On Firing All Cylinders and Burning Out

About the photo: Hiking in Connemara National Park, Ireland, with my family back in November 2019. Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.

I’m a writer by trade and, like everyone, my life is more than my profession. But what’s unique about my arrangement is that I can weave my passions, interests and daily existence into my writing. If you follow my social media feeds, you’ll notice some emerging themes that don’t always have a clear connection apart from them coming from me: the mountain life, travel and adventure, writing, entrepreneurship, publishing, the work/life balance and parenting.

My usual approach is to compartmentalize parts of my private life and keep them offline. There’s a lot that transpires that doesn’t need to reach the virtual space. I’ll hint at things at times, but not fully divulge. But this month, I’ve been through a period of burnout that I recognize has the potential to affect other creative people and fellow parent-entrepreneurs who are firing all cylinders all the time. Heck, anyone can fall into the trap because we’re all juggling a lot, right?

So, I wanted to write about it with hopes that I can start a conversation with other creatives, business owners and go-getters so that perhaps I can help others avoid a similar scenario.

The Backstory

“Lucky” for me, I have an auto-immune disease I’ve never spoken about publicly, and not because I am ashamed of it but because I’ve never acknowledged for myself the real role it plays in my life. I say “lucky” because what this provides me is a barometer for my stress and my neglect of self-care. That disease is eczema, and it’s a difficult one to talk about because it manifests itself differently in every person it affects. It varies widely in severity and also in what causes it to flare. I’ve been dealing with it since high school, but it has gotten worse in my thirties, and went from “a patch here or there” to a full-body screaming machine. By definition, mine is of moderate severity, but the consequences of a bad flare-up are enough to make me want to crawl in my bed in a dark room and never come out.

This week I had a bad flare-up. Hindsight is 20/20 and I really should have seen it coming. All the signs were there: lack of sleep while we were travelling (immune system is shot); 45 hours of transit home from Malta (sitting in airplane air that sucked all the moisture out of me); jetlag (now we’re really not sleeping); a toddler with chickenpox (that was like having a newborn all over again); me getting hit with a flu and fever (sweating is not great for eczema-prone skin); and external circumstances that pushed my stress-load right off the charts.

On top of this – and my life as a writer, mom, wife, business owner – is the daily regimen I keep up to avoid a flare. I keep a gluten- and dairy-free diet and take a supplement of fish oil, omega 3, 6, and 9s, and other oils to help manage the disease from the inside-out. I moisturize like my life depends on it, many times a day. I avoid triggers, especially when my skin is very dry. The list goes on. Last week, I let things slide.

No wonder it flared.

I feel the same way, kid.
[Playing at Keem Bay, Achill Island, Ireland.
Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.]

Where to go from here?

As devastating as this flare-up has been, it also lit a bit of a fire under me. I’ve come to a few realizations, some related to managing the disease, but I think all of these are transferrable as tools to avoiding burnout:

1. I need to take this condition seriously. A flare-up takes weeks or months to heal. My friend Robyn calls her MS her “sidekick,” and I think I need to reframe the way I view eczema. It’s a nuisance, yes, but it’s also a unique tool I can use to keep myself in check. The trade-off if I pay more attention to it, and prioritize myself more, is that I won’t only have fewer flare-ups, but I may also heal my system.

2. I need to make some adjustments to my external circumstances or the stress-load will never come down. This is something my husband and I are working through together.

3. I complain all the time that I lose my creative time to admin work and life logistics, so I need to create more space for the things that make my heart truly sing. No one else can do that for me.

4. I need to get my “team” back together and get back on my supplement train. My team includes my naturopathic doctor, massage therapist, and yoga instructors. As a creative entrepreneur, I absolutely cannot do my job or pursue my passions when I’m running on empty.

5. I need to listen to my body and the people who are holding me accountable. How often do we resist words of caution or “symptoms” when they arise? Often I just need to listen to what I’m saying to others: “It’s a little too much right now” (usually with a nervous laugh) or “Yeah, things are pretty crazy around here.” These are words of caution to heed as much as any others.

6. I need to simplify my life, even if it means making hard choices. I think many entrepreneurs will relate to the idea that you need enough on your plate to feel motivated and productive. Finding the right balance is tough, but I plan on taking some time to identify the pinch points in our lives, what I can say “no” to moving forward, and putting together some goals for the next year.

So, whatever your “sidekick” is or the mode your body and spirit go into when you’re running full tilt into a brick wall, I hope you’ll take the steps you need to get back on track.

This is my work for the year ahead. 😊

Feel free to share with me in the comments – I’d love to hear your thoughts on this very important topic and how burnout affects other creative entrepreneurs.

Creating a Mind Map

Life is constantly evolving, particularly on the work front. How I spend my time and energy depends on the projects I have on my plate (and how I manage them). Being self-employed, I have a lot of choice in the matter of how I prioritize my time and which projects I take on. But, my tendency, like many others, it to take on too much when my businesses already demand a lot of my attention to ensure they run smoothly and successfully. Add my family and personal life into the mix and it all starts to feel like I’m riding a runaway train.

As our businesses and lives evolve, we need to take a step back to see how certain elements may have shifted. What needed our attention six months ago may no longer deserve the time we’re putting in. Certain tasks we’ve been doing on ‘robot mode’ may have become irrelevant over time, and yet we’re still doing them!

One thing I do when it’s time to take a step back (or when I’m feeling scattered) is create a mind map. The point of this exercise is to see how you spend your time, what demands your attention and how you are prioritizing your life.

All you need is a big sheet of blank paper and a pen or marker (you can also search your apps for a digital version like this one, but I prefer to go ‘old school’ with this exercise). If you’re a visual learner, you may choose to organize your thoughts with various colours and stickers.

This is a simplified mock-up of a mind map, but you get the idea!

This is a simplified mock-up of a mind map, but you get the idea!

1. Begin your map with a central idea in the middle of the page (My Commitments, Current Projects, How I Spend My Time, My Priorities, your Name are all good starts). This can be as general (Life!) or specific (Your Business) as you want.

2. Branch out from there. Draw a line to a blank space on the map and start breaking down that central idea, giving each new section its own area on the map. These could be Family, Work, Volunteering and Friends. Or, if you’re going with a more specific mind map (e.g. Your Business), this may include Admin, Client Relations, Marketing, and Revenue Streams.

3. Branch out further. Under Work, for instance, you could write out your projects – even indicating roughly how many hours a week you allot to those. Under Revenue Streams, list out each of the areas and products that bring money into your company. Under Household, list the various areas of responsibility you hold, such as cleaning, bills, groceries, and maintenance (the point is to identify which things take up time, energy and money). Keep branching out, smaller and smaller, until you have created as comprehensive a map as you need.

4. Next, ask yourself some questions:

  • Where is the bulk of my energy going? 
  • Which areas need more attention?
  • Is there anything on my map that could be eliminated, delegated or hired out to free up more time?
  • Which projects or commitments bring me joy?
  • What doesn’t serve me anymore? 
  • How do these items line up with my life goals?

Make notes on your mind map however you like – cross out, highlight, circle, star. It’s all yours to play with in a way that makes sense to you.

5. It’s thought that 80% of a company’s profits come from 20% of its customers, and this concept (the 80/20 rule) can be applied to many aspects of your life and business. Use it with your mind map to identify which 20% of your items/activities you should be focusing on the most. Look for ways to eliminate, delegate or hire out the 80% of activities that aren’t as deserving of your energy and attention.

If you find this concept confusing, check out this article on the Pareto Principle. This principle applies particularly to the work side (handy for entrepreneurs/self-employed/business owners!), whether it’s your customer base or time management. But, you may also find it useful as you analyze your relationships, how you organize your personal life, and more.

6. Next, set some goals around how you can shift your focus to the things that matter and the things that make a difference. Use this downloadable goal setting sheet to help you through that process.

Let me know how your mind maps are coming along in the Comments below!

My 5 Favourite Productivity Tools for Writing

I have often discussed with budding writers how a good portion of the writing life is staying organized and productive when we actually have time to write. If I let something interrupt my flow, I may not get it back again in the same sitting.

Time is a precious commodity these days, between helping my husband with his photography business, running a media company, and…right – motherhood. So, I thought I’d put together a quick post for you about the tools I use each and every day to keep me on track. The great thing about these tools is that most of them are useful in any field of work, so even if you’re not a writer, you can still benefit from incorporating them.

Google Docs

Gone are my days of endless files tucked away in folders on my hard drive. In many cases I have moved my projects on to Google Docs. My best advice is to get set up fully on Google (Gmail, Calendar, etc.) so that you can maximize all of these amazing tools from one account. Using Google Docs, I can share a document, work remotely on a project with a colleague and see them making changes, and in cases where I want them to “View” only, there are permission settings that allow for that.

Wunderlist 

This is a relatively new app that I’ve adopted and I’ve fallen in love. Wunderlist allows you to create categorized to-do lists, and it instantly synchronizes between your phone, tablet and laptop. I particularly love the pop-up desktop tool that allows you to quickly add a task. That way, you can get it off your mind and move on with your work. I also like the way you can share lists with colleagues or family members.

Google Calendar

I mentioned this tool already, and it has been my “go-to” for years. Ditch the paper agenda and go electronic to keep you on task and on time. Google Calendar allows you to set up both Tasks and Events, so that you can outline projects for each day and move them around as you need to. Set up reminders and alerts, colour code your events, and share your calendars with others.

Hootsuite 

I was an early adopter of Hootsuite, and have seen it continually improve. This is one of the best social media productivity tools on the market, and once you get to know how it works, you’ll never look back. I use this platform to monitor all of my professional Twitter feeds, including Lists and specific keywords or search terms. I want to stay active on social media, but can’t afford for it to eat up my writing time. This is the perfect answer.

Thesaurus.com 

This one could also be slotted simply under “writing tools”, but anything that saves time allows for more productivity. Not only has using a thesaurus helped me to overcome that feeling that I have a word on the tip of my tongue, but it has also helped me to expand my vocabulary! There are many tools out there, but I generally turn to Thesaurus.com. I like the way you can click through words to dig deeper into nuances and meanings, so that you can be sure to get the right one.

What are your favourite productivity tools?