What causes burnout and how can we recover?
What is it that’s drowning us, as leaders? What is it that’s taking leaders out of the picture when we desperately need good leaders? Last time I talked about identity and how the most dangerous destructive force on earth is a man who doesn’t know who he is.
Another huge issue facing leaders is burnout—the condition in which we find ourselves when we’re just out of energy and we’re still trying to lead on empty.
Burnout is underestimated in terms of what it can do to wreck the trajectory of a good leadership pathway. I want to get into some solutions, but I want to talk about the problem first.
When I was the editor at Pastors.com, we would sometimes publish articles about how to recover from emotional burnout. And those were always the most popular articles. They got the most clicks, they had the most people reading them, they had the most people sharing them and they had the most comments. They had the most people opening up in discussion on Facebook and elsewhere about, this is me, I needed this, I’m going through this right now.
I believe burnout is epidemic. And I want you to understand it’s an issue I’ve walked through personally. When I go back close to a decade ago in my own life and leadership, I go back to a time when I was taking on too many things, too many projects—partly because I didn’t know who I was.
I don’t think that taking on projects is the problem. In fact, I think that can actually be a good thing if you know who you are and why you’re doing it, if you understand the why. But I was in a phase of life where I was no longer certain of who I was.
I was no longer comfortable in my own skin.
I had gotten discouraged. I had let the approval of others become a driving force in my life. I was very concerned about keeping everybody happy and getting everything done right.
I was treating my own life with a legalistic mentality. It was a big checklist, and I was failing. And because of that, my attention was all over the place trying to fill that void, trying to measure up.
Meanwhile, as a result of all of that, I was hurting in some relationships. I was distanced from friends. I was distanced from my wife, emotionally speaking. I began to isolate and to burn out. It was a downward spiral.
One of the things that changed was, we moved to California and got into a healthy church and healthy community and into a good small group and into lots of situations that really helped me to recover. To get back on track. To regain focus and clarity, and just to cultivate a new passion for the things that mattered the most in life.
Out of that came a big emphasis in our church that we’ve been planting for seven years, Grace Hills Church, on reaching out to people who are broken, who are hurting, who are walking through problems and issues like that and need help.
I love pastors. I love leaders. I love people who are in leadership and are suffering and going through a hard time. And I just want to give you some practical wisdom as well as some personal encouragement today.
DOES ‘BALANCE’ LEAD TO BURNOUT?
First, let me just dive in and talk about what I think are some of the misconceptions about burnout. Some of the reasons why we get burned out to begin with are because we misunderstand certain things about life. Certain things are culturally popular. We read books about them and so we assume that that must be the problem.
For example, I think there’s a false emphasis today on balance. We talk a lot about the word balance and how you need a balanced life. Don’t be a workaholic, be more balanced.
And the problem with balance is that sometimes we misunderstand what healthy balance looks like. Healthy balance, I think, is when you look at your life as who you are. You are physical, so you have a body. You are mental, you have a mind. You are emotional, you have a heart. You are volitional, you have a will, you have relationships.
So if you want to grow in a balanced way, that’s fantastic. I want to grow personally, I want to grow spiritually, I want to grow relationally, I want to be healthy physically, etc. That is a good kind of balance to seek after.
But what we do with balance a lot of times is to look at all the different areas of our lives decide that we need to give adequate amounts of time and attention to each area of life equally.
In a given week, I might work 40 or 50 hours because I need to do well for my boss. I need to do good on this job. I’ve got to do good in my business.
And then I’ve also got a marriage to maintain, so I got to give plenty of energy there.
I need to give some time and some energy to managing my finances well. So let me focus on that for a bit.
I’ve got kids, so I need to give some time and some energy to my kids.
I’ve got the school or the nonprofit or the charity that I volunteer with. Maybe the board I serve on, so I give them some time and some energy. And what we wind up doing is treating life like a pizza. We try to give a slice to everything that’s grabbing for attention.
We try to give a slice to all of the different areas. And the reason why that leads to burnout is, there’s not really an emphasis on how much I have to give. There’s just a constant demand and pressure to give more to everything and everybody. And I’ve only got so much energy to give.
RHYTHM—A BETTER WAY
So what do you do with that then? How do you give to all those things in a way that’s healthy, that makes sense, but doesn’t keep you burning out?
I believe we need to shift our emphasis from balance to rhythm. In fact, I did a whole 45 minute teaching session on this in The Digital Leadership Lab.
Basically, instead of dividing my life out into pieces and giving a piece to all these different things, I need to respect the rhythm of life.
I need to know that there are going to be weeks and moments when I’m really busy with my kids’ stuff. My kids might have a couple of programs this week at school, some sports things, some different things going on and therefore I’m not going to be able to give as much to my job, or to maybe managing my house or my finances that week.
In my rhythm that there are moments to take breaks.
Pastor Rick Warren always says we need to divert daily, withdraw weekly and abandon annually. That is, take some time every day, take a day off every week, take a week out of your year or two weeks out of your year and go on vacation. That’s all part of the rhythm of life.
Working hard is part of the rhythm of life. Being really close to my family and friends is part of my rhythm in life. Instead of trying to divide myself between all these different areas, I need to find the rhythm.
HOW MANY PRIORITIES?
Another misconception that leads to burnout is a misunderstanding of the word priority.
In our modern culture, we take priority and we divide it into multiple priorities and we come up with a list. Our list might be ordered as: God, family, church and work. So those are my number one, number two, number three, number four priorities in life. And so God comes first in priority, and I understand that, there’s some sense in that.
The problem is, the word priority is not a plural word. It’s a singular word. The ancient concept of priority means a single thing. It’s one thing.
So life isn’t about having your 10 or 12 priorities in life ordered correctly. It’s about living for one priority.
In other words, what is my purpose? And out of my one purpose, everything else flows. Everything else fits.
For me, as Christian, I derive my big priority from Matthew 6:33 where Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and when you do that, everything else will fall into place.” (my paraphrase)
So if I spend my life living for God’s kingdom purposes—if that’s my priority—then I’m going to have a healthier family, a healthier personal life, a healthier relationship with my coworkers, and so on.
ARE WE AS BUSY AS WE SAY WE ARE?
I also think another problem that leads to burnout is an overemphasis on busyness and overwhelm.
We might be addicted to busyness, but I think we’re also addicted to talking about busyness.
How was your week? And most of us go, oh, it was busy. It was crazy.
How’s life lately? It’s busy. It’s crazy.
The funny thing is, when I listen to high influence, high impact leaders—maybe CEO’s of corporations that do really well and they have great family life, or people that have written lots of books and have a big ministry to millions—I don’t often hear them talk about how busy they are. There’s not a lot of talk among really successful people about being stressed out and maxed out all the time.
Instead, there’s more of a confidence about life.
I’m not saying that we should ignore busyness. You don’t need to be too busy. But I do think it’s possible to do multiple things in life, to have multiple projects and multiple things going on and still not be overly busy and overwhelmed.
We tend to take moments when we’re overloaded with things and we start telling ourselves, I’m just overwhelmed, I’ve just got too much going on.
And the story that we’re telling and repeating and rehearsing is, I can’t handle life right now. And I think we begin to allow the busyness to override the strength we have in us to handle it.
THREE REAL CAUSES OF BURNOUT
1. We Lose Touch With People
I was speaking just a couple of days ago with a dear friend of mine. He’s a mentor, a coach, a friend from a distance that I’ve looked up to for a long time now. And we were talking candidly about discouragement. And he was saying that when he’s discouraged, he has a tendency to retreat and to go be alone and just try to process it all, or try to work through it all, try to fix it all, or just avoid it all.
I start to think that if I can get away from people and have more time to fix all this stuff, then the burnout will go away. And it really just makes it worse because relationships are life-giving. So when you’re hurting, you need to go be with people. And when you know someone who’s hurting, you got to be a people for them.
When I isolate, it becomes a downward spiral of isolation. And I get lonelier and lonelier until I’m all alone trying to deal with burnout. So what really leads to burnout is we lose touch with people.
2. We Lose Touch With Ourselves
In other words, we lose our sense of identity. I forget who I am. I forget what I’ve defined myself to be and I start trying to find that identity and the affirmation of others. And there are always people to give us affirmation.
3. We Lose Touch With Our Creator
I can tell you that getting in touch with God, having a daily time with the One who created me, who wants me in a relationship with himself, is absolutely vital to me staying fresh, spiritually, personally, and emotionally in my life. I need to be in touch with the one who is bigger and smarter and more powerful than I am, who manages my life better than I ever could.
HOW TO RECOVER FROM BURNOUT
And I want to talk about how to get out of that because, again, I believe the world needs you.
1. Take Some Time Alone
First off, take some time alone. It may be that you take time away from your projects and away from your work and even away from people to take time alone.
I personally get up early in the morning. It’s part of my alone time. I try to get up before everybody else while it’s still dark outside, drink a bottle of water real quick and get a cup of coffee, sit down, and I’m awake and I’m alert and I pray. I might journal, or write, or whatever, but it’s time alone to think and to process.
Jesus exemplified this. The Bible always says multiple times that he drew himself apart for prayer. He spent time with God to recharge and to refocus.
So you need time alone, but be careful that you don’t miss out on the second big step.
2. Spend Time With People
Don’t use alone time as an excuse to stay away from people. I’ve never known anyone to receive long term healing in isolation. It’s just not the way God designed us.
You need relationships deeply. So you need to be texting people, hanging out with people, talking to people, sharing with people, spending time with people. It doesn’t have to be all about you. It’s not that you’re going to people and going, hey, I just want to talk about my burnout again. That that may or may not be appropriate all the time. I do think you need to talk to somebody about it, but I’m just talking about doing life with people and encouraging other people.
In fact, the more time you spend encouraging other people, the more life it gives to you. There’s a great book on influence called, Never Eat Alone, and it’s all about connecting with people. And it basically says, don’t waste your mealtime eating a meal in the car by yourself—always try to set up a lunch with somebody. I’m not challenging you to do that, necessarily. But do try to find opportunities to get together with people. You need people in your life.
Our church staff has a weekly meeting and it’s one of the most life-giving times of my week, not so much because we get a lot of planning done, but because of the time and proximity with each other, hanging out, and laughing together. We laugh a lot with one another. We laugh a lot at one another.
Spend time with people, have a date night with your spouse, get away from the business, the overwhelm and just spend some time with people.
3. Realign With Your Purpose
I’m a Christian. I have a relationship with God, and one of the best books ever written is The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.
It really has been a driving force in my life because I believe strongly that I’m planned for God’s pleasure. So I have this purpose of worshiping. I gather with a church family once a week and I worship with them and I pray daily and that’s part of my worship.
I also believe I was made for relationships with other people. That’s one of God’s purposes for my life. So I’m in a small group and I get together with people and I try to encourage people.
One of my purposes is to serve other people. I do that in a lot of different ways—by preaching, by blogging, sometimes by counseling, or advising.
I believe it’s healthy to sit down sometimes and just write a sentence that sums up what you are most passionate about doing with your life.
I recently did this. I sat down and I wrote out a sentence about my life and it was really, really short.
I want to spend my life helping people find freedom.
Out of that came a renewed emphasis within my church on preaching a series about healing and helping some ministries get off the ground that are designed to help people find freedom.
Out of that came my podcast and another website that I’m developing with a friend called The Unstrapped Life. It’s going to be all about financial freedom and work freedom and life freedom.
As you realign with your purpose, you’re going to have to refocus and weed some things out. There’s a lot of power in saying no, and one of the factors that leads to burnout is that we don’t like to say no to people. So we say yes to everything.
Our unwillingness to say no ultimately comes out of trying to find our identity in the affirmation of people. If I say yes to them, they’ll affirm me, they’ll like me, they’ll appreciate me. I need to serve people out of my purpose, but not feel obligated to commit to serving people in ways that don’t align with my purpose.
If you’re in leadership, delegation is key. And I don’t even like the word delegation—I like the word empowering.
I wrote book about how the church can use social media. So that’s a big area for me. Letting go of our church’s social media was a huge challenge for me. But I did. I entrusted Martha Brown, who now serves as our Communications Director. She does a phenomenal job with social media—better than I would have done, better than I would be doing.
She manages it consistently and gives our church a great voice on social media. I was afraid to let it go because if I don’t control it, but the fact is, by giving it away, I got to empower someone else who now gets a lot of fulfillment from it and does a great job with it.
Write out a sentence that describes what your life is all about. What are you gifted to do? What are you called to do? What is your shape? What is your identity? What are you here to do? Mine is to help people find freedom. What is yours?
How has God wired you to serve other people, to impact the world? What do you do with all of that?
So, that’s how you recover from burnout. And that’s also how you prevent burnout.
I don’t think it’s about balance. I don’t think it’s about priorities. I don’t even think it’s about time management, specifically. It is about making sure that your day, your relationships, your activities are aligned with God’s purpose for your life.
Remember, you are needed. God loves you. You can do this. You have in you what it takes to make an impact on the world.
This article originally appeared on BrandonACox.com.