We all know what being burned out feels like, and most of us understand that burnout comes from overworking ourselves. How often do have thoughts such as, “I’m behind, No matter how much I do, it’s never enough, or I’m running out of time…?” But what you probably haven’t done is actually ask yourself, “Why do I overwork myself?” The answer is usually not an easy one.
However, motivation is fueled by both nonrenewable and renewable sources. Renewable fuels create sustainable energy, whereas nonrenewable fuels lead to burnout. Without realizing it, many of us plug into the nonrenewable fuel of fear as a motivator. The fear of competition, of failing, of time running out, of lack, of disappointment. The fear of not being smart enough, good enough, creative enough, powerful enough, worthy enough, talented enough.
Plugging into fear as a motivator may work in the short term, but it will burn you out. You’ll find yourself in a vigilant state constantly scanning for the next problem to solve, the next goal to hit, the next thing to prove yourself. Your focus is on what’s missing. When such a state becomes familiar, you may find it difficult and uncomfortable to relax.
Nonrenewable fuels of motivation create a lot of contraction that you can physically feel in your body. Imagine you’re about to give an important presentation, and your promotion depends on it. How does that feel in your body? You may notice your nervous system feels tight, shallow breathing, heat in your chest, throat, or stomach. From here, even an unexpected email can trigger our flight-fight-freeze response. The fear activated in our body does not discriminate between a tiger chasing us and a bruise to our ego identity. Both feel life-threatening. Both sound the panic alarm.
When you plug into nonrenewable fuels for motivation, any uncertainty feels unsafe. You will then try your best to control and predict people and circumstances. Your impending doom generator will continuously come up with what-if, worst-case scenarios to create a false sense of protection from the unknown. Operating from here leads to burnout, but it also blocks your access to the full range of inspiration, creativity, and the possibility that’s available in every moment. Needless to say, you are not realizing your full potential from here.
Here are three quick tips for plugging into renewable, sustainable fuels for motivation that will enable you to achieve more without burning out.
Use your zone of genius
Make sure you’re using your unique gifts (think about the skills you both have and enjoy) vs. skills that you can use but do not enjoy. You’ll know you’re in your zone when it feels like fun. You’ll actually be energized rather than drained by what you’re doing. Imagine the star basketball player who enjoys the game or the engineer who has fun solving technical problems. Even more powerful than having fun is loving what you do. The love of your work is the most energizing, renewable fuel of motivation. You become even more productive because when you’re connected to the love you feel for your work, you also access limitless inspiration, creativity, and possibilities.
Fast action: Make a list of all your day-to-day activities. Create a 2X2, and label the columns: Things I love, Things I don’t love. Label the rows: Things I’m good at, and Things I’m not good at. Find ways to spend more time in the top, left box of “Things I love that I’m good at.” This is when you’ll be in your zone of genius.
Connect to your personal vision and mission
Instead of plugging into fear of failure or proving yourself, plug into your expansive vision and sense of mission. Focus on why what you’re doing matters. Imagine what it looks like when your vision comes to fruition and anchor into that. See if you can connect each task, challenge, and goal back to your mission. Instead of merely checking off boxes and staying busy, connect every action to your mission and vision which will inspire and energize you. With a strong Why you have access to a million Hows.
Fast action: Before knocking out your to-do List, anchor into the vision you have for this project. Anchor it to your sense of mission for why this project matters to you and to the company. Feel your nervous system relax and open, your breathing calm, the sense of peace and ease that flows into your body from here. Your focus moves to solutions, not problems. See how different it feels approaching your first task from this state. How inspired and energized do you feel?
Take time to relax your nervous system
Regulating your nervous system to feel peace and calm is one way to make sure there’s always enough fuel in the tank. Many who are used to struggle and burnout feel restless on vacation, and do not know how to truly relax. This is a sign that the nervous system is so wound up that it feels more comfortable with burnout than relaxation. It is, alas, what’s familiar to this overstimulated nervous system. The body will repeat what it has learned through repetition. It’s almost as if the body has no idea what to do with so much calm, still, nothingness. If you want to reach your personal peak without burning out, it’s time to unravel your nervous system.
Fast action: Schedule relaxation into your calendar. It can be a walk outside, time in nature, deep intentional breaths, meditation, yoga, music, reading. If you choose to exercise for relaxation, make sure you aren’t pushing yourself to 100% capacity, but that you move at a pace that allows full breaths and connection to sensations in your body. Otherwise, you’re still teaching the nervous system to push even while you’re trying to rewire it to calm relaxation.
- What fuels are you plugging into?
- Are you connecting to renewable fuels such as mission, vision, play, and love for your work?
- Or are you coming from non-sustainable fuels such as not feeling enough until you reach a certain goal, fear of timing running out, failing, or losing?
The quality of the fuel you plug into dictates the quality of your results. This is the key ingredient to achieving more without burning out.
Victoria Song is a leadership adviser and the author of Bending Reality: How to Make the Impossible Probable.