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The lines between work and home are often blurred. But make no mistake, the lines were blurred long before the pandemic.
Today, burnout is one of the top discussion items in every kind of workplace. Unfortunately, most of the conversation seems to focus on the problem rather than the solution. Or, better yet, on preventative measures.
Nataly Kogan offers a wealth of make-sense ideas that just might save you from chronic exhaustion. Or maybe even a heart attack. She’s author of The Awesome Human Project. Her book’s subtitle should have a particularly wide appeal: Break Free from Daily Burnout, Struggle Less, and Thrive More in Work and Life.
Okay, that’s pretty ambitious. But she delivers.
Nataly’s story is intriguing. At the age of 13, she immigrated to the U.S. as a refugee from the former Soviet Union. After beginning her American life in the projects and on welfare, she worked her way up to key positions at McKinsey & Company and Microsoft. She then devoted her energy to five startups and tech companies.
But the frenetic pace left her unfulfilled and burned out. As she now tells anyone who will listen, “Happiness and wellbeing can never be achieved by anything we do on the outside.”
Today she devotes her energy and ingenuity to an organization called, aptly enough, Happier. Yes, Happier. It’s a wellness company that helps people “find, create, and celebrate more small awesome moments in their daily lives.” Nataly herself is definitely happier as she shares her science-backed skills and practices with top companies through her leadership programs. She’s been featured in scores of media outlets including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The Dr. Oz Show.
See if some of her ideas can help boost your happy quotient.
Rodger Dean Duncan: The worldwide pandemic has heightened people’s awareness of burnout. You caution against daily burnout. How do you define daily burnout, and what’s your advice on how to combat it?
Nataly Kogan: If you’re constantly feeling on empty at the end of the day, low energy, resentful of your work or completely unmotivated to do it, withdrawing from social interactions, you’re likely experiencing daily burnout.
The first step to combat daily burnout is to recognize that you and your job are two separate entities in a relationship with each other. For this relationship to be healthy, you need to fuel yourself, your mental, emotional, and physical energy, and do things outside of work. (Just like in any healthy relationship with another person.)
Here are questions to ask yourself about your relationship with your job:
- Is it healthy?
- Are you ignoring your needs to keep giving to your job?
- Do you fuel your mental, emotional, and physical energy outside of work?
- Are you looking to your job to fulfill all your needs, ignoring other parts of your life?
- Do you have healthy boundaries between you and your work?
Duncan: Self-care, you say, is often less about what you do than about what you don’t do. Tell us more about that.
So, you need to become more intentional about doing fewer things that unnecessarily drain your energy.
Duncan: While many people seem to be on the self-improvement bandwagon, you say the greatest need is for more self-compassion. What does that mean?
Kogan: Our endless desire for self-improvement has led us to become our own most ardent critics. We think that criticizing ourselves somehow will motivate us to improve. But it doesn’t. Zero studies link harsh self-criticism with self-improvement!
But treating ourselves with compassion—understanding that we’re human beings, we can’t always do things perfectly, and treating ourselves in a way that aims to reduce struggle and suffering—actually helps us improve! Research has shown when you fail or make a mistake and react with self-compassion, you’re MORE likely to work harder to do better next time.
Pummeling yourself with self-criticism wastes your energy, increases stress, reduces motivation. Self-compassion does the opposite.
Duncan: How can people escape from what you call the Valley of the Struggle through the Lens of Acceptance?
Kogan: The Valley of Struggle is the difference between how something is and how your brain has decided it should be.
“Should” is shorthand for Valley of Struggle.
- “I should be further along in my career.”
- “I should already be a published author.”
- “I should have already finished this report!”
And so on.
This Valley of Struggle only causes more stress and overwhelm.
Lens of Acceptance is about seeing the situation with clarity versus judgment, and then using that as your baseline to decide on your next best step.
It has two steps:
- Focus on the facts versus the story your brain is telling you about the situation (I haven’t finished the report—that’s the fact.)
- Given the facts, what is one thing you could do to move forward with less struggle? (For example, reduce all multi-tasking or ask for more time to finish the report).
Duncan: What role does gratitude play in people’s mental, emotional, and physical health?
Kogan: Gratitude is absolutely essential in fueling our resilience and mental health. More than 11,000 different research studies have linked gratitude with reduced stress, better sleep, improved wellbeing, and even better relationships.
Duncan: You say people can benefit by exercising the courage to talk back to their brains. Please explain.
Kogan: Our brain doesn’t give us accurate descriptions of objective reality. Rather, our thoughts come through various lenses in our brain—filters it applies, such as negativity bias, fear of uncertainty, confirmation bias, etc.
So, we need to have the courage to edit our thoughts and talk back to our brain when it gives us thoughts that make us struggle. We need to recognize when these thoughts are rooted in fear and then edit them so instead of causing us stress and overwhelm, they fuel and motivate us to move forward.
Duncan: You encourage people to “stop shoulding themselves.” Tell us what that means.
Kogan: Here are some examples to illustrate.
- “I should be more organized.” “I should lose weight.”
- “I should call my friend.”
- “I should be further along in my career.”
- “I should spend less time on my phone.”
- “I could organize my desk later today.”
- “I could start by skipping sugar in my coffee.”
- “I could call my friend while I’m out for my walk this evening.”
- “I could look into taking some leadership courses to get ready for my
next career move.”
- “I could put away my phone after 9 p.m.”
Duncan: One key to personal effectiveness is setting boundaries and learning to say “no” more often. What’s your advice on how to do that?
Kogan: Don’t think of boundaries as saying no. Think of them as saying yes to what is most important and meaningful to you. You don’t have unlimited time or energy. So, to do what is most important, you need to say no to things that are less essential.
Duncan: How does the mindful practice of kindness help people manage their own wellbeing?
Kogan: A sense of human connection is so essential that our brains interpret feeling isolated as danger. Studies have shown that when people feel isolated, they have higher levels of inflammation. Inflammation is your body’s process of fighting things that harm it—like infections and injuries.
To encourage you to connect with others, your brain rewards you every time you do something helpful or kind. It releases oxytocin—known as a hug hormone because we release it when we hug each other—and serotonin—a neurotransmitter—both of which make you feel good.
Duncan: You say that practicing their biggest why can help people fall in love with their to-do lists. How does that work?
Kogan: When we connect what we do to how it helps others, contributes to something greater than ourselves, or helps us make progress toward a meaningful goal, we feel more motivated and are able to better manage stress along the way. This is the practice of the Bigger Why—connecting our tasks and activities to their sense of purpose.
Duncan: Regarding burnout in the workplace, what do you see as some of the most common mistakes made by leaders?
Kogan: Leaders often care about their teams and their wellbeing, but don’t actually take care of their own. I did this as a leader before I burned out and learned my lesson. The issue with this is that as a leader, you can’t teach what you don’t practice. If you’re always stressed, impatient, exhausted, working non-stop, it doesn’t matter how much you tell your team to take care of themselves—they will pay more attention to what you do versus your words.
If you’re a leader and you want to help your team avoid burnout, you must make your own wellbeing, setting boundaries, and fueling your energy your number one priority.
Duncan: What can leaders do to prevent their own burnout?
Kogan: Make their emotional fitness a priority. Do something every day to fuel their energy and take breaks from work. Over-identifying with your work is one of the causes of burnout. Practice emotional awareness and emotional openness. Don’t pretend to feel good when you don’t. Instead, practice sharing your emotions more openly with your teams. This will not only help you, but it will also give them permission to do the same.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.