November 4, 2020

How to be Well in an Age of Burnout.

Full disclosure: I just emerged from the grips of another round of burnout.

Despite years of extensive research on how to enhance well-being, I could not elude the emotional and mental fatigue that was the spring and summer of 2020.

What compounded my experience beyond the norm and left me feeling fried nearly all the time? What stretched me beyond the obvious toll of suddenly spending six to ten hours a day talking to people on a screen?

First, my wife and I sold our house in July and moved with our two mid-sized dogs into my father’s basement for nine weeks, before yet another move into our new home. They say that moving is the second most stressful thing in life after death, and that’s typically referring simply to moving from one place to another.

Second, as the Director of Equity and Partnerships in my local public school district, the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and the racial justice movement meant an uncharacteristically hectic half year after our schools closed.

Third, due to these realities, I took just two days off in the summer instead of my normal two to three weeks.

It has been an uphill battle to reclaim my well-being, and I can’t say that I am fully out of the woods and have achieved a state of optimal wellness. However, my continued blend of research and practice has revealed a host of principles that are steadily and fundamentally transforming the quality of my life.

So, what truly makes a difference?

Many of these tips may not seem novel to you, but the research-proven and actionable ideas included below will give you the jumpstart you need to shape a more holistically balanced and satisfying life.

Here are nine ways to enhance your well-being and narrow the gap between the life you are living and the life you want for yourself.

Develop a supportive morning routine:

How we start the morning sets the tone for the rest of the day. My rituals include lemon water, reading an inspiring passage from a text like The Book of Awakening, an early walk, writing my daily intentions, a quick workout and nourishing breakfast, followed by 15 minutes of meditation before launching into my workday.

For me, reading and writing are both powerful ways to stay connected to myself. Writing is a pathway to expressing creativity and reading feeds my desire to continue learning and growing. As Anne Lamott puts it, both of these activities “decrease our sense of isolation” and “deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.”

Practice mindfulness:

Perhaps there is nothing more powerful or important today than pausing to take in a full, calming breath at a time when most of our anxiety is centered around the very air we breathe—the fear that someone will pass the coronavirus to us if they get too close, the strain on our lungs caused by the smoke in the air (fires burn just a few miles from me as I write these words), and the tragic and long-standing racial injustices captured in the words, “I can’t breathe.”

At a time when so much feels uncertain, we can find tremendous solace in the simple, life-affirming act of taking a few deep breaths.

Clarify your daily priorities:

I have used the “BestSelf” journal for years, and it has brought more structure and meaning to my days. How? Each morning, it asks me to capture what three things will make the day a “win” for me. This leads me to crystallize what matters most to me personally and professionally.

Some days, I follow the advice of Gary Keller, who encourages us to get clear on the “one thing” that matters the most and make sure to tackle it in the morning. As Keller writes, “Extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus.”

The Self journal also leads me to set an overarching intention for the day, which unlike the three achievables, prompts me to focus on how I want to be throughout the day rather than what I want to do or accomplish. For instance, this morning I wrote, “Show up in interactions with an open heart and move slowly when anxiety surfaces.” As important tasks emerge throughout the day, I always capture them in the journal so that my mind is not encumbered with the need to remember key objectives.

Cultivate ongoing gratitude:

As humans, we are influenced by the negativity bias—the tendency to focus our attention on the negative. Having a daily gratitude practice counteracts this tendency and boosts our joy for the little and big things that are waiting there for us to spotlight. As the neuroscientist Alex Korb writes, “Gratitude will shift your brain’s attention…Your psychological well-being depends less on the things that happen to you and more on the things you pay attention to.” Feelings of gratitude activate the three central areas in the brain: the brain stem region that produces dopamine, the primary reward chemical; the reward center, where dopamine is released; and the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps us focus on information that is relevant and communicates between the brain’s thinking and emotional circuits.

Schedule breaks:

“Idleness is as indispensable to the brain as Vitamin D is to the body,” says author Tim Kreider. Yet, for the last few years, despite reading all the research on the benefits of breaks, I failed to take them. My rationale was shoddy but logical: if I didn’t take breaks, I could wrap up work earlier. My failure to create these pauses throughout the day significantly contributed to my burnout.

This might look like a 10-minute walk, a few minutes of stretching, a short nap, a few minutes staring at the sky, and designated time to just eat lunch. It can be as brief as the 20/20/20 activity, where every 20 minutes you look 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Now, more than ever, your break should entail stepping away from screens.

As I’ve learned the hard way, to ensure that breaks happen, it is important to schedule them into your calendar and, when possible, integrate them into transitions. When overwhelmed, it is tempting to convince ourselves that there is no time for breaks. The fact is that with built-in breaks, we actually become more productive in less time.

Embrace silence, stillness, and solitude:

Living in 2020, many of us are regularly in a state of multisensory overload. One of the best antidotes to overwhelm, anxiety, or feeling disconnected from oneself is to carve out time for silence, solitude, or stillness. My mother, Rachael Kessler, called these one of the seven gateways to the soul in her book The Soul of Education. In such a fast-paced world, the way back to feeling centered and reconnected with our spiritual self and lifeforce is by slowing down.

However, I am also someone who is regularly oriented to my to-do list. Regrettably, I have often valued productivity over tranquility and making strides on my goals over well-being. Despite meaningful experiences on several meditation retreats, part of me continues to habitually view stillness as an enemy to progress. Only recently have I learned how much more focused, productive, and most importantly happy I am when I build in time for stillness, reflection, and even small transitions between one activity and the next.

“Stillness is not about focusing on nothingness; it’s about creating a clearing,” writes Brené Brown. This time to be still allows us to step back and see our life in all its dimension and bring greater perspective and wisdom to both the choices we make and how we show up with those that we care about or serve.

Thanks to my wife, who was ordained as a Zen monk in 2019, I have re-immersed myself in meditation retreats. On one recent retreat, I had my first true experience with what the Buddha called samadhi, or self-sustaining bliss. It was the sixth day of the retreat, and I came into the morning meditation with achy knees, pain in my shoulders, and some of the fatigue and grumpiness that comes from waking up at 5:00 a.m. for too many mornings in a row.

Nonetheless, in my second zazen session, the rising sun streamed in through the windows and the golden light was so powerful that it was all I could see. Moments later, I found myself laughing in a way that was barely audible but unmistakable. I surrendered to it and was amazed that the laughter and delight sustained itself for nearly 10 minutes.

Align your commitments with your values:

While I am consistently reflective and attuned to how I am choosing to spend my time, I am both a pleaser and an overachiever. Fortunately, I had close friends who regularly would tell me, “You’ve got too many plates stacked up.”

I am humbled by how long it took me to see that doing less brought me more joy, deeper meaning, and greater peace of mind. I still feel scattered and overstretched at times, but it has sparked for me regular reflection on what I truly value and what consistently brings me pleasure and meaning.

In turn, this has led me to practice using one of the hardest words in the English language for many of us: “No.”

By consistently failing to set boundaries around my time with others, I was undermining my well-being. So, gradually, I have become more selective, and find wisdom in the words of the renowned podcaster, Tim Ferris, “If I’m not saying ‘Hell yeah!’ about something, then I say no.”

One of the unanticipated gifts of the COVID-19 era is that it stripped away a lot of my extracurricular activities and helped me identify the core activities that most fill my bucket. I encourage you to think about what commitments you find most nourishing, and equally important, which ones belong on your stop doing list.

Nurture meaningful relationships:

The research is clear—meaningful relationships and a sense of community bolster our emotional and physical health in powerful ways. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell shares the story of the people of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a town made up of townspeople who hailed from the same village in Italy. Despite many unhealthy habits (smoking, poor diets, little to no exercise), residents of Roseto had extremely low rates of disease and lived longer lives than those in towns across the state.

What was the secret to their extraordinary health and longevity?

Many of them reaped the benefits of three generations under one roof and a strong feeling of extended family and community. They always had someone to turn to for support and connection. In this vein, last summer, my wife and I moved into the house next door to my father’s and step-mother’s home, seeking this closer kinship with loved ones. Over the years, during my toughest moments, I have been buoyed by regular phone calls with my best friend and my aunt, and the insights of close friends from my men’s group.

My wife is a psychotherapist, and she has noticed that “the clients that struggle the most or battle depression are consistently the ones that are most isolated.” COVID-19 has restricted our movement in so many ways, but it has also reignited or deepened friendships through virtual connection. It has served as a potent reminder that, like so many across the animal kingdom, our well-being as humans depends on the need to feel connected and loved.

Be of service:

One of the greatest sources of meaning arises when we take actions that support the well-being of others. I re-discovered this in a powerful way through my job this past year.

In the beginning of 2020, I was feeling less inspired around my work than I had in several years. When the pandemic struck, unexpectedly and fortuitously, meaning flooded back into my professional life.

My employer, Boulder Valley School District, began providing food for families in need at various sites. After the first week of doing so, spring break arrived. I realized that families would go 12 days without receiving food if we didn’t take action over the vacation. I partnered with a colleague in Food Services that I’d never met before, and we coordinated 30-plus colleagues to deliver food and supermarket gift cards to families. That uplifting day of service inspired us all, and we are now in our eighth month of delivering food, books, masks, and personal care products to some of our most vulnerable families. Research shows that we boost our happiness more by giving than receiving, and find meaning in both small and large acts of service.

One thing we all share in common is the desire to live happy, fulfilling days.

I am often reminded of the research of Bronnie Ware, the Australian author who wrote The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. She repeatedly heard five core wishes that people expressed on their deathbeds: I wish that I had let myself be happier; stayed in touch with my friends; had the courage to express my feelings; hadn’t worked so hard; had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

I hope these pathways to greater well-being serve you deeply as we transition toward winter and prepare to welcome the arrival of 2021 with perhaps more relief and enthusiasm than we’ve ever greeted a new year.

In the words of the great theologian and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

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