How I learned to conquer stress and avoid burn out

I have a bad habit of overcommitting. When an awesome opportunity comes along, I struggle to say, “No” even if I’m already too busy. Naturally, this leads to burning out. June of this year was a perfect example of being overcommitted. Over the course of four weeks, I:

  • Was a groomsman in a friend’s wedding in North Carolina
  • Spent three days volunteering for children who recently lost a loved one in Maryland
  • Performed on stage with my improv team in DC
  • Spent a long weekend leading a 100 person training for summer camp counselors in Maine
  • Attended MasterMind Talks in Toronto
  • Spent a day in Baltimore with my Mom
  • Presented 18 months of research on leadership to the administration of nearly 100 colleges and universities
  • And of course, had to keep the lights on at Ignited Leadership

In the past I would have looked at my schedule and simply thrown myself into the fire. I would accept that I was going to feel extremely stressed all month long, struggle to stay present, and plan to be totally burnt out at the end.

A lot of high performing young adults use this “sprint until I collapse” approach to dealing with stress. Some people even treat being busy and burnt out as a status symbol.

But being busy and burnt out isn’t glamorous. It’s miserable. Trust me, I’ve made that mistake an embarrassing number of times. Furthermore, when you look at the behaviors of people who are truly luminaries in their field, you’ll notice that they rarely – if ever – work from a place of intense stress. Instead, they work from a relaxed flow.

So during June, I tried a new strategy for managing massive levels of stress that, and here’s the great news: it worked. In fact it worked so well that I continue to incorporate these things into my daily life today.

Identify and protect your stabilizers

Cute Puppy

We all have activities in our life that are disproportionally good for us because they make us feel calm, confident, happy, and most relevantly, relaxed. These are called stabilizers. Though they vary from person to person, common stabilizers include:

  • Exercise
  • Engaging with you spirituality or religion
  • Time spent talking with a close friend, partner, or family member
  • A creative outlet (painting, writing, improv comedy, pottery, etc)
  • Journaling
  • Time in nature
  • Sports
  • A quiet cup of coffee or tea
  • Yoga
  • Hanging out with friends
  • And what one of my friends calls, “puppy time” which is the joyful act of playing with a puppy

You need to know what your stabilizers are so that you can lean on them when you start to feel spun out. My biggest stabilizers are meditation, exercise, and journaling. Once you’ve identified yours, protect time to engage with your stabilizers at least a few times a week.

As a rule of thumb, the more time you dedicate to your stabilizers, the more effective and stress-free your life will be.

Practice strategic neglect (and don’t feel bad about it)

My type-A overachieving readers are going to hate this one, but it’s so wildly important. During times of intense stress, it’s ok to neglect some of your responsibilities. In fact, it’s kind of a beautiful thing because you’re choosing to prioritize yourself over your responsibility to the external world.

The important part is that you’re intentional about which responsibilities you neglect; some matter far more than others.

Prepare by making a list of all the things that will require your attention. Your social life, your stabilizers, your work, any necessary travel, your family stuff, etc. Make this list as comprehensive as possible. Now go through it and identify which responsibilities are extremely important, and which aren’t.

Here comes the hard part: when you need to, choose to neglect or ignore some of your less important responsibilities. As soon as you know that you’ll be neglecting a responsibility, email anyone who may be affected, apologize profusely, and move on.

The trick is to not feel guilty about ignoring some of your responsibilities. It’s ok. Seriously, it’s ok.

I understand that this will be hard for some people to do. We live in a society that makes everything ever seem like it’s of dire importance. Truthfully, most things aren’t actually that important, and life goes on even if you drop a ball or two.

During June I failed to submit scores for a business plan competition that I judge, cancelled several non-essential meetings with clients, chose to stay in and watch “How I Met Your Mother” instead of going out with friends, was notably slow to return emails and phone calls, and kept my apartment messier than normal.

I did all of that intentionally to help stay sane, and it was great! It freed up space to focus on the projects that truly mattered.

Making the decision that your primary responsibility is to your health and sanity, and not to the external world that places it’s demands upon you feels amazing.

And you know what’s even cooler? Nothing bad came of strategically neglecting the less important responsibilities. I didn’t lose any clients or friends. No one died or was injured. Instead, I was empowered to truly serve the important things without the burden of the less important things distracting me.

When you’re enduring massive levels of stress, be ok with strategically neglecting some of your less important responsibilities. Give yourself praise for practicing self-love and self-compassion instead of succumbing to the needless pressure of “getting everything done”.

A really nice trick is to neglect a less important responsibility, and replace it with something fun like going to a movie with your friends. If you have the audacity to do this, give yourself bonus points.

When you’re in the thick of it…


When you’re in the middle of massive stress and insane demands, there are a few tricks to help get through it all.

Listen to your body – this is the most important trick of all. At some point your body will start screaming for your attention. Headaches, nausea, blurred vision, extreme difficulty focusing, intense internal chatter, whatever. These are messages from your body telling you to slow down and chill out.

When you get these signs, find time to relax. It’s tempting to push through (we all know the Red Bull-Advil-Ambien routine) but if you do that you’ll be jeopardizing your long-term effectiveness by setting the stage for an epic breakdown.

You may be able to push through for a few days, but it will lead to a collapse and increase the likelihood of dropping a ball that matters. Instead, choose to lose the battle so that you may win the war.

Don’t sacrifice sleep – sleep drives the rest of your physical and mental health. Do not sacrifice it. Aim for 8 hours a night. Schedule your meetings for later in the day so you can come into work late if needed. Pick a cut off time where you shut off the computer and phone and start getting ready for bed. Use F.lux to eliminate the melatonin blocking blue light from your computer in the evening. This will make falling asleep after working late easier.

Play as much as you can – when you are starting to feel massive levels of anxiety, you know what the best cure is? Play! Strategically neglect something on your calendar and go have fun. Throw around the Frisbee. Hit up the batting cages or driving range. Grab a few friends and play some laser tag. Plot a prank on your roommate. Whatever it is that you secretly love doing, do it! Playing will make your anxiety melt away and will equip you to return to your work with more focus, clarity, and appreciation.

Hat tip to Charlie Hoehn who literally wrote the book on managing and eliminating anxiety through play.

Keep those stabilizers strong – remember the stabilizers you identified earlier? Make sure those are still present in your life. Engage with them as often as you can. Dedicate more – not less – time to your stabilizers. They pay off.

Once all is said and done…

Once all the reports are in, the jets have landed, and the (important) responsibilities have been fulfilled, give yourself a reward: take the next work day off and do whatever you feel like doing. Book a massage. Go for a hike. Stay up late at a house party. Sleep in. Go to the pool. Whatever.

You’ve just managed an insanely stressful period of time, and though it could have destroyed you, you destroyed it. Give yourself a treat. Go have fun. You deserve it.


photo credits

“Serenity Now” by Cynthia Zullo

“Hoozacutepuppy!” by Jaybird

“Stressed” by aaayyymm eeelectrik

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