Burning out – a personal story

I had great hopes for this week: an exciting new release was due, the business development efforts from the past year were finally coming to fruition and the pivot we had made leading to the rebranding of our apps & services was very successful.

Then on Monday afternoon, I had a conversation which literally killed my morale and pierced the heart of my productivity for the entire week. It took me by surprise: this conversation acted like a trigger after which I totally shut down and was surrounded with a ‘lack of interest’ for pretty much anything work-related (and I *love* work).

I’ve heard that expectations and disappointments are siblings. But this one felt different. Surely, if I’m an overall positive guy and usually able to deal with negativity quite comfortably, it can’t be that only one conversation can cause such detrimental effects to the hope and the productivity I felt moments ago.

So I asked myself, what’s wrong on my side that made me so vulnerable to exhibit a complete lack of interest for an entire week, in something that I absolutely love doing, after just one conversation?

When I was 29 years old, I thought I had successfully ticked many boxes of things I wanted to achieve in life. I married the love of my life, became an accomplished pianist, had built and helped others to build several companies and realized my dream of living on an island in a house next to the beach with a view of the ocean.
Happy. Right?

Yes, happy. But everything comes at a price. The triple and sometimes quadruple responsibilities of the different ventures I was involved in, the wide variety of people and cultures I was dealing with and my own personal ambitions certainly took a toll on my work-life balance at the time.

Without learning meditation and practising diligently, I have no clue how I could have managed this phase of my life otherwise. There was a period in which I literally wouldn’t sleep. I’d meditate for 1 hour, then work for 7 hours, then again meditate for 1 hour and work for 7 hours, and finally meditate for 1 hour and work for 7 hours. Mathematically speaking, this is the maximum I could fit into a 24 hours period (3×8 hours, with 8 hours split into 1+7). It went on for several weeks and I’ve documented this experience with a couple of friends at the time.

Despite managing this challenge successfully from a workload view, the whole episode eventually burnt me out. At the time, I didn’t really know what a burnout is, how it would feel like, what the comparison to a depression was and so on. I just noticed that my interest in starting further ventures or even continuing the existing ones and pushing them further, was gradually reduced.

Why?

On reflection, there isn’t that one specific reason I could pinpoint it to, but multiple ones. First of all, when you meditate for 3 hours a day (even if it’s split into 3 different one hour sessions) and you don’t sleep during those phases, your consciousness and with it your interests and priorities shift. A natural (almost healthy) “lack of interest” in the more worldly things emerges.

No matter what you do or how stressful and challenging your life may be, you continue to remain in a constant form of bliss, even if negativities stare you right in the face. It’s that peaceful calmness of the bliss in meditation which makes you realize that any type of feeling, even happiness, can synthetically be reproduced, independent of your household income, your clothes, the success of your plans, and so on. It’s all a question of perspective and what you measure it with at the time.

The lack of sleep (or richness of deep calmness rather) also meant that I wasn’t experiencing this natural and small form of “death” which occurs every time we go to sleep and wake up in the morning. Good or bad, most people have experienced this to some degree, for instance:

Being angry at somebody in the evening doesn’t mean you’re angry at the same person in the morning and the elevated feeling of a wonderful realization in the evening may not last into the morning hours either. You could be waking up with a headache or in a bad mood, nonetheless.

So if the lack of interest, brought about by a constant form of happiness didn’t cause my burnout, what did?

Analyzing this period now, I realize that at the time I stopped two things I usually enjoy doing: playing the piano and cooking. Both are creative works and in retrospective I should have noticed: once I let those slip, something is wrong.

In fact, the sheer volume and diversity of the work I was doing required so much of my creative energy, that it took up this reservoir completely. Despite not having any physical ailments, my mental capacity to create something became incapacitated and I eventually had to take time out to rebuild that. So while creation in itself may be unlimited, our individual creativity – depending on the creative energy we’ve got available at the time – isn’t.

Without meditation, this “work-overload” could have certainly had much more physical consequences and after what others have shared with me in the meantime, I’d still consider this a minor burnout comparatively. But I can completely understand that people who experience a burnout, can easily slip into possibly longer depressive phases afterwards. In fact, there is a clear link between burnout and depression.

What can be done?

First of all – entrepreneurial life shouldn’t be this way. And yet, to many, it is. I was one of them, but today I’m changing my perception. It may be hard to see the first burnout or depression coming. But, when analyzing ones self afterwards, we can make out some symptoms that act like signposts for us to be aware of – like in my case the depletion of creative energy in relation to a huge workload and no sleep – or in a more general way: lack of interest.

It’s important to learn about the root causes of those things that affect us beyond our control, before they come back to haunt us. Especially with subjects like depression or burnout, that are often not easily understood and publicly hard to talk about.

To me, a better effort is needed to coordinate and share experiences and observations that people have made and recipes they’ve come up with in those phases so that these could be reduced to a bare minimum. Even better: one burnout should be more than enough in one lifetime.

I’d be very interested in your own experiences, especially the triggers you’ve come across which can cause burnout or depression, the signposts that accompany them and the recipes used to overcome such phases in life. And as prevention is better than cure: what do you plan to do to avoid burning out in future, to manage the triggers and not meet the signposts in the first place? Is it possible?

10 thoughts on “Burning out – a personal story

  1. Pingback: Smart Business Concepts - Warum Balance so wichtig ist und wie man Anti-Balance Fallen umgeht - Smart Business Concepts

  2. Thanks for sharing Toby!

    Over 18 months ago I began a pretty focused self awareness journey and it’s been a constant education every day. One BIG discovery I made was that I enter a mild state of depression whenever someone demands money from me (and I don’t have it).

    Unfortunately, I spent a few of my early entrepreneurial years borrowing money from friends to keep alive (not a good reason to borrow money, btw). Sometimes I had these friends (or the bank) calling me up asking for some form of payment. Because I wasn’t earning any sustainable income, two things would happen: (1) I would ignore these requests and make up excuses/promises when confronted, and (2) I would completely shut down and be depressed because I felt helpless. I knew I couldn’t respond to these demands, and I knew I was letting down friends or causing some future problem to deal with.

    I had the same response as you Toby – I was disinterested in work and I retreated and remained out of communication with people. That was unhelpful and unproductive. It didn’t solve the problem and it just alienated people.

    This was almost happening on a weekly basis. So it was having quite an impact on my life.

    Eventually, working with my business partner, we came up with a solid plan to ensure that we could both earn enough income from the business to pay ourselves regular weekly income. As of 6 months ago, we achieved this goal, and each week I pay off a little bit of the debt I have to my name. I’m also in open communication with everyone I owe money, so they know what’s going on. And, I shared with them what impact their demands had on my attitude. They’re a lot more forthcoming and understanding, and progressively each week I’m reducing the debt to my name.

    I still get slightly depressive when a demand for money occurs, but instead of it knocking me out for a week or more, I get over it and take action within 10-30 minutes.

    Plenty more lessons where that came from. But it’s been my biggest realisation in the last 18 months. :)

    • Thank you for sharing so openly Justin! I haven’t been there myself, but I really believe it is one of the hardest positions to be in, when debt and depression meet at the same time. Good on you for for realizing and taking the reigns of life back into your own hands!

  3. As someone who often tries to get a lot done, and get by on little sleep, I can empathize. As long as I am still making time for strenuous exercise (for me it’s weight training) and yoga (my form of meditation) I can cope with minimal sleep (to a point).

    If I neglect either of those two things however, everything comes tumbling down very quickly,

    • I’ve added both fitness training and Yoga (of which Meditation is a part anyway) to my weekly schedule. Yoga daily, weight exercises with running or swimming afterwards twice a week. I also feel that this helps a lot to keep up a positive framework for whatever good or bad life throws at you :)

  4. Toby,

    Thanks SO much for sharing this “behind the curtain” look… a couple of things I’ll add:

    Unclutter your life. Try unsubscribing from newsletters and other non-essentials that bombard you via email. If you like reading newsletters but find they distract you from business, then you could create an email account for receiving newsletters and other unimportant emails, and give yourself a reminder to check that account once a week, maybe on Sunday when you’re having your morning coffee.

    I travel (a lot!) and every time I return home, I unpack my suitcase, do laundry, and pack for the next trip (generally, I’ll be leaving again in 36-72 hours). During that process, I find one item in my closet, and one book in my bookcase, to put in a bag “to be donated.” Then, about every 6 weeks, I bring a bag (or two) to the local shelter where I get to donate those things I no longer need.

    Don’t try to do everything at once. If you have a big project you’re working on, instead of trying to get it all done at once, break it up into pieces. For instance, you have three months to complete a project, then set aside a block of time to work on it every day, once a week, bi-weekly, whatever works best for you. If you have several projects to complete, then prioritize them. Which ones are the most important or have the shortest deadline? Or, which ones require the least amount of time to complete?

    Again, it’s whatever works best for you.

    • Nice ones Jason, thanks. I’m already pretty much uncluttered. I never have more than 5-10 physical paper copies of anything with me, mostly to take down a few notes, drawings or strategy thoughts where I still prefer a pen and paper :) – the rest is all in Evernote and other good tools.

      Love the idea of the bag “to be donated” stuff. Totally suits me and will do next week onwards!

  5. Managing stress and avoiding burn-out is as much a mental challenge as it is about taking care of your physical body. Adequate nutrition, sleep, stress management, exercise etc. all play a key role in keeping you going. If your body is burned out, your mind is not going to work either. The fact is that once you have more energy and are less stressed, you get more done in a much shorter time and you tend to do optimal things as your brain works better. You don’t have to compromise your sleep to get more done, you just have to learn to do less of those things that are not optimal and put more effort in areas that provide most impact to maximize your performance. Recently I’ve got a lot of help from quantified self & biohacking methods to pinpoint issues and get more done with less burden.

    • Hi Teemu,

      You’re on to something with the “quantified self & biohacking methods” that you’re experimenting with. The awareness-building you are doing must be something amazing. You mention sleep in your comment, would you be willing to share a specific ah-ha (or subtle understanding) you’ve experienced so far? I’d be curious.

      I’ll start by sharing one of mine: I started keeping track of the Thank You cards that I sent. (I’m currently sending 5-10 a week.) I write one a day, at the end of the day – generally right before I fall asleep – and then once a week (usually on Tuesdays) I lay them out on a table and photograph the addressed envelopes.

      I send that picture via email to my Evernote account, and add the picture to a notebook I have. I tell ya, whenever I’m feeling a little bit “blah,” I like to open that notebook and reflect back on the good in my life.

      As a triathlete (I race from May to August, once a month or so) I keep track of a LOT of data. Again, it’s all about recognizing how far I’ve come… at the end of an event, I’ll go through SOME kind of debriefing process; and, completing a triathlon is just one big project!

      I wrote a little about it here: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/222546

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