“I always thought burnout happened when you work too much. Now I get it. It’s investing emotionally and then not getting a return on that investment.” — @spamaps

"If you're expecting a reward and you don't get it, dopamine levels fall steeply." (via Psychology Today)

My burnout was not from physical tiredness. It’s caring and investing and hoping for things and not getting that. Over and over again.

I slept a lot. I stopped writing. I stop making the podcast. I stop learning. And it didn’t help one bit.

I went through many diagnoses. I thought it was grief. I thought it was languishing. I thought I’m working on the wrong project.

Burnout” isn’t some make-yourself-feel-better-because-you’re-unmotivated sort of term, meant to give you comfort when you’re stuck in a rut or feeling down, stressed and unmotivated for weeks on end."  @teaNreflection

Symptoms

  • Irritable from perfectly reasonable request
  • Disengaged with everything (meaninglessness)
  • Unmotivated
  • Despite exercising, meditation (10mins) and 8h of sleep, I did not feel better

I have tried living alone, psychedelic retreat and alternative therapy (focusing). My obsessive nature compounded the number of possible diagnoses and solutions. Adding to this, I didn’t have the vocabulary to name my symptoms. I am functional on the outside and easily irritated.

My sense of self, my preference and my opinion are gone. I’m like a dead log floating downstream. I feel disengaged with everything. The things that brought me joy, don’t anymore. Food, music, podcast and learning.

I rest well. And since I don’t have a sleeping problem, I sleep a lot. 12 hours a day, lazing around, naps. I keep work to a minimum. I wake up for small meals. I keep up a walking and yoga routine. I meet my parents and friends. The rest of the time, I slept.

I really wish I can get back to my usual vibrant self. But I can’t. I don’t know why and how. Not knowing if and how to get better is the scariest part. I imagine it’s the same for depression, grief or other chronic illness.

For the first time in my life, I don’t know how to dig myself out of the hole. And I look perfectly fine and privileged on the outside. Traveling, running a successful lifestyle business.

I hope writing out this experience will give an expanded perspective of burnout and how you could help yourself too.

Possible causes

  • Unsustainable pace (of coaching + podcast + traveling)
  • Grandma passing
  • Leading extended family through the inheritance dividing process

What really helped

  • Freeing of responsibilities
  • Closing animation studio for the year
  • Being cared for by my friend
  • Allowing myself to be cared for
  • Being with a friend who is highly present and caring (and is not disturbed about my disability)l
  • Giving myself 3 months off to travel

What didn’t helped

  • Hanging out with friends (it didn’t worsen either)
  • Psychedelic retreat (it did confirm there was no grief in the body)
  • Hustling to find what’s next and things to do.
  • Goal-based coaching
  • https://conscious.is/blogs/a-different-take-on-burnout (believing that burnout is optional, preventable)
  • Salsa class
  • Personality test
  • Finding out the zone of genius
  • NLP session, breathwork

What I did well

  • See it as a common and natural illness (and did not blame myself)
  • Seeing it as learning opportunity (for future reoccurrence and others)
  • Journaling
  • Did not start smoking and drinking
  • Meditate daily
  • Exercise daily
  • Slowly down my work.

What might help but didn’t try

  • Vipassana
  • Therapy (to get a proper diagnosis)
  • Realigning with the purpose of work projects
  • Massage (with friends)
  • More connection with friends (lifeboat)
  • Volunteer and help someone
  • Dance classes
  • Group board game

Further steps

  • Re-connecting with purposeful and exciting work projects
  • Cultivate relationship lifeboats
  • Finding activities of group fun
  • Improve my resources to be a lifeboat for my friends
  • Start a relationship with a therapist (so it’s easier to do so when needed)

Further questions

  • What’s the right mix of surrender/listening vs taking action
  • When should I emerge from the break?
  • If I can’t travel, what else?
  • What’s the right mix of sleep vs getting out?
  • Could chronic dopamine fall (research paper) be the scientific reason for burnout?
  • What’s the difference/relationship between procrastination, burnout, boredom, existential angst, depression, and languishing? And if different, what other things might help?

Years ago, I wrote to Seth Godin.

He wrote back:

“it’s tragic
and I wish I knew a way forward, but I don’t
so much pain in the world”

It’s true, for those who care, sometimes there really isn’t a way forward.

It’s discomforting, painful and pure suck.

And if we are not careful, compounding social media, you will beat you down to the knees. The day, gone.

Day after day, it repeats, and a downward cycle in motion. Your agency, gone.

An alternative is a practice. It’s not the insulation from bad news. A practice that prioritise contribution, a win for the day.

Help one person. Write one article. Send a “thank you” note.

It’s not perfect but it’s better than wasting the day.

There are times in life when activities that were exciting, are now a repeated task on the to-do list.

I don’t mean dental, exercising, or housework. Not all activities are joyful. I mean those which are supposed to be joyful.

One of the insights from a recent retreat, is that my desire to be optimal (and helpful) has made me forget about joy.

I don’t know my favourite food, music and what’s fun.

I started publishing weekly because of Seth Godin. It was joyful to share. But now, I publish to keep up with the momentum.

Maybe Seth finds joy in teaching and writing. Perhaps, not for me right now.

The reason for writing was for me to learn, to share, and most importantly, to feel joyful.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not unbearable. It’s simply not joyful now.

Perhaps, like Seth, who announces this book will be the “last book”, then another one comes along. He knows that the next book will be an act of contribution and joy, not because he needs to write another book.

So, this blog and newsletter will be on pause. I’m going on a sabbatical.

And if you see a new article here, know that it’ll be an act of joy.

That irritating, pesky voice is not you.

To observe something, it requires distance. A vantage point.

An astronaut observes the earth only when she away from it.

Yes, you can see your eyes with a mirror. Don’t get tricked. That’s a reflection of the image of your eye. It’s not your eyes.

Recognising that those thoughts are not you. They are conditioned by your upbringing, society and experiences.

That’s the beginning of the journey of better thoughts.

In relationships, we work as a team for collective happiness.

A trap that we fall into is to withhold information because we don’t want to hurt the other person. Deep down, we do that to avoid the pain of confronting and making change.

When we start withholding, it leads to withdrawal from the relationship. We start to project and assume what others think.

Revealing is risky. We risk not being understood, an angry interaction and uncertainty.

It’s risking for the sake of closeness, better teamwork and our long-term happiness.

Revealing is a skill. Listening is a skill.

A book is a good place to start. Practice, commitment and recommitment get you there.

Here’s a collection of thoughts regarding the ‘definition of leadership’ that resonated.

I will add more as I find them.

“A leader is somebody who is taking radical responsibility for the influence they are having in the world. Don’t blame people, circumstance and experience.” — Jim Dethmer

A leader point to a destination. A new opportunity, a new way of doing things better.

Adam Grant generously contributed “languishing” to the cultural vocabulary. It’s the feeling of “Blah” or “Meh”. More on his TED talk and ideas to feel better. Hint: Look out for the 3Ms.

Having the right term to describe the right issue gets us moving in the right direction.

Thank you for the thought leadership, Adam.

Without pain, we won’t realize mistakes.

One day, our health will worsen. Our loved ones will die. We will make mistakes. We will fail.

When that happens, it’s painful.

  1. We can deny (and avoid) the pain.
  2. We can learn from it.

Once you understand the cause of pain and devise a way to work with, or through it, the quicker you can stand back on your feet. I observe this is true for me.

Journaling, therapy, or seeking out people who experience similar experiences to gain understanding.

The good news is the faster we learn from pain, the faster we can get through it.

Pain + reflections = progress.

And that might be the breakthrough that many can benefit from.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.

Last year, feels like a great year. A turn of events and everything came crashing.

There’s a meaningful project that I’m working towards.

I feel more connected to myself. Being more open and sensitive.

Along with that, I made a commitment to improve my family relationship.

Then late Dec, my grandma passed away. I flew back, took a break and felt misaligned since.

General lesson

  • It sucks right now, and you need to rest.
  • Rest till I reach cold boredom (feeling great without needing to achieve anything).
  • Diagnose issue before solving.
  • Face up to the brutal fact and emotions.
  • Release emotions from the body, and come back to see if there are lesson to learn.
  • Meditate and back to the body.
  • Separate what’s in my control vs not.
  • Accept what’s not in my control.
  • Call friends and ask for help. You are not alone.
  • Feeling alive comes from feeling great in peace.

Storytelling (NPR-style) is hard

I underestimated the level of effort needed to create NPR-style content. I was enamored with Start Up and Millennium podcasts. As one of my story producers grew busier, I was left with expectations that my resource could not meet.

  • Find another story producer.
  • Find an easier content format that can hit the same goal.

Content > learning

As I ceased the content production, I lost motivation to study coaching. Initially, I thought it was due to the funeral. Or maybe the coaching takes too much out of me. Finally, I think it’s because I enjoy creation more than learning. Learning was support for creation.

  • Diagnose the issue before finding solution.
  • Find a coach to help me unpack.

Doing too much

Learning + creating + working + traveling = intense.

As I travelled from UK to France, there was the language barrier to contend with + weekly traveling + winter, add layers of difficulty and caused decision fatigue.

On top of learning about coaching, I was also learning about story-telling. I generally enjoy learning, but there’s a point of “too-much.”

  • Travel slower. A city a month.
  • Find another story producer.
  • Pause.

Grief well

After coming back to Singapore, I had 2 weeks break from the podcast and coaching. Not realizing I was running on the past week’s momentum.

I had a cognitive expectation of doing and achieving. I did not adjust my expectation, then I grew anxious when I did not do those expectations.

  • Journal to unpack.
  • Rest till rested. From hot boredom to cold boredom.
  • Allocate a “no schedules plan” for 2 weeks, till cold boredom.
  • 15min of awareness meditation daily.

Failing sucks. I hope I will look back at this article when I face another failure.

And I hope there’ll be more failures.

When you are poor, people ask you for money. You say, “I need it to pay rent.”

When you are rich, people ask you for money. What excuse will you give?

Are you a bad person if you reject a $10 donation request? What if you got hundreds of these requests a month?

People get disappointed, angry, or enraged when you turn them down.

  • Where to donate? How much?
  • How to offer help? How much?
  • How to choose the next project? What’s your scope?

These are boundaries and constraints you set.

Invisible to others are there to save yourself first.

So that you have fuel to save the world.

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