged me. With their help and support I re-scripted some of my key habits and they guided me through the change process. Little by little I changed my diet, my hydration, my exercise, my sleep, my work load, my meditation, my time with friends and family (and who I spent that precious time with). To my surprise they weren’t huge difficult changes to make and they didn’t take much more time than some of the less important activities I had been filling my day with before. Of course, I did have to work at them to make them regular habits.
I feel grateful that I have people who love me and help me, often without words, to stick with my new normal.
Who can you go to for advice or support?
Even if we have little time for healthy relationships, we all instinctively understand their importance … they are an increasingly rare commodity. Overloaded contemporary life attempts to de-relationalise us …
As well as friends and family, it is helpful to find a good business coach or mentor who will guide you through a personal inventory and identify where you need to focus more of your time and energy on more meaningful activities. Some coaches are qualified to comment on burnout some are not (make sure you check).
You can guess at it yourself but you don’t know what you don’t know. There are many existing successful strategies that professional coaches use which will have surprising results and get you to where you need to be much quicker than if you try to go it alone.
7. Be clear about what’s important to you
Being clear about what’s important to you is one of the key factors of well-being. As Simon Sinek says, in his book of the same name, Start with Why. Pursuing a higher purpose, something other than ourselves, is not only the key to happiness and wellbeing, it is essential to being fully human. Life purpose is so important to mental, physical, and spiritual health that I encourage my friends, family, and the business leaders I connect with to make the discovery of their purpose a high priority.
Gain some clarity about your Why and try to ensure as much as possible that everything else fits around it. When you live authentically in synchronicity with your Why and you give time and energy to the things that are important to you, you will feel lighter and be able to truly flourish
Here are some questions to think about:
Do you know your big Why?
Do you know your short-term Why?
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
What is your most challenging goal for 2020, or for the next few weeks?
How will the achievement of that goal contribute meaningfully to the fulfilment of your purpose?
Who does it touch besides you?
From Survive to Thrive
Some of us are happy with the absence of illness, others strive for optimal health and wellbeing.
To me, being ‘well’ and thriving means a bounce in my step, clarity of thought, enthusiasm for what I do, the peace of a clear conscience, having restful sleep and pleasant dreams, and most of all, the joy of being fully present with a loved one and making the moment perfect.
After making changes in my life, I returned to the doctor two months later and, without having taken a single pill, my BP was normal and stable – and I’d lost 12kgs as a bonus!
Martin Seligman proposes the PERMA model which suggests 5 elements of happiness and wellbeing, all of which we have discussed above in one form or another:
- Positive emotions – feeling good
- Engagement – being completely absorbed in activities you enjoy
- Relationships – being authentically connected to others
- Meaning – purposeful existence
- Achievement – a sense of accomplishment and success
Seligman believes that these five elements can help people reach a life of authentic and sustained fulfilment, happiness, and purpose.
This also applies to business success – if you and your people are not okay, your business won’t be okay.
One thing’s for sure, most of us are in desperate need of some lifestyle changes if we want to not only have ‘good’ health, but to flourish and thrive.
I encourage you to give priority to your own health and wellbeing and that of the people in your care. In fact, I argue that it is a fundamental responsibility in this overloaded demanding society we live in.
Some suggested further reading
- Flourish, Martin Seligman
- Start With Why, Simon Sinek
- By Richard Swenson:
- Burnout, Professor Myron Rush (This appears to be out of print just now but it is in public libraries).
- By Ariana Huffington
- Overloaded Circuits, Why Smart People Underperform, EM Hallowell, Harvard Business Review
- Team burnout is real and you might be the cause, Entrepreneur.com
If you have any other recommendations to add to this list, please let us know!