5 Ways To Lean In Without Burning Out

The answer to getting more done and leading a balanced life isn't in beating yourself up about ambitions.

We’ve entered a new paradigm. One in which women, particularly in the West, have greater opportunity than ever before and yet are feeling stressed out, anxious, and exhausted trying to cope with the pressure to succeed in all areas of life. Despite external success, many women have a feeling of not measuring up or being good enough. Other women are leaning in so strongly that they are burning out. It’s a catch-22: how do we lean in without burning out?

Research shows bright girls are particularly likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, and they grow up to be women who are far too hard on themselves—women who will prematurely conclude that they don't have what it takes to succeed in a particular arena and give up way too soon.

Our experience is that women blame themselves. Therefore, many women are reading Lean In and thinking “Oh, I guess I wasn’t leaning in hard enough, I need to push myself even more.”

Here are the tenets for how to lean in without burning out:

1. Be Authentic

We live in a male-dominated workplace; most of us are aware of the recent study which found that women account for 51.4% of middle managers in the U.S. but only 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs. What many people are not aware of, however, is that our male-dominated workplace is causing a crisis of authenticity among women. And this crisis is taking a huge psychological and energetic toll on women leaders.

Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli explain it best in their book Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders (Center for Public Leadership):

Men, more than women, can succeed merely by "being themselves" because they match other people’s concepts of what leaders are like. Women face more complexity because they initially don’t seem as leader-like to others and may also have somewhat different values and attitudes than most of their male colleagues.

Researchers with the Center for Creative Leadership shared that “In a vain attempt to live up to organizational norms and expectations, [women’s] behaviors sometimes go against their own values.”

For women who want to lean in without burning out, it is vital to practice authenticity by creating whole life alignment. This entails having the ability to choose what is important to you rather than what might be important to other people, being clear about your values and making choices that are in alignment with those deeper values.

2. Be Clear On Your Vision

Many Olympic athletes use the power of visualization, and yet corporate athletes and high achieving women have yet to truly harness this incredible tool.

Research shows that women in particular may struggle with leadership positions in part because women have a harder time “envisioning” the future.

In case you aren’t clear on visualization, try this now. Close your eyes. See a red bird in your mind’s eye. Can you see it? Great job, you just did a guided visualization. It’s that simple.

Visualization is a powerful tool for linking up your conscious and subconscious mind. One study of basketball players showed that one hour of visualization is the same as seven hours of physical activity.

In addition to using visualization to enhance our performance on the field and in the boardroom, research shows that adding a visual element to our written goals may bring even stronger results.

What does this mean for you? It means that adding pictures that represent those things that you want in your life to your written goals can make attaining those goals easier. One thing you can do to solidify the images, symbols, and pictures of what you want is to create a Goal Board. A Goal Board is a visual representation of your goals that helps sync your conscious and subconscious mind.

3. Practice Self-compassion

Self-compassion is a powerful but often under-utilized tool for high achieving women. We are taught and learn from a young age that being hard on ourselves or feeling guilty will motivate us to strive higher and higher. Research shows the opposite is actually true.

A recent study by two physiologists, Claire Adams at Louisiana State University and Mark Leahy at Duke University, proved the value of self-compassion over self-criticism. They found that a message of self-compassion, namely “everyone indulges sometimes. Don’t be too hard on yourself,” helped dieters eat less of the tempting candy they provided. Many would think that giving the message of self-compassion would be a license to eat more, but it actually helped cultivate the willpower to resist eating too much candy.

Many women may find themselves in a similar bind when reading Lean In and then feeling guilty about not “leaning in” enough. If you were able to practice self-compassion instead, telling yourself “I’m doing the best I can do, it’s ok to take a break sometimes,” you may find yourself doing better at work with less effort.

4. Practice meditation

Meditation is scientifically proven to decrease anxiety and stress and is an incredibly powerful tool to support you in leaning in without burning out. With the constant pings of smartphones and being accessible 24/7, work often blends into nights and weekends, and it can be hard to find peace and quiet or to ever feel off the clock.

This societal addiction of equating responsiveness and busyness with self importance has gotten out of control and has created what Leslie Perlow, Harvard Business School Professor and author of Sleeping with Your Smartphone, calls the “cycle of responsiveness” that makes work an all consuming 24/7 exhausting marathon.

The key to shifting this constant barrage of technology is to unplug, get still, and go within. Research shows that meditation can actually expand the grey matter in your brain, improve creativity, expand your ability to focus, improve memory, and increase self-control.

A 2008 Harvard study that analyzed the genes of meditators against non-meditators found that 1,561 genes were affected positively after only eight weeks of meditation practice. Another study used brain scans to show that just one twenty minute meditation can decrease beta-wave activity significantly, meaning the cortex is not processing information as actively as usual.

If you’re new to meditation, you may find it easier to get started using guided meditations and committing to a practice for a specific length of time.

5. Allow it to be easy

Have you ever stayed late at work or made a huge effort to “get credit” for going the extra mile, even when it wasn’t really necessary or didn’t improve your overall outcome?

When I recently interviewed Carole Robin, recipient of the MBA Distinguished Teaching Award at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, about what had held her back the most in her career and that she also sees other women leaders struggling with, she said “I only recently learned that everything does not always have to be so hard. Success does not have to require a herculean effort.”

After exhausting herself for many years, Carole started asking “What if” in order to allow things to be easier. For example, she said, “If I’m giving a presentation I’ve given many times before, I now ask myself what if I didn’t prepare for it at all this time?” This was a radical concept for Carole, a type-A overachiever who always over-prepared for every contingency in her life. And yet she said allowing things to be easy is the most life-changing move she has made in her career.

Vanessa Loder is an entrepreneur, world-renowned speaker and writer whose company, Akoya Power, supports people in stepping into their power unapologetically with greater ease. Vanessa is also the cofounder of Mindfulness Based Achievement (The New MBA).

Lisa Abramson is an entrepreneur and cofounder of Mindfulness Based Achievement (The New MBA) who has dedicated her life to inspiring others to achieve success in an entirely new way. Her corporate and individual programs teach high potential leaders how to "Lean In" without burning out.

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[Student drinking coffee: Peter Bernik via Shutterstock]

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7 Comments

  • Great article for leaders and aspiring leaders. Operating from a place of authenticity is a gender neutral issue:, it is far less tiring to be authentic rather than operating behind a facade.

    That being said women do tend to be harder on them selves and internalize a lot, stop beating yourself up, learn from it and move forward. I do think we also need to think about balance in a broader and longer sense. I encourage my clients to think about balance in terms of a year or life stage rather than on daily or weekly basis. What is important and makes us happy changes over time and with circumstances.

  • Leesa Smith

    The importance of authenticity, which so often makes a great leader, is essential and should not be overlooked. I don't believe the ability to be an authentic leader is so much a gender issue as it is allowing oneself to be open and expose yourself. That being said, this is a well written article with some important advice. We can't all lean in all the time. It's about finding balance and striving to spend time and energy on things that make you happy and recharge your batteries.

  • Theresa DAoust-Blais

    Very effective approach and interesting fact. The term burning out has the old thinking of burning candle at both ends or the candle is at the end with possibility of extinguishing or running out of energy to pursue or to overcome challenges. The encouraging approach identified gives direction and inspires simplicity. Ones little candle light will keep shinning its light when one finds time to meet their personal basic needs which will transform into the energy needed. What I liked with this approach is Be real, be yourself, have your own personal vision, be human, meditate (think it through be positive), be practical organise with functional tools and Be positive. Thank you for your inspiring article.

  • lafleur.julien

    As a man in the corporate rat-race, this advice applies equally to us! I would like to point out to everyone that reaching the C-Level, VP-Level--or even the Director Level--is very difficult regardless of gender. Remember: it's only about 1/5 of workers who make it from IC (individual contributor) to manager...and then the competition becomes really tough!

    The practices above are great, and I encourage everyone to develop strength in them--woman or man!