Post-Burnout Growth: Kicking a Bad Habit to the Curb

As work ramps up, I'm reminded that old burnout-causing habits need updated.

6 minutes
Haley Stomp

Grab some popcorn or a sweet, spicy, icy umbrella drink as I attempt to kick a habit that no longer works.

Wonder Twins Activate

New habits are hard to create. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, has made a career out of helping us create habits, because relentlessly forming new habits saved his life. As a parent, I’m working to instill good habits in my kids now, so they don’t have to spend their adult years trying to form new ones. I’m not getting it all right, like supporting their Little Debbie Nutty Buddy habit, but it’s worth the battle because changing habits weaved into your being is not easy.

As I’ve happily dipped my toe back into the pool of increased workload, I’m bumping up against some old habits. Some of these habits are great and have served me well over the years – my trusty prioritization and organization habits and categorized to-do list, working out early in the morning and actively making connections with people – but I’ve noticed one particularly bad habit resurfacing. As soon as I have the green light on something new and the initial feeling of winning ebbs, a switch flips, and I go into high alert mode. It’s like my “Wonder Twins activate” moment but my twin is this asshole of crazy feelings of dread and doubt and impending doom and deadlines prior to starting something. I find myself reaching for coping mechanisms, cleaning like a Tasmanian Devil and firing up all brain cylinders to code red. I turn into what the kids call “being extra,” and this mode is trash.

Observation Mode

It took me a bit to recognize what was happening to me, but I’ve been working to be more observant when things start feeling different. To pause and look and wonder. Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, authors of Burnout, call this technique “observational distance,” where we stop and examine why we feel a gap between our feelings about ourselves and our expected self.  

Going into observation mode, I did some journaling and took some time to quiet my mind and listen to what surfaced (honestly, this was only a mere twenty minutes, subtracting kid and cat interruptions). I had an epiphany. These extreme “fight or flight” feelings are an old, automatic reaction I learned to survive in the jungle with tigers and lions and Jumanji-like challenges. I operated at this Defcon level to maintain performance at a high level with constant stressors and hour-by-hour battles. This “batten down the hatches” approach helped me climb the corporate ladder and take on the very stretchy parts of my stretch goals, and there are times when you want the person who can mow it all down scorched-earth style.

But that’s overkill for my current path, and I’m pretty sure I’ve been bringing a hatchet to a fly-swatter meeting. I’m working on telling brand stories and speaking to leaders about everything I’ve learned to be my true self. I can dress like I’m on a safari and schedule things when they work best. No one is checking to see if my car was in the parking lot before or after theirs. I’m not having meetings before the meetings and meetings after the meetings. People are paying me to do the things I love to do.

You’re a Hard Habit to Break

Where is this fear coming from?

It's BS. It’s a story my mind was used to telling me to go into do or die mode for years. And now I can change it and form a new habit, tell myself a new story. By observing and fact-checking my thoughts, I’m able to see that new work doesn’t have to feel like old work. And had I had the observational and confidence tools I have now, old work might have looked a lot different also. I might have realized you can’t constantly live in mow-down, Tasmanian Devil mode without powering down occasionally. The Nagoski sisters say we need oscillation; we are meant to come in and out of flight or fight, not make it our permanent address.

Burnout is a b-word, and although I feel past it, like Don Henley and a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac, there are reminders. I know I’m still harboring fears I’ll return to it even though nothing about my life looks like it did when I was burned out. There are so many positives to the work I’m doing, the new people I’m meeting and the new things I’m learning. I’ve even activated some of those good parts of me that went dormant during COVID.

New Habits are Worth It

In Atomic Habits, “habit” is defined as “a routine of practice performed regularly; an automatic response to a specific situation.” An automatic response to a specific situation! Mind blown. Now to change the automatic response that’s burned into my brain.

Easy, right?

The first step to change is awareness (I made this up. Don’t go fact-check it in some official book about change). The second step is determining what this new habit looks like. Instead of going from zero to pegged in the red zone, I need to work to change my response to work from “extra” to “just right,” or at some animal level below a Tasmanian Devil. I will start by reminding myself not everything needs a color-coded spreadsheet, not every discussion needs a strategic plan and sometimes just starting is enough.

Finally, I’ll do what James Clear tells us and practice my new response every day until it sticks, until I’ve retrained my brain that I’m safe and the pandemic is over, and more work doesn’t automatically lead to burnout.