In this episode of ZenFounder, Sherry talks about dealing with burnout and defines it from a psychological standpoint. She talks about the different types of symptoms, causes, and effect on the brain that burnout can have.

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Episode Transcript

Sherry:Hey y’all, its been a while since I’ve been on the podcast and I’ve missed the opportunity to talk to you each week. It’s been a really interesting season, and soon Rob and I will record a podcast where we sort of explain all that’s been going on, and why I’ve been AWOL for a month. But, in the meantime, rest assured that I’m fine, Rob and I are both fine, but some major changes are happening in our lives and we’re doing our best to work through all of that.
 One thing that is going on is that the book, the long awaited ZenFounder book will be out hopefully the first week of December. It always takes a lot longer than you think it’s going to take, and I’m definitely learning that the hard way. But, the book is in its final week, the very final edits with an editor, and we have a cover designed, and we’re just getting all of our ducks in a row to be able to launch it and make it public. So stay tuned for a launch date. And the best way to kind of keep up with what’s happening with the book, or if you want to be in on kind of the early bird launch information you can go to zenfounder.com and make sure you’re on our mailing list, ’cause that will definitely be where we, you know maybe give away some free deals and make it the insider’s guide to getting the book.
 So actually our eleven year old thought of the name for the book, and the final title is The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Shit Together. So, thank you eleven year old for that insightful title, I’m not sure where he heard that kind of language.
Sherry:When I was nineteen I emptied my entire bank account to buy a plane ticket, one plane ticket, to West Africa. It was like two thousand dollars, which was all the money I had at that point from working at an ice cream shop in the summers between high school and college.
 I had never left the county before, I’d never had a passport before, so I thought why not go to West Africa and like go big. It’s time for a big adventure, and I planned to stay for a year. I spent my junior year of college studying at the University of Ghana in Legon, which is just outside of Accra, the capital of Ghana. And it was amazing, it was a season of tons of new experiences. Eating new foods, making new friends, traveling to places that hd hardly been visited by a fair skinned, blue eyed person before. I learned how to carry a five gallon bucket on my head, I learned to live without electricity and running water for weeks at a time. I camped out next to waterfalls, I danced in village drum circles around a fire. I mean, real National Geographic kinds of experiences.
 I had a meal with an Ashanti queen mother. I traveled all around West Africa, mostly hitchhiking, sorry mom, or on tro tro’s, which are like these crazy little mini buses that sometimes have seats and sometimes have floors. It’s really amazing what people can piece together when they need to. I seriously rode on this mini bus that was plywood topped with medal. It was … somebody totally hacked it together, but it was all an adventure.
 And, so I’m a little bit old, and this was all before, if you can believe it, Facebook, and Instagram, and Twitter, and all those things. But, I think if my year had been social media-ized, it would have looked incredible. But the truth is, it was actually a really hard year. I really hadn’t experienced that level of loneliness before, or hadn’t experienced what it felt like to be very lost, like literally lost. And I hadn’t had that sense of dissonance between how I saw the world, and what I was now learning about the realities of the world. And that is, of course, the gift of travel, especially for a young person, is it totally shakes up your world view. You learn that reality TV and the ins and outs of drama with your friends are not the primary thing that’s happening in the world. But, you know at nineteen, twenty, it’s a lot to digest, especially if you really had none of those eye-opening, world-shaking experienced before
 The day before Christmas I was bitten by a monkey, and it was a little bit of a turning point, because I was certain that I was going to die of rabies in the desert. Like, I was on the border of Ghana and Burkina Faso, which is just really, really in the middle of nowhere, really hard to get any medical care. And so I laid awake for nights on end, knowing, being certain that I was going to die. Turns out I didn’t die, and I didn’t have rabies, and wallah, everything became okay. But I tell this story because I think some of what happened to me that year, along side all of the magical, amazing experiences, is that I really experienced my first episode of burnout.
 Part of what I was doing in West Africa, part of my practicum experience through the University, was that I was working with street children in the markets in Accra. And, it was pretty tiring, it was desperate, desperate people in very desperate situations with very limited resources to try to really move the needle on their lives, or move them forward, or help them escape from poverty, and, in some cases, prostitution. Things that were just very unjust, and not fair, and over time it really took an emotional toll on me, and I began to feel, like I said, really tired an exhausted. But, also kind of cynical, kind of jaded, like nothing ever works out, or there’s no justice in the world, or … I began to lose any belief in my own agency, or really in the agency of anyone to do anything meaningful.
 And that is, I think, what burnout feels like. When we talk about burnout in the psychological literature, we’re talking about constellation of symptoms, or constellation of experiences that all comes together to create this feeling of deep exhaustion. And there are three categories of symptoms so to speak.
 The first is that sense of deep emotional and physical exhaustion. Waking up tired, feeling like your body can’t fight off a cold, or a bacteria or a virus, like this sort of weakened immune system. Feeling just down, hopeless, like you don’t have any oomph, you don’t have any kick, you don’t have any passion. So that’s the first one, emotional and physical exhaustion.
 The second one is, or the second set of symptoms is sort of cynicism and detachment, is the category that we talk about. And, it’s where you just can’t … you just don’t believe anymore, you start feeling irritated at your clients, or frustrated with your team. You stop feeling connected to the people that you work with, or the people that you serve. You stop feeling like you have any emotional investment in the work that you’re doing.
 And then the third component of burnout is a lack of sense of efficiency, or like you can be personally effective. And that’s this belief that no matter how hard you work, nothing’s happening. And, again, it’s subjective, like you can, on the outward, be very successful and lots of things are happening, but it’s your internal sense of how much you’re accomplishing.
 So this framework of burnout has been researched and, kind of popularized by a psychologist at UC Berkeley named Christina Maslach. And, she’s been researching this topic for years, probably going on thirty years now. And I think that this is one of the topics that is probably most important to talk about within the entrepreneur, tech world. Anyone who is doing something hard is, at some point, battle burnout. And, burnout is not a problem of people who are weak, and winy, and just are looking for an excuse to not have accomplished things, burnout is really something that happens that is quite deep and all encompassing when we think about how we approach our work, and what we believe about ourselves at work.
 So for entrepreneurs, of course, your work depends on you, you are the one who is in charge of running your business and making your business successful. And it’s your ability to communicate, your ability to have vision, your motivation, your energy, your level of connection to your network, your sense of passion and urgency about getting your work done that, again, shapes whether you’re going to be successful or not.
 And burnout is, of course, toxic to getting things done, toxic to feeling connected to the people around you. And it’s definitely a topic that gets tossed around a lot in the tech world. You know there’s Fast Company Inc., Forbes, they all have articles on burnout in the last couple of years, so I know it’s a conversation point that is happening. Some of the research looking at the frequency of burnout suggests it’s around thirty percent of adult employees, or adult workers I should say, not necessarily employees, some own their businesses. But about thirty percent of adult workers, both in the US and the UK, where extensive surveys have been conducted. And, so, one in three is really a large number of people who are feeling cynical, detached, exhausted, and like their work is very pointless. That’s a large number of people to be experiencing that kind of distress.
 Burnout is different that depression. Burnout is pretty heavily linked to our work life. If depression is a sense of not being able to feel, burnout is kind of this targeted numbness, or targeted detachment. Things can be going okay in the rest of life. Burnout is sustained exhaustion or deflation really about work, about what you’re doing with your days. One author, named Alexandra Michelle, who wrote an article about burnout for the Association of Psychological Science, described burnout as something that was asphyxiating people’s ambitions, idealism, and sense of worth. And I think that’s a really appropriate way to talk about it, this idea od asphyxiation, not being able to breath, not being able to connect with our own ambition and ideas. And that, of course, for most of us, makes us feel pretty worthless over time. When the things that used to matter, we no longer have energy for.
 And the bummer is that burnout becomes a piece of a cycle, because burnout makes us suck at our work. It’s really toxic to productivity, to creativity. It’s toxic to complex problem solving, interpersonal relationships, it’s certainly terrible for motivation. So, once we being to feel burnout, we begin to really struggle in getting things done, and in doing the kind of work that might make our work very exciting, or might kind of, reengage us.
 One of the recent areas of research on burnout has been to look at functional MRIs, so look at brain images of people who are in the midst of burnout. And, I gotta say the data on this is a little bit scary, it looks like from this recent body of research that burnout, like the experience of burnout, has the power to change the function, the structure, and the chemistry of our brains. And that, of course, has potentially very long term implications for how we do our work over time, over the duration of our lives.
 One of the specific findings is that people who have experience burnout have an enlarged amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain that modulates fear and negative emotion. So, in addition to feeling bad, that track in our brain, the part of our brain that is really attentive, or attuned to negative emotions is really overactive, it really gets bigger. And, to make matters worse, the connections between the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex … so the prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain that helps us talk ourselves down, or helps us rationalize, or calm down when we’re really upset. So, if I’m getting ready to do something that I’m nervous about, like give a really big talk, or, I don’t know, like release a book, and I’m feeling afraid, it’s the frontal cortex, its the more advanced planning, executive function part of my brain that helps me calm down about that.
 When people are in burnout, the connections between the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex begin to weaken. In fact, overtime, they begin to actually begin to break down at the cellular level. Such that those parts of the brain aren’t talking to each other very well, and what that creates is this terrible cycle where the over activation of the amygdala impairs your ability of the medial prefrontal cortex to help you calm down, which then triggers further stimulation of the amygdala. So you can see that the cycle goes around, and around, and around. And, overtime, we see what is called cortical thinning, like there’s actually fewer cells, and that thinning leads to problems in memory, attention, and of course emotion regulation, which is the fancy word for capacity to calm down.
 So the neurological consequences of letting burnout go on too long, are really pretty significant. And if that’s not enough to wake you up, or make you uncomfortable, one study conducted in Israel looked at eight thousand eight hundred employees, and they measured cortisol, which his the stress hormone that gets released in our bodies when we are living under a lot of negative emotion, or anxiety. Their study found that people who scored in the top twenty percent on the burnout scale at the beginning of their study, over time, over multiple years, that group of high burnout folks had a seventy nine percent increase in the likelihood for some kind of coronary heart disease, or heart problem. So, if it’s not your brain, it’s going to be your heart.
 Basically, burnout is super, super bad for our bodies, and it can derail our work, it can derail our relationships, which is so scary because it’s really common. And so, it’s something that I talked about at Possessive Software, it’s something that I’ve been talking a lot about because I feel like, in the entrepreneur world, most of us just have this like, grin and bear it, like we just have to tough this out, heads down-ship, don’t think about it, just keep going. And, there’s a point where just showing up everyday and continuing to chip away at things is helpful. But, there’s also a point when burnout becomes so severe that it is causing this physiological damage to our brains and to our heart, and we need to do something a little more radical than just heads down-ship, heads down keep going.
 One of the ways that we can think about how to, figure out how to recover from burnout is to think about what causes burnout. And, again there’s this pretty large, robust body of research about this by this point. Christina Maslach’s team, and many others have contributed. Basically the causes of burnout come down to six factors.
 Number one, not enough social support, or connection with other humans. Number two, a lack of clear meaningful goals. Number three, too much work, just simply a workload that can’t be effectively done in the time allowed. Number four, few observable or rewarded successes. And, number five, limited control over our work. And, finally number six, a mismatch between what we think is important, and what our workday actually looks like.
 So, given that we have this information about what causes burnout, one of the ways that I think we can be proactive is to try to reverse engineer those things, and make sure that we’re doing what we can to try to protect ourselves from the, obviously, really serious consequences of burnout.
 So let’s take this first one, when we think about lack of social support, one of the things that we can do to help protect ourselves from burnout is to really be very proactive about fighting isolation. We are very much a social species, and that doesn’t mean that you have to be the life of the party, or an extrovert, but really thinking about how you are connected to other people. Especially if you work in a distributed team, or you are a solopreneur, you don’t work with other people. Having people in a mastermind, having people that you see every week at a bible study, or a trivia night at the local bar, like figuring out how to have some sense of community and connection is one of those things that can really sustain us when work begins to be difficult. And, especially cultivating work related relationships is super helpful with burnout. And, again, masterminds are amazing, there are several resources that can help you get connected to masterminds. Mastermind Jams is one, many conferences have mastering components, the Founders Café, or certainly a ZenFounder. That’s one of the things that we’re trying to do with Zen Tribes is create a place where people can find community and connection with other entrepreneurs, even if they don’t live in the same area.
 Another thing, or a second tip for making yourself burnout-proof is to really think about how you use your cognitive resources, and letting yourself really focus. So, if burnout is caused by lack of clear, meaningful goals … when we spend our days responding to E-Mail and sort of hanging out on slack, those are activities that are shallow work. I mean they are helpful, they’re important, we have to do them, but when you think about what’s really satisfying, for most of us it’s deep focused work, where we sit down at the desk and we think, okay I need to write this chapter, or this blog post, or I need to work out this marketing strategy. And I’m going to sit down and give my full brain and attention to it, and then at the end of that period of time, I’m going to have something to show for it.
 That is so good for our brains, and it will really help with the burnout factor, because you feel this satisfaction of getting something done. You start with a goal and in the matter of an afternoon, or a week, or a month, or whatever time frame it is, you’re really focusing on the accomplishment of that goal, and then finding a way to acknowledge and celebrate the successes of shipping something, or getting something done. So, making sure that you’re having a balance between deep, focused work, and shallow administrative work can be super important, and also, you know, just help you get a lot done for your business.
 A third tip to manage burnout, or be aware of burnout is to really be careful about managing your workload. Sometimes that means, no, I can’t do that, I can’t be on that podcast, I can’t go to that conference, I can’t help with that launch. Sometimes it means later, it means yes I’d love to do that, but I’m booked until January, so we have to schedule some time out. And, sometimes it means help. My workload has gotten totally out of control in the last six weeks and I called up friends and I said, hey, who can guest host my podcast for a couple weeks? And I got four weeks covered, and that totally moved the needle for me, in terms of giving me a little bit more time back in my week. So, asking for help to manage the workload is okay to do, and it actually helps grow your network, and help you solidify your relationships with people in your network when you reach out and ask for help when you need it.
 Another burnout-proofing tip related to that conversation about focus, and deep work, is to have clear goals. To really keep a to-do list, to keep a set of things that are your target. That helps prevent you from feeling like you just have this amorphis blob of tasks that you must carry around with you like a big weight on your back. When you have clear goals you know what you’re after, hopefully you have baby steps set aside to get there. And if you’re not sure, honestly if you’re just not sure how to do goals well, we recoded a whole series of podcasts all about goals, and how different founders set goals. So, there’s not just one way that’s perfect for everyone, and so … It’s like episodes fifty one through episodes fifty five that are all about different strategies for goal setting, and making sure that we keep goals at the forefront of our mind, so that we can also track what we’re accomplishing, and then find ways to meaningfully celebrate success.
 and that’s my next tip, if you want to burnout-proof your business, and yourself, really have meaningful ways of celebrating success. So whatever your goals are, whether it’s productivity oriented task, or an income oriented task, make sure that you are giving yourself little moments of really celebrating when those things get crossed off the list. That could be a bottle of wine that’s set aside for your book launch, or if you sell a business it can be a new car, it can be a vacation, or it can just be permission to go get a massage, or take an afternoon off. They don’t have to be extravagant, they don’t even have to be time intensive, but just little things that give you a moment of ahhh. I appreciate that I have accomplished what I have accomplished.
 So fight isolation, focus, manage the workload, have clear goals, celebrate success. The last one is the most important one, it’s the most important one for prevention and for treatment, so to speak. If you are in the midst of burnout, time off is helpful, but it’s usually not sufficient. What you most need to do is rerun to, or figure out what is meaningful to you in your professional life. And it may be that, even though you’re very successful, you’ve gotten a little detached, or sort of lost some of your connection to meaning. And, meaning is what helps to counteract burnout. When we know what we’re doing and why it’s important, and why it has value to us, that’s the opposite of burnout. Which is, of course, when you feel like none of it has value, and it’s not important, and you’re cynical, and detached, and all of that.
 So, if you’re feeling totally fried then taking time off, going through some processes to try to reconnect to what’s meaningful to you at this point in your life. It’s a time to stop and reflect, go on a retreat, see a coach or a therapist to help you reconstitute, or re-find your energy and excitement about your work.
 I think as I reflect on my time in Africa all those years ago, I’m certainly grateful for it, I realize that there are thousands of ways to live a meaningful life. And, I think it helped me to understand that I can try things, and if I find that I’m miserable for whatever reason, there’s always something else to try, there’s a new version, or a new way to reinvent myself, or a new thing to work our. So I’m no longer so afraid of burnout, because I know that sometimes the flag of burnout is telling me that I’m either overly tired, or that I’ve just gotten too far from my why, the meaning behind what I’m doing.
 So burnout is a reminder to return to the core, the basics of what is important in our work, and not get too bogged down in the inundation of tasks, that we forget the deeper meaning behind our work.
 These reflections about burnout are based on the talk that I gave at Business of Software in September, so I think the video recording of that talk will be out sometime soon. And, the book also has a chapter all about burnout, including some of what I’ve mentioned here, as well as more details and ideas. So, definitely head over to the ZenFounder website and sign up for the mailing list if you haven’t already, and I look forward to talking with you soon.