Be more busy: When standing still leads to burnout

In the self-help world, there are an abundance of techniques prescribed to help you to press pause, take time for yourself to rest and to take a step back from stressful jobs. And it seems all roads lead ultimately to: meditation. Meditation is fast becoming a catch-all, cure-all panacea as the western world is jumping on the meditation bandwagon and (paradoxically) racing full speed ahead. But does meditation work for everyone? Do we all need to slow down or do some of us need to speed up?

Is burnout what you think it is?

A google search for burnout throws up the following top result:

“Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress”

The consensus is then that burnout = stress = collapse.

In Ariana Huffington’s book Thrive, she describes her physical collapse after working long hours, with minimal sleep and high pressure to perform in her career. When she went to the hospital, her doctors could not identify any physical illness they could diagnose her with, she had simply run at a hundred miles per hour for so long that her body had overridden her system and shut down. Her book Thrive makes the case that success should not only be measured by money and power, but also by the third metric: well-being. I completely agree. Widely-held definitions of success are the basis for many society-wide issues: feelings of inadequacy throughout life, the pressures faced by young people, a lack of acceptable alternative working lifestyles are to name but a few issues. Ariana Huffington’s experience is relatable as it is symptomatic of a high-powered, high-stress modern world.

Yet burnout does not always present itself in the same way as Ariana Huffington’s collapse. In my own experience, my body kicks in way before the state of physical collapse, not only in the form of sicknesses such as high susceptibility to colds and flu, but complete mental lethargy. This typically presents itself as increasing patterns of sleepiness and boredom – getting home from work, sleeping from 6pm until 9pm, waking up to grab some junk food before sleeping through again until the following morning, on a near-daily basis. Talking to friends and family, falling asleep in front of the TV is a common experience, and those who have children particularly enjoy the mental freedom and escape of ‘me-time’ in the early hours. This pattern is a loud, clear warning sign that burnout is knocking at the door.

Does your personality affect your experience of burnout?

In Gretchen Rubin’s the Four Tendencies, her framework outlines four different responses to expectation. I highly recommend her book, as well as her course which explores this further, but there are a few scenarios I wish to highlight here in which I believe the tendencies play out differently when it comes to burnout.

For those who are unaware, here is a summary of the four tendencies, which represent the four ways in which you may respond to expectations:

Obligers may experience what Gretchen terms ‘Obliger-rebellion’. This is when the weight of external expectation becomes too much that the Obliger rebels against it entirely, through complete refusal to meet the expectation. This rebellion could be minor, such as a refusal to do certain tasks, or major, such as an explosive argument. For Obligers, I would expect a physical collapse similar to that which Ariana Huffington experienced would be commonplace. However, for Questioners and Rebels, external expectations are not instinctively responded to unless their own needs and wants are met first, therefore burnout in the form of slowing down, loosing drive and a sense of purpose would be more common. Although Obligers are by far the largest percentage of the population, understanding that burnout may appear differently for Questioners and Rebels is widely missed in current discourse.

The case for speeding up

I want to first emphasise that I am not suggesting you do more of what is stressing you. If you are already at peak capacity at work with more on your plate than you could ever be expected to complete in a day let alone within working hours, do not volunteer to lead a new project. Keep your hand down.

‘Keep your hand down’ is a motto I learnt from a former colleague several years ago. Sometimes we feel an obligation to volunteer for more work, to take on responsibility, to show you are pulling your weight or to indicate your ambition. But ask yourself: Will this project truly serve my team or me? If the answer is no, that is a warning sign to keep your hand down.

Once you are in the ‘rut’, stuck at the bottom of what feels like an endless dark pit of lethargy and boredom, the only way out is to shine a bright light to break the monotony.

“Busy is a decision”

In his book Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferriss interviews Debbie Millman, who expresses her view that “Busy is a decision”. By describing your life as ‘busy’, and choosing not to take advantage of breaks in your schedule to rest, you may be perpetuating a busy lifestyle. This cycle of continually perpetuating ‘busyness’ can be difficult to break. However, there is another side to making busy a decision: by choosing activities you feel you ‘must’ do over those that you ‘want’ to do, you are creating a wall of ‘busyness’ that is a negative energy drain in your life.

The difference between expectations and wants can be a fine line. In some areas, the distinction is obvious: you may want to binge-watch Queer Eye but your dishes need doing. Queer Eye is your want, the dishes represent the expectation. That expectation could be internalised – you want to have a clean home; or it may be externalised – you don’t want others to think you have an unclean home. In other areas, this distinction may be a fine line: you may want to start a business but equally you may hold yourself accountable to that expectation.

In my experience, busyness = consistently deciding to choose expectations over wants

Busyness, then, is telling yourself you ‘should’ do something so consistently that you no longer know what you want to do. You feel then that you have no time to see your friends or do what YOU want to do. Before you start sacrificing the expectations you genuinely care about achieving in favour of your wants, consider adding your wants in to your life and see where it takes you.

You are more than your job title

The younger generation is increasingly in search of meaningful work; yet by making our jobs at the centre of our lives, we are selling ourselves short. Increasingly, “Millennials want purpose over paychecks”  and choose to prioritise meaningful work in career decisions. But it is only a fortunate few whose jobs satisfy all levels of human fulfillment. Most of us make choices that are effectively a trade-off between money, lifestyle and meaning in our work. Sadly, our career choice in turn defines our identity as we navigate through life. In the UK, one of the most common questions heard at social events is: “So what do you do?” We ask one another our job titles before we find out who they are; we introduce ourselves: “My name is John and I’m a Doctor”. What happened to the John who loves travelling to far-flung destinations to run through forests late at night, who meditates in his back garden, adores his dog slightly more than his wife and likes to ignore his own health advice and binge on gummy bears late at night? Now, I’m not suggesting he introduce himself as such at parties, but what I am saying is that we are all fantastically diverse individuals with wonderful idiosyncrasies which in turn shape our ambitions, drives and passions in life. For me to state that one individual job defines who I am as a human being is absurd.

So why do we dedicate 100% of our energy to a job which does not make up 100% of who we are? What about that other 60%? Or 32%? Or 98%? Or whatever it is for you? Starting side hustles, passion projects, volunteering and engaging with hobbies you care about are just as important to achieve a sense of fulfillment.

So where does meditation fit in?

We all have only 24 hours in the day and I am certainly not suggesting that we continue to add passion projects to our lives until we no longer sleep or eat. It seems paradoxical, but I do nevertheless believe we need to add to our lives to kick-start the generation of energy needed to then step back and find balance. The additions may take the form of an inspiring new hobby or passion project, adding a new meditation practice, adding time to eat breakfast in peace in the garden, or in adding breaks to your work in the day to sit and drink tea. Crucially, this is still adding more to what was previously a busy schedule.

Most activities in our busy days are not actually restorative. Watching TV, scrolling through Instagram or doing chores rarely give us inspiration or time to relax, but they are often go-to activities for our brain to switch off. Once we start adding in new activities that we truly care about, that stimulate our creative thinking and allow us to ease into a state of ‘flow’, then our previous mind-numbing activities naturally slide away.

Meditation is therefore an addition to our busy days, but does it help us slow down? In my experience, meditation is a means to clear out the junk drawer in your mind. I believe we all have a junk drawer in our minds, in which we continuously dump issues, problems and emotions until we get chance to figure out what to do with it. If that junk drawer is overflowing, you can no longer keep dumping your stuff because it simply has no-where to go! It bubbles up like hot lava and bursts out uncontrollably (ok, starting to mix metaphors here, but stay with me….) Meditation generally does not resolve what is in the drawer; to take the drawer metaphor further, if you have a bill to pay and you dump it in the drawer, at some point you need to get it out and actually pay it. Meditation cannot pay the bill for you, but it can put the envelope in the bin and give you a nudge. In other words, it can clear out what isn’t needed so your attention can then focus on what is important to you. Overall, apart from the fact you have to physically sit still to do it, meditation does not change your speed or create space in your life by the act alone, it simply refocuses you, re-energises you and clears a path to continue at the same rate or even speed up.

However, there is a darker side to meditation: it can trigger powerful emotions that seem to send our happiness ten steps backward instead of one step forward. Many people who meditate regularly report improved positive emotions, but for some, it can drag up painful experiences, suppressed memories and intense negative emotions. In the past, I have tried meditation and given up on it after finding myself to emotionally distressed, anxious and upset as it has shone a bright light on my negative thoughts. It has lead me to a high level of self-reflection, over analysis about my life, exposing what is there and making me feel worse.

I have recently been listening to Light Watkin’s audiobook Bliss More. Light powerfully presents the case that there is a technique to meditation that we can all learn. This runs counter to so many I have heard over the years who argue there is ‘no right way to meditate’. He does not argue there is a wrong way, but he does give a dose of down-to-earth realism as he argues there is a difference between the practice of meditation and sitting still with your eyes closed! Light recommends following his E-A-S-Y technique and advises against experimenting with other techniques without proper guidance. Different meditation techniques, particularly those which involve breath work, can have a strong emotional affect and send you off track. However, following the technique taught in the book, intense negative emotions may well come to the surface, but by accepting these emotions as natural and adopting the attitude of: ‘This too shall pass’, you will eventually become more resilient in your daily life to emotional challenges. He also recommends you do not over-meditate, and limits your meditation practice to 20 minutes, twice a day. This may well also ensure you do not avoid dealing with and processing your emotions in the real world.

I have been following Light’s method for the past 4 days and already I am a convert to this method. For the first time, I am starting to find that when something triggers me, or I become upset over a minor annoyance, instead of surges of emotion, lashing out, or snapping back at someone, I feel in control and more capable of forming a detached, rational response. After only 4 days I understand this could purely be coincidental, but I intend to continue with the practice and see where it takes me!

The verdict

Ultimately, I am still exploring how meditation could work for me, but I do not see it as a means to slow down. Instead, I see it as a means to free my mind so that outside my meditation practice I can focus on the positive additions I want to build into my life. The second it becomes a rumination on the negative, then it is exacerbating the lethargy and driving me further toward burnout. So if meditation works for you then fantastic, that’s truly brilliant! Keep doing what works. But I do believe that if meditation doesn’t work for you, then you should try different techniques, different mindfulness practices or drop your attempt all together without feeling any sense of ‘guilt’ for not pursuing something that isn’t serving you! Consider adding some other types of positive projects and practices to your life, like joining a new yoga class, starting a new hobby or volunteering for a cause you care about. When it’s what you truly want, your priorities adjust accordingly, and as you do more, you may well soon discover you are far less busy than you think.


Has meditation helped you to speed up or slow down? Has it even helped you at all? And do you agree that a potential solution to feeling busy is in fact to do more? Let me know in the comments!