How To Beat The Busyness To Burnout Pipeline–It’s Simpler Than You Think
Can I get a little vulnerable here? For years, any time I had a ton of projects, deadlines, or even pesky “life” tasks, I would go through the same positive feedback loop with my to-do list…
1. “Okay, I’ve got this! I just need to organize everything…”
I smile as I follow the old-school prioritization framework and add all my urgent and important tasks to my digital project planning tool (any other ClickUp fans out there?). I breathe a sigh of relief.
2. “Yikes, these things are taking me much longer to do than I thought and even more stuff is piling up…”
Everything now seems twice as urgent and important. I start jotting things down in my notebook (Productivity Planner from Intelligent Change fan over here) and creating Google calendar “working session” events with myself so I don’t forget to follow through on #allthethings.
3. “What was I focusing on again?”
When there are so many things with tight timelines, I tend to forget my priorities and end up working on random tasks that pop into my head instead.
Along the way, I neglect everything else–my self-care, my partner, texts from friends… As for my to-do list? I revert to writing multiple to-do list Notes on my phone, and when it gets really bad, I slap sticky notes all over my desk to capture my attention and focus.
Eventually, I get (most) things done and the stress subsides. I treat myself to time away from plans and to-dos…and maybe even a few episodes (or let’s be real, a whole season) of a feel-good show.
Even after the metaphorical busyness dust settles, however, my mind and body still feel the effects. I find myself needing to skip out on social plans and go to bed early or sleep in or both to compensate for the energy I just spent.
Essentially, I sacrificed my well-being on the altar of Busyness, and now I needed to recover ASAP.
Ironically, that extended recovery time usually sets me back with any incoming tasks, and once they pile up, I start the cycle all over again. Welp.
Have you been there? If you’re feeling like this to-do list spiral is all too familiar right now, know that you’re not alone and it’s not your fault. Seriously.
First, those old frameworks of prioritizing what’s the most urgent and important don’t work because when we’re stressed, everything feels urgent and important.
And second, we’ve been solving for the wrong thing: getting more shit done versus the emotional and energetic toll of busyness.
Just look at what gets the most attention: productivity hacks, tools, and apps. We see them on ads, billboards, and social media. Friends and coworkers recommend them as what will fix our problems. In the Western world especially, we’ve solved for what we’ve been conditioned to value: the productivity myth, and we sacrifice ourselves in the process.
Okay, okay…maybe that’s a bit dramatic. But think about this for a second…if you are constantly in this spiral of trying to get more done and letting go of moving your body, eating well, sleeping, and all the things that keep your humanness running smoothly…what happens after a while?
Well, I’ll tell you what happened to me: I burned out. In 2014 to be exact. I was working 14hr+ days at a tech startup, and I had lost track of what truly mattered in my life while I pursued OKRs and the golden promised land of the corporate ladder.
Because here’s the truth that kinda hurts:
Busyness leads to burnout–often before you know it.
While we’re furiously chugging away at our to-dos and responsibilities, thinking we’re doing what’s best and what’s expected of us, burnout creeps in.
It starts by dwindling our focus, then taking our energy, and finally zapping our health. In the end, we end up face-planting on the couch wondering what the hell happened.
So I’m wondering, where’s the tool to help us with that?
(I actually wrote a journal/planner hybrid to help you turn that exact challenge into a series of bite-sized self-care adventures–all while gaining a deeper understanding of how you spend your time and energy. If you want to check it out, you can do so here: Busyness to Magic: The 95-Day Journal-Planner.)
I would argue that the antidote to the busyness to burnout pipeline is thankfully much simpler than we think: self-care.
And before you go and roll your eyes or start adding all the self-care “shoulds” to your to-do list…let’s break down what self-care actually means.
Self-care is something you’re doing now to support Future You.
It’s as simple as that. So that could be enjoying a bubble bath, or it could be having a tough conversation, delegating tasks, saying no to extra work, sleeping in, working out, or not working out…it’s whatever helps support the future version of yourself.
So pushing through millions of to-dos may help, but if the cost of doing that means you get behind again and again and eventually run out of energy and wind up with chronic migraines, gut issues, imposter syndrome, and adrenal fatigue (hypothetically speaking of course)…then is it actually serving you?
Or would it serve Future You better if you took some things off your plate or let perfectionism slide just a bit?
Easier said than done though, right?
That’s why I’m all for making self-care–and any lifestyle or habit shift for that matter––bite-sized. And the good news is that habit psychology backs up this idea of bite-sized shifts as being more successful long-term. It doesn’t trigger a stress response, and we’re more likely to stick with it–win-win!
To get the amazing benefits of this bite-sized approach, start with where you currently are and then identify one tiny thing you can shift to feel a bit better. The key is to pick something that feels doable and not overwhelming.
For example, your bite-sized self-care could look like taking 5 minutes to walk around the block in-between tasks or perhaps eating lunch away from screens and your desk. It doesn’t have to be a 2-hour ritual of yoga, meditation, green juice, and all the things before 6 am (unless you’re into that kind of thing).
Even a few minutes count towards stepping out of the busyness to burnout pipeline. To put it in other terms, a little break goes a long way towards regaining your energy, regulating your nervous system, and reclaiming your sense of self.
And in my experience, we’re not only able to get more done long-term, but we have a lot more fun doing it along the way.
Here’s your homework:
Set a timer for 3 minutes.
Respond to the following prompt in your notebook, journal, or on a piece of scratch paper: what’s one action that you can take today to feel more like your best self tomorrow?
Then, rate your confidence on being able to follow through on that action from 1 to 10 (10 being most confident). If you’re lower than an 8, see if you can make that one action easier (e.g. it takes less time, it’s at a different time of day, you do the first few steps of a thing, etc.).
Then, add it to the top of your to-do list.
And maybe if you’re feeling brave, scratch the to-do list altogether.
P.S. I’m hosting my free 5-Day Bite-Sized Self-Care Adventure May 15th-May 19th to support busy women-identifying folks in finding the time and energy to make self-care doable (and beat the busyness to burnout pipeline).