A plan for fighting burnout after a year of extreme stress

Flowering on.
Flowering on.
Image: REUTERS/Beawiharta
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There’s no denying that 2020 has been a difficult year. From a global pandemic to an economic downturn to the racial justice movement, we’ve had a lot to contend with. I am lucky to have been in a fortunate position: My role as COO of the tech company I co-founded gives me stability and the option to work from home. But I won’t sugarcoat it: With three young kids, a wife who works in healthcare, the demands of managing a public company, and many other factors, it’s been a tough year.

The founder of EarnUp recently wrote a powerful piece about his experience with anxiety and depression. His article resonated with me; I’ve struggled with my own mental health, both in the past and in 2020. It’s important for people to talk about mental health, be transparent about what they’ve gone through, and share what’s helped them. With that in mind, I want to share some important lessons I’ve learned this year about avoiding burnout in times of stress. I’m not an expert, but this is what has worked for me.

Prioritize ruthlessly

I think of managing responsibilities like carrying a stack of plates: You can only add so many dishes to the pile before they all come crashing down. The same thing goes for commitments. To avoid disaster, you need to acknowledge that we all have a finite number of responsibilities we can handle. The key is to identify what that number is for you, figure out what makes the cut, and be ruthless about saying no to everything else. If you absolutely need to take on a new responsibility, remove an already established one.

Here’s what made the list for me this year: my wife, kids, parents, siblings, health, company, and commitment to fighting racial inequity. That’s it. Were there other things I wish I could have handled? Absolutely. Earlier in 2020, I was invited to join the board of a high-quality special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) and also offered the opportunity to become a senior advisor to a private equity firm. I seriously considered both, and any other year, I would have taken on at least one of these new commitments. But this year, I knew I needed to focus on my top priorities, so I walked away.

Set boundaries with your tech

When you’re working remotely, the boundaries between work and home start to blur. I’ve learned that when you don’t have an office to leave at the end of the day, you need to create strict time limits for yourself around when to put your phone and laptop away. For me, that means turning the devices off at 6 pm every night to eat dinner and enjoy time with my family. Once my kids go to bed around 8:15 pm, I catch up on email and Slack until 9 pm, then turn everything off for the rest of the night.

During the “off-hours,” I’ve found that it can be tempting to turn on my laptop or phone if I think of something I need to do the next day or an email I forgot to send, particularly if I wake up thinking about it at night. Even in these instances, keep your work devices turned off. I started keeping a notebook specifically for these situations. When I remember something I want to prioritize tomorrow, a new item to add to my to-do list, or a person I need to check in with, I write it down on paper. That way, I can be sure I’ll address it tomorrow without breaking my technology boundaries.

Give yourself mental space

Most of us have lost important stress relief outlets this year, from going to the gym to meeting friends for dinner. I’m an extrovert and a big ice hockey player, so not being able to see friends, family, and coworkers in-person or destress at the rink has been challenging for me this year. That’s why it’s more critical than ever to make space for activities and habits that support your mental health.

For me, that’s meant being intentional about getting more sleep, enforcing a 10 pm to 6 am sleep schedule. I’ve also stuck to a strict exercise routine, working out three times a week with a goal of getting six hours of active time per week—though I’ll admit I haven’t always met that goal. I have, however, successfully also carved out more time to read. I’ve been able to read around 30 books this year, and one of my favorites was Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It taught me that time is our most valuable asset, so we shouldn’t cheat ourselves of it.

2020 has been a challenging year for all of us, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by stress. Remember that we’re all humans, and we can only take on so much. Prioritize what’s most important, including your non-work time and mental health, and you’ll find it a little easier to fight burnout.