It’s that time of year when your social feeds and emails are being filled with ideas for goals for next year. You need to have goals, set goals, and achieve goals and if you don’t, well you’re just not that great.
Chances are, if you’ve ever been burned out, you’re a high-achieving, goal-setting, goal-smashing guru. Or at least you used to be. Now, thinking about, creating, setting, and achieving goals seems like an impossible task. What’s more difficult to try and get your head around, is that without BIG goals, you’re not motivated, at all. And when you’re not motivated you have no drive, and without your drive, you have no energy, and without your energy, you can’t get anything done. It’s like your MOJO is on permanent vacation in a place far, far away, and no matter what you do, you just can’t find it, and it’s not sending you a postcard anytime soon.
So, you need goals to motivate you, but you feel frozen when it comes to goal setting because the big, exciting goals and even the small manageable goals all just feel a bit meh! And so, the cycle continues, you can’t set goals, which means you’re not motivated, and if you’re not motivated you have no energy to set or achieve goals, and if you have no energy, you’re not motivated to do anything.
I’m sorry to say, that burnout doesn’t just impact your confidence, your self-esteem, and your career, it can also impact your brain. Burnout can cause the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the part of the brain that you know as you, to thin. The PFC helps us to act appropriately. It gives us insight into ourselves and others. It gives us perspective. It allows us to do complex decision-making and to be able to have thoughtful, abstract reasoning rather than concrete or habitual responses. And when it’s compromised, our focus and memory are impacted.
Burnout also enlarges the amygdala which governs our fight-flight-freeze response and threat perception. The result? We become more primitive and more focused on fear, irritability, and the threat of danger.
And so it’s no wonder that goal setting after burnout can cause issues in your life, your work, and your career, you can’t see any goals as adding value, you just see the threat and the fear of everything that could go wrong, so you do nothing instead.
Acceptance plays a part in helping you to come to terms with things to help you to reprogramme the brain, and here are three things that you probably haven’t yet accepted:
Firstly, you haven’t accepted who you are. You haven’t accepted your new reality. And until you do, nothing is going to change. You still talk about and think about the ‘old me’ and everything the ‘old me’ used to be able to do without even thinking about it. Whether it was breaking ceilings, smashing world records, or being the first, the best, the youngest, or the most amazing, you fill in the blanks. The truth is, there is no old you, and no new you. There is just you. And whilst parts of you are no more, they have informed and created who you are today.
And yet you yearn for the old you, and at the same time, you are angry and frustrated at the old you. And it becomes a bit like living with a bully. You miss the old you and all they used to be able to achieve. The goals they achieved, the resilience they had, the drive they had, the passion, everything about them was great, and you want that person back. But, that person also failed you, hurt you, and caused you to burn out, and whilst you want them back, you don’t trust them anymore, because look at what they did to you. And this circles around in your head constantly too. Because you want the old you back to help you with your drive, motivation, and energy, but the strengths of that part of you, also became the downfall, and you hate that part of you for what it did to you, and you miss it even more.
Secondly, you haven’t accepted what you are. There’s still some anger, frustration, and resentment that this high-flying career that you had was suddenly taken from you. And whilst ultimately it was your decision, you feel like you were backed into a corner. Because your work matters to you, it was a key part of you, it was a key part of your identity, and without it, who are you AND what are you? What are you without the big important job title, the salary, and the status? What are you without the stress, the pressure, and the last-minute rush to get something over the finish line? What and who are you now life is slower and calmer.
And let’s not pretend that you don’t create some of that last-minute stress for yourself just to make yourself feel better. But on the whole, that’s gone. And without stress, and without pressure, who and what are you?
You don’t feel enough being ‘just’ who you are right now. And I can completely relate to this. Being ‘just a coach’ didn’t feel enough for me for a long time. I avoided calling myself a coach, for a long time, because I was more than ‘just’ a coach. And that was no reflection on anyone else, that was a reflection on what I thought about myself.
And yet I never thought I was enough even before burnout. I was always pushing harder, and proving myself more, and whilst in my head, I thought I was trying to prove all of the stuff to everyone else, I really hadn’t accepted that I was enough, period.
This brings me to point three. You have never really accepted, experienced, or allowed yourself to feel what it’s like to achieve something. You have never celebrated a goal. You have never celebrated an achievement. You’ve always been moving on to the next thing. And so when it comes to goal setting after burnout, your brain and your body have no idea what it feels like to be a success. So there’s no motivation. Because there’s no store in your brain, nothing in the filing cabinet of your brain that says ‘I remember what this feels like'. A lot of what is stored in your filing cabinet is stress, fear and panic and striving, and burnout!
The good news is though, that as you work through accepting that things have changed for you, there are practical things that you can do to improve your brain, increase your motivation and help you achieve your goals:
1. Keep learning
Whether it’s a skill, a recipe, a new routine, a language, an exercise, or something else, learning improves your neuroplasticity which can help you rewire and improve brain function. And, if it’s a skill that you can link to a goal, which you can then celebrate the milestones for, all the better.
2. Work with an accountability partner.
This could be a friend, a partner, a coach, a trainer, a therapist, a colleague, or a boss. Work with someone who can keep you accountable, because your brain will keep letting you off the hook and making excuses whilst it does all it can to keep you safe and stop you from burning out again. So whether it’s a daily walk, training for a marathon, growing your business, or going for that next promotion, work with someone to keep you on track and to celebrate your wins with.
3. Track and celebrate your wins
Track your progress and celebrate your wins. Whilst it may seem a bit childish, something visible like a reward chart or sticker chart could be just what you need. For every five stars, you reward yourself with something lovely. Really allow yourself to appreciate the reward, and feel all of those feel-good chemicals as they release in your brain and your body, this is the ultimate reward you are chasing, but if there’s a holiday or whatever else you desire at the end of your journey that you can track along the way, get sticking those stickers!
4. Nourish the brain
Allow yourself to get creative, learn to juggle, pick up a paintbrush, daydream, lay on the grass, and look up at the sky. Allow your brain the time to move where it needs to move and create what it needs to create. Try journaling without an outcome, just take a deep breath and allow the pen to move.
5. Nourish the body
A healthy body really does lead to a healthy brain, and vice versa. Eat nourishing foods, stay hydrated, move in a way that feels good, sleep, rest, look after and nourish your body.
6. Do less
I get it. Less feels lazy, or like filaing but it really is true what they say, less is more. The less you can do well, the more a sense of achievement you will feel.
7. Find your rhythm
Do you want to get up at 5 am? Do it. Do you want to wake up at 10 am? Do it. Do you want to nap during the day? Do it. Find your rhythm and create a routine around it. The more you can flow without thinking, the more space you’re giving your brain. If that means wearing the same outfit every day (clean of course), do that. Eat your meals at the same time each day. Exercise at the same time each day. Wake and sleep at the same time each day. Rhythm and routine, less thinking, more action, more action more energy, more energy more progress.
Yes, I said it. Find at least three things every day that you are grateful for, however big or small. But don’t just be grateful for the thing, because if the thing then goes, so too may your sense of self once more. Be grateful for the process that allowed you to have the thing for which you are grateful. For example, ‘I’m grateful for my comfy bed’, which can become, ‘I’m grateful for the work I do that allowed me to earn the money that allowed me to choose the bed that I’m laying in. I’m grateful for the help of the company in choosing my mattress and for the delivery team that bought it to the house’ etc. The process produces more happy chemicals in the brain than the thing!
Yes, meditation is a powerful tool, whether it’s guided, with an app, in person, on your own, silent, in a group, watching a video, walking in nature, meditate. Meditation is fixing your attention on one thing. So whether you’re focused on your breath, a candle, the clouds, a point on the wall or floor, music, or stirring your dinner, it’s all meditation. And if you start with 10,000 things running through your brain including your shopping list and to-do list, let it come, and take your attention back to the point of focus. The magic of meditation on the brain is amazing!
Yes, I know, you are breathing, but not consciously. Actually, sit and pay attention to your breath. You don’t need to do any particular breathing technique, just consciously breathe for a few minutes a day. This calms your nervous system and your cardiovascular system which in turn calms the brain.
And I know what you’re thinking. 10 things to remember that I now want you to feed into your day knowing that you can’t currently focus on or achieve a goal so you’ll go all or nothing, and either succeed at it all for a short while or panic and fail immediately and then you’ll feel even worse about yourself for not being able to reach a goal.
These ten things can all help to improve your brain function, you do not have to do them all at once, just know they are tools that can help you.
Pick one and do it every day for a week. Then maybe pick something else for the following week. Use nine of them as your things to learn as part of the tenth. Ignore them all if you’ve found something else that works for you.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself.
Burnout does change you. It can take years to recover fully. It sucks. And whilst you’ll feel crappy for a while, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s a different light and a different tunnel than you expected to be in at this point of your life.
You are here. You are you. You are whole.
You’ve got this!
And if you want to set a BIG goal, make it one that feels right, instead of one that you think is right. As we know, our brains aren't always our friends.
Kelly Swingler is the Burnout Coach and creator of The Burnout Recovery Method at kellyswingler.com. Kelly burned out not once, but twice, and has been passionate about preventing burnout since 2014. Burnout wasn’t Kelly’s choice of career after leaving corporate, but it’s one she’s been called to follow. Her latest book, Mind The Gap; A Story of Burnout, Breakthrough and Beyond is helping people from around the world make changes in their lives and acknowledge the stress they have been putting on themselves.
Kelly talks to audiences from around the world about burnout, sharing her story and experience, and her geek time is spent focusing on Neuroscience and Burnout research.
Find out more about the Burnout Recovery Method here.