From burnout to balance

TO be honest, I knew it was inevitable. Starting at 8 AM most days, finishing at 8 PM, working seven days a week. Sporadically eating, and when I was – not enough of the nutrients my body needed. Not enough water. I kept up with my fasted-cardio runs, workouts, walks … but they were enough to knock me over. I was so exhausted, I felt like I’d been through the whole day before it had even begun.

You would expect me to say I hated it all… I didn’t! I was finally working in my dream job, alongside my mum (Sarah Hope), making art every day. I lived and breathed it. (And I still do!)

Christmas is a hectic period for everyone in business, whatever industry. As a creative, you’re showing up for the world through your retail platform – whether that’s a physical shop-front, website, or social media – full of zest and festive cheer, all the while making away madly in the background. You’re almost running on adrenaline from November to December; your hands moving faster than your head can keep up. It’s no wonder we crash when everything stops!

I was very aware of burnout before it happened to me this time; it’s a state I have to’d-and-fro’d between annually after nearly six years of university. A couple of years ago, I juggled three jobs to pay the bills, whichever internship I had at the time, full-time study … and constantly moved through each day feeling like I was on the cusp of collapse. And no matter how much I enjoyed what I was doing, it always crept up on me. The moment I stopped, I became an unmotivated, emotional, physically sore heap.

It’s the recurring plague of all hard-workers.

When Mum and I took a breather in mid-December 2020 (an immeasurably difficult year in many ways, but one that also allowed us beautiful growth) we were both left reeling for weeks. The kind of feeling akin to running a long distance at absolute full capacity; gasping for air as you finally stop, body overcome with tremors, head spinning. 

We’re now heading into our second week of February, and I’m just beginning to get ‘work-fit’ again – and after this passing weekend, after a couple of weeks back in the studio, I’m already buggered. Why on earth is it taking me so long to recover?

Understanding burnout

OVER the past few weeks, I have been plugging into my favourite podcasts while I create. As I was glazing some leftover Port Fairy Bathroom Tray orders the other day, I tuned into The Goal Digger Podcast, Episode 431: ‘An Achiever’s Guide to Burnout and Balancing Happiness’ – and it shifted my perspective.

It was like I was sitting there ticking off a check-list in self-awareness. In this episode, Kutcher interviews Emmy-winning TV host, producer and actress, Zuri Hall. 

Hall shared a different perspective on burnout; where most of us feel defeated or self-deprecating when we which our limit, she sees it as a tool.

“It’s an alarm system,” she shared in the podcast. “And you’re trying to tell yourself, ‘we need help here, something needs to change, something needs to shift’ – and that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing!”

Where it can become problematic, she cautioned, is when we “ignore or try to suppress that alarm system”.

Mum and I still feel drained even now, nearing two months since we initially took our break from the studio. We had run every red light our brains were trying to send us – and it seems for every day or week you push yourself past your full capacity, it’s doubly longer to recover. 

We had tried so hard, with every best intention, to show up completely for everyone, every day. Not only our family and friends, but our audience, our customers – both online and face-to-face. And yes, that’s absolutely the nature of running a small business and what you sign up for – but you just can’t be absolutely everything, all the time. There comes a point when you try to juggle too many balls, and you’re at risk of dropping them all. 

So this year, I made a firm rule with myself to make balance a priority. (I don’t think my life has ever been balanced, to be honest.) And all of this doesn’t mean I love my work any less. (Mum, I swear I adore my job!) But this year, we had to make it work better for us.

Striking a balance

THE thing no one tells you about burnout, is that it’s a drawn-out recovery process; it takes a while for the layers to come off, and the pressure to ease.

After recognising you have experienced burnout, the next best thing is to talk about it with loved ones and begin to action some steps towards self-care and regaining balance.

Steps I used to recover from burnout:

Sleep: Despite the allure of being on break, summer, and daylight savings … I made a commitment to fix my sleep cycle. I wound back bedtime to 10.30 PM, and my morning alarm to 7.00 AM. Top-tip for iPhone users, use the ‘Sleep’ function through Clock/Health! You can track how much sleep you’re getting (bonus if you have a smart watch, I don’t), but there’s also the ‘Wind Down’ feature in the newer updates that actually powers down some functions on your phone in the lead-up to your set bedtime, which reduces your urges to be on the device. During the night, it blocks all notifications on your screen – ripper!

Food + water intake: Regularity is key. You wouldn’t expect an engine to run on fumes, so neither should you! I’ve been working on a balanced, regular schedule of meals that give me the nutrients I need, to feel full of energy. (No accidental fasting at work – eat the foods when you need the foods!) I have upped my water-intake goal to 2.2L per day (yeah, I get it, that’s what we’re all supposed to have – top award goes to anyone who religiously does this).

Exercise: After I injured my knee a couple of weeks back, we wound back on the running. But my partner and I walk twice a day with our dogs, morning and evening (or one big walk if that’s what the day allows for). Fresh air and movement is medicine. (Which is what I will do straight after I finish writing this blog post!) We also love to play tennis when we can – so do whatever activity or sport suits you!

Breaking away from technology co-dependency: When I’m having ‘down-time’ I’ve tried my best to extract myself from my phone, and stop relying on it as a form of relaxation. I still suck at this most of the time (YouTube and Instagram, I’m looking at you!) – but if I am on my phone, I try to use it for more positive things, like learning Norwegian through my Babbel app, or reading via Books or Kindle. I’ve picked up my first physical novel since Mum’s Canvas (VCE and university ruined recreational reading for me) – I’m on The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting. My partner and I are working on a big puzzle, and I also started illustrating and painting again. Back to basics!

Allow myself to feel my way through the burnout: If I feel anxious or flat, I let those emotions flow through and out again. Overwhelmed and I need to cry? Tears ahoy! It’s important to not bottle up the stress and exhaustion – but the important thing I’ve learned over the years, is to not wallow in it. Give yourself permission to work through what you need to, but pick yourself up from the floor when you’re done – because you don’t belong there. Find something positive to do afterwards – it could be a gentle activity like reading, snoozing outside in the shade, or baking. Or alternatively, shed the negative energy and get some fresh air by exercising.

Embrace the quiet: Sometimes, there are moments where we do nothing at all. Lie down, sit quietly, or have gentle conversations. There doesn’t always need to be a rush to be somewhere, to do something. After a life growing up on a farm, there was always something to do; weekends weren’t a time to be ‘slack’ or veg out on the couch. Over the past year, I’ve learnt to lean into the moments of quiet and enjoy them; it’s okay to be still, and not always be working towards something. In order to repair, we have to allow ourselves to rest.

Reassess the work balance: Back in January, Mum and I sat down a few times and talked seriously about the direction of the business this year, how we were feeling about what we could achieve, and our capacity for output. During this, key themes came up for both of us: we yearned for more time at home; regular work hours; and more time for other creative outlets (Mum is also a very talented landscape/seascape/abstract painter, alongside being an author). As I balance my Honours, freelance writing and photography with my work at Hope & Co. , it’s crucial I’m careful with my time. We made a commitment to work regular hours, and make the business model work better for us. We also now allocate 30 minutes at the end of each day to wind down whatever we’re doing and clean-up our tools and studio – tidy space, tidy mind. (Oh, and we make sure we eat lunch like normal employees!)

More time with loved ones and friends: Whether it’s a day at home, a little road-trip somewhere, organising a dinner with friends, or date night, these are often things workaholics miss out on. In order to nurture the important relationships in our lives, it’s paramount we make time for them – work can wait! It seems like an obvious thing to say, but in taking care of yourself across every aspect as mentioned above, you will show up better for yourself, and in turn, for the people you love.

Everyone’s experiences are unique – so this is by no means a prescription list. But if you have recently experienced something similar, or might be going through burnout now, I hope you can take something from here. Be gentle with yourself, make time for those you love, and invest time in self-care and things that bring you joy. You deserve it!

G x

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