Avoiding burnout - People's stories
#3. Putting my job first
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Introduction - People's stories
All People's stories are written in the 1st person to reinforce their impact.
While anonymity is preserved, all stories are inspired by real facts.
People's stories are examples, to feed you with concrete cases of how the Puzzle has been used. They are not to tell you what to think, or absolute truth: they were created with the intent to illustrate how you can transform your life with the Puzzle.
Each People’s story is presented in the following way:
Part 1. The authentic life experience
Part 2. What that same moment could have been, leveraging the Puzzle
Part 3. Decoding the story through the lens of the Puzzle framework
Part 1 - My job comes first!
I love my job! It is a constant source of interest and challenge, with a multitude of diverse topics to manage. It never gets boring, and requires my full attention at all times.
Luckily I have a good team - but as I am ultimately accountable, I must oversee their work. And most of the time I am able to add value, so it is worth my involvement! I don’t look at everything though, but key meetings or key milestones I do - and there are quite a few!!!
I am in meetings all day; then I need to do emails, and then I need to review what the team has done and provide feedback. I have long days! In fact, it never stops: I do make little breaks here and there to see my family, but I cannot stay offline too long. I go to bed late, as I rework after (late) dinner. I know this is not good for my sleep but where else can I find more time!? I noticed I have lost weight as I skip lunch often, or eat a snack while working. I also started working on weekends as there are not enough hours during the week to get over all this work! But I am a hard worker, and I am quick: I can take it! I just need to work faster and be more efficient!
Lately though I start to have headaches. Not enough to take pills, but it increases me being tired as I still go through intense days, with that pain at the back of my head. It started as I cut on sleep, plus also I am waking up more often at night. I guess that blue screen light effect is not just a legend! As I wake up at night, I solve my business problems and write down ideas on my phone so I don’t forget the next day! At times I even send emails in the middle of the night! Somewhere I don’t complain (but for the headache!): this makes me more efficient!
As I am tired, I do realize I have less patience. So I watch myself and take it upon me not to cut people…. but my brain really switches off when they are taking too much time to my taste! I have a hard time keeping my attention focused, and as soon as I sense the conversation is too slow or boring, then I switch to doing emails, work on a presentation for another meeting, or update the list of what I need to do. In fairness, I also have too much to do to sit down 1h in a meeting and focus on the topic the whole time. Not fully satisfactory, but I multi-task and spread my attention. Listen a bit to the conversation while doing emails, jumping back to the meeting when needed. At times I notice I have lost track, or I make a comment that is disconnected from the on-going discussion. Still, I make the effort: I am here and attending, even though half present.
I am also stressed that something could go wrong. I am convinced I was lucky to get this job, and now I have to prove myself! With responsibilities come pressure: I have to deserve that position! Other managers around me seem to have a lot more experience at what they do: I have to keep up to be at their level! Sometimes I even think I am not good enough and I won’t make it… This thought keeps me awake at night.
I notice I am more and more tired, and so as my attention declines, I could really miss something. So I try to keep up and push myself. I just need to be better at doing my work! The objectives are also more and more ambitious year on year: it becomes difficult to achieve them! But missing is not an option: I have to do what it takes to make it! At times, I tried to raise challenges to my hierarchy, but they told me I am paid to find solutions - not raise problems. That I am empowered. And yes indeed…. just that the budget falls short, and I have issues finding the good resources I need. All these topics take time, and add pressure on my days!
I do realize I start to be the hamster in the wheel, but I don’t know what to do to stop it! I also have zero time to think about it!! I even had to cancel my holidays, as I ended up missing something and we had a crisis to handle!! I was extremely stressed then! I remember walking into a meeting room, where managers were discussing the best way to fix this crisis - and I literally exploded!! This is no time to think about grand plans!! This is time to fix and act!! It is quite clear what needs to be fixed, just do it!!
They tried to push back that we needed to get organized to solve this crisis, else we would end up running around and exhaust ourselves even more, without being efficient. They were right but I could not admit it in the moment, so I stayed in my logic!
The crisis lasted for one month. I was in the office at 6am every day, back home at 10pm - to take a shower, and go to bed! Then luckily we solved the crisis - without business impact. Still, some people tried to blame me for missing their quarterly objectives! How unfair!!
The whole time I had in mind that my company would fire me! This would be the end of a good, but too short, career!! Many people already thought I did not deserve this job, and were after replacing me. I had to prove myself! And now, I was offering myself on a golden platter! This was the beginning of the end…. No one would ever trust me for a big role again!!
Luckily, shortly after the crisis ended, I could take a short break and attend the wedding of a good friend. While I was there, people would ask what I did for a living: every single time and to my own surprise, I burst into tears! I tried to control myself - but realized I just could not take all this pressure any more. I was physically and mentally drained, on the edge of burning out.
I came back to work and had decided to step down - but was not given the chance. During my holidays, the whole leadership team had been replaced, and the new CEO brought his own troops. I was asked to leave my job overnight, without an acknowledgement, or even a thank you for the work accomplished. While it was extremely sudden and harsh to take, it is probably the best thing that could have happened to me - as it forced me to slow down and recover.
You have gained perspective how others have overcome their challenge leveraging the Puzzle!
May it inspire you.
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Part 2 - I love myself more than my job
Even though I am exhausted, I love my life! I have a wonderful job too: it is interesting, it is challenging, and there are lots of topics to manage. I enjoy that it is never boring, that it requires my full attention at all times. Luckily, I also have a good team!
Still, I had a look at my agenda lately and I realized I am very involved. I don’t have a minute! But I don’t really know how to change my schedule: for instance, if I do less and delegate more to my team, they could make a mistake and everyone will blame me for it.
Yet, is this true? Well, yes!
Am I absolutely sure this would happen? This is one of the hypotheses.
Is everyone making mistakes being fired? Well, that depends on the mistake, and the impact it has!!
But then, how about I focus my reviews on what would have a material impact, and let the team handle the rest? That is a great idea!!
Could I start today, making them fully accountable on topics that matter less? Maybe tomorrow rather…. I am not yet fully comfortable with the idea…. But I commit to start doing it before the end of the week, I just need to get used to the idea!
….I feel that my days still remain too long! In fact, it is like work never stops coming in! I am a hard worker, and I am quick: I can take it. … Though can I, really? I am very tired lately, and my attention is not what it used to be. I need to find another way of working, else I am afraid I will leave my physical and mental health to it. Why would it be true, and always true, that working hard is the only way to be successful?! I no longer know, I am too tired and have no time to think… but still, I have to change something!
One step at a time. Set aside delegating more to the team, I have decided to take a 5 minutes break every 2 hours. That is reasonable and achievable. And I will use these 5mn to literally do nothing!! Rushing to the toilet, using these 5mn to catch up on messages - that does not count! It is 5 minutes to stop the craziness of my days, recharge, take a deep breath… and then start again!!
And I must admit that just the idea of doing it already feels really good!! It is the beginning of me taking good care of myself.
I also realize I am not much present throughout the day.
I have so much to do and so much in mind, that I am often in my own head. This is a challenge in itself: I multi-task because I don’t have enough time throughout the day to do all what I need to do…. And that implies I have to do less, or at least work differently. I am reaching the limits of my model! Plus call a cat a cat: not sleeping and the headache are signs of burn-out. I am becoming toxic to myself.
I need to focus on protecting myself, and learn to say no! For instance, I will only go to meetings where my presence is required, or where I add value.
I also realize achieving this much is not providing me the self-satisfaction I thought it would.
I don’t enjoy working this hard any more, and am running out of steam. I keep doing it because I have to prove to everyone that I am the right fit for this job! But my imposter’s syndrome is so vivid that I wonder if I don’t have a Cold Case to address…
Why do I think I have to work this hard to deserve a job that I already have? Because if I don’t, I will lose it.
And what does it imply? That I let people down. They trusted me, and I did not deserve that trust as I could not deliver.
And what does that mean? It means that I can only do low level jobs, that I never deserved to be a leader.
Is this true? Is this 100% true that no one can ever fail in their career? And that no one will trust me again? I guess I can’t be 100% sure…. but 99% yes!!
And what is the opposite idea of stopping to trust someone because they failed? I would say that failure reinforces trust. Because when I fail, I overcome it and I become stronger - because I moved on, and because I learnt something!
And how does that idea sound? Liberating!! I never envisaged that making mistakes could make me a better collaborator, as I will do better next time! This is such a wonderful way to look at failure! It is showing me that good things can also come from dropping the ball. What an eye opener!!
Still, I can’t say I am yet fully relaxed with the idea that something could go wrong. I notice I am tired and so as my attention declines, I could really miss something. l have so many topics to deal with!
I think I have another Cold Case!
I have filled my agenda with new tasks, instead of keeping time for myself. I can’t help it. What will I do with free time?! The idea of working less panics me. But I can’t stand living like this any more. While I started loving my life, I now hate it!! Work takes all the space, and I am no longer enjoying it. I can’t take this anymore!
So let’s dig: how do I feel when I work hard? Visible.
And how does being visible make me feel? Important.
And how important is it to be important? Very!
Why is it important to be important? Else I am a nobody!
And how does it feel to be a nobody? I am transparent, no one sees me. I am isolated!
And how does it feel to be isolated? Lonely.
And how is it to be lonely? Terrifying!
And why is it so terrifying to be lonely? Then it is like I never existed!
And why is it important to exist? Because then, I matter to the ones I love.
And, set aside others, do I matter more to myself when I work this hard? No. And that thought really made me sad!!
Why am I doing this to myself?! Why am I so scared to stop working this hard?!...
Well, what is it that I want? I want to matter more than my work! That came from the heart!
And how do I feel about that thought? It feels right. It feels like reaching the shore after a long swim in cold water, to take a rest in the sun.
And could I work from that shore? Yes.
In the end, none of my worst nightmares occurred!!
I ended up losing that job, and that was the best thing that could happen as it forced me to slow down!
And life continued: I still have a career, and I even gained my life back! It was an eye opener how much I had polluted myself with all these horrible job scenarios: none were real but in my head!
And guess what: working less, I am more lucid.
And being more lucid, I take better decisions, and am more efficient!
Part 3 - The Puzzle decoder
Let's decode this People's story with the lens of the Puzzle pieces.
Burnout is all about my Ego. The voice in my head takes over, and tolerates no opposition! It is like an unstoppable high speed train, and it takes a lot of energy to keep up with it. Not only do I need to work hard, but there are dangers and I need to navigate carefully to avoid them. It is double pressure: delivering and anticipating! Notice that I am rarely to never present in such a context. I am constantly elaborating scenarios for future situations, or replaying past ones - usually to blame myself for not having done good enough!
It requires an equally strong energy for me to be present - because if it was so easy to stop my loops of thoughts, I would be there already! Accordingly, I need to bring my best friend with me: my Ego is the key - both at the heart of the problem and the solution. Breathe deeply and agree with it about a safe environment where us both will be present, and see how it goes.
One side benefit of being present is that it prevents time from flying - and it feels good to see that minutes are no longer seconds. To realize that I can slow down, and that nothing wrong happens then. Start small, and incrementally become more present to my environment.
Often, when I head to burnout I am not ready to show I am vulnerable. I just keep up, and pretend I am strong! And this is one of the reasons why I end up burning out! I man up, to the extent I cannot take it any more - then I break. It is scary to ask for help after pretending so hard everything is OK, while really all I am is lost and panicking. Still, I will be surprised: most people around me already know what is going on. They went along with me, because until then I could not hear otherwise - but that does not mean they believed me. While opening up is a big thing for me, what I have to share will be no news for my first circle. And they are here for me: they will help. This is a moment in my life where I need a sounding board - to benchmark how much harder I am working compared to others. The Ego in my head thinks it is never enough - but even dictators enjoy company at times!
When I am ready, find a way to share, as a means to take a step back. Start with people I trust and am safe with, at work and/or at home. Or it can be that I write a journal. Write it or say it: what matters is to start to get it off my head.
When my Ego is leading, there is no space for other inputs to feed my filter…. unless I consciously decide to make the space. Do pay attention to my emotions. Do acknowledge what my instinct says. Do check how my body feels. It is already a big first step to realize that I am more than just a brain.
And little by little, consider doing something different. For instance, I do know that not sleeping is not a good idea. But until now I could not change my habits. Start small, introduce tiny changes to test and see. For instance, stop looking at my phone at 19h on Saturday, and until Sunday morning. Whatever feels reasonable and safe to introduce positive changes in my life.
Also pay attention to how I feel when I make these little experiments: if it generates good feelings, then keep doing it and expand my experimentation! But if it generates additional stress, then I will find another idea to explore.
What matters is that I reconnect with my feelings and my body: these 2 silent partners are as important as my Ego for my balance, and they have a lot to bring as well. Disregarding them is like amputating myself: it hurts, and it makes my life more difficult.
When heading to burnout, everything accelerates in my head. I have a twisted notion of time. I have a lot to do, and I don’t have enough time. It feels like from the second I am up, I am already late - and therefore I have to work harder and harder to catch up. And while I keep going, I am also doubtful the days will get better. This crazy life I have seems to be the only option.
But it is not.
This is all happening in my head. I am polluting myself big times. There are alternatives. There are people with different lives, and they are not all living in the streets. It requires a lot of courage to break a habit, especially when this habit is so strong and so irrational. It is like being on the edge of a cliff…. except that there is no cliff. It is just like in one of these science fiction movies, where by putting a foot down, the landscape changes, the cliff disappears and there is a path instead! The big hole was an illusion.
My Ego brought me here, it can equally get me out. It clearly has a lot of strength: use it, this time to my advantage. Leverage the courage of my Ego to get out of these toxic loops of thoughts.
Use my Ego to protect myself: put all its energy at the service of saying “stop”!
And use all its courage to face my fears, remembering that nothing as bad as I can imagine will happen. On the contrary, life will surprise me positively!
And I will surprise myself as well: I can overcome this.
Burn out grows and feeds itself from my fears. My Compass is therefore set on that dominant feeling. Yet this fear, or any other feeling, is something I carry within. My job is unlikely to be the root cause - rather the symptom, the triggering event. When I have energy back, search for my Cold Case - as there is usually one or several when it comes to burn out.
It is worth it: solving my Cold Cases will free myself, so I can have a healthy relationship with my job.
When I work a lot, I tend to convince myself that this is the norm. And when I see people who work less, I have good excuses for them. For instance they have a family and I don’t: I too will work less when I have kids! And yet, some people do not make room for their kids, and rely on their environment to take good care of them, while they continue to provide by working hard. It is not about waiting for an external event in the future that will magically transform my life.
It is about making it happen now. And not for someone else: for the good sake of myself.
Look for signs around me of people being slow, taking their time. See how they seem. Are they suffering, or are they enjoying the moment? Could I too slow down at times, and see how I feel then?
Mastering my life also consists in projecting myself in the future - but this time with me in charge! What is my dream life like? And what would it take to make it happen?
Yet, projecting myself in the future may seem a lot if I am tired. I first need to take good care of myself, then the rest will follow! On weekends, I am the master of my schedule: I can choose to make room here and there to take good care of myself. Be kind and patient with myself as I am on my way to recover.
It is also about acknowledging what went well, and what progress is made. First, I learned a lot through this experience - and although this moment of my life makes me uncomfortable, it also grows me stronger. I can acknowledge so and congratulate myself for each baby step I make: this is the path to live well!