Building personal resilience (or how to avoid burnout)

In the last few months I’ve changed jobs, moved cities, gotten a promotion and taken on a ‘doer-upper’. Those things happening (and in particular them happening all at once) has meant I’ve become intimately acquainted with the concept of resilience – how it feels when you have it, how it feels when you lose it and what it takes to replenish it.

Since reaching ‘the other side’ I’ve started to open up to people about the fact I’d been finding things hard and I’ve been overwhelmed by the response. Those first friends and colleagues helped me pluck up the courage to propose a session at the One Team Gov Global unconference and the ideas and suggestions that came out of that session were so valuable I wanted to share them more widely.

First things first, how I define resilience

A colleague of mine refers to their personal resilience as their ‘rhino skin’. This is a lovely analogy but I completely disagree, and here’s why…

Resilience isn’t about pushing through difficult times or keeping calm and carrying on. EVERYBODY gets overwhelmed at times in their life. Trying to stop that from happening is the beginning of a futile war with yourself. You will make yourself miserable every time things get on top of you because you’ll use that ‘failure’ as another stick to beat yourself with – why can’t I just NOT let this stuff get to me? Why am I not coping better?

Instead, resilience is about how we re-charge. It’s how we react to feeling overwhelmed. How we get back on the horse. I say this because I want people to know that feeling burned out doesn’t mean you aren’t resilient or you can’t become more so.

My personal epiphany

The actual ‘ah ha’ moment for me came one night after a hard day at work. All I wanted to do was go home and sleep but I had already paid for some very expensive theatre tickets. I thought this was a disaster. It was not! I got to bed later and had less sleep than I had for weeks, and yet I woke up refreshed and with much more enthusiasm for the day ahead.

This is when I realised that I had been trying to conserve the wrong type of energy. I was trying to get more sleep when what I really needed was ‘rest’ of a different kind.

Know your energy sources

There is a civil service learning course called ‘Future Engage Deliver’. It posits the idea that we have four different types of energy and encourages us to think about how we can replenish those different types of energy when they are running low. I think it was this concept that I stumbled upon with my theatre ticket epiphany.

This is how I understand the four energy sources:

Physical – probably the most obvious energy source. You know you’re low on physical energy when you feel tired in your muscles and your body. Physical energy is depleted by exercise or long days at the office, and can be easily replenished by resting/baths/stretching etc.

Emotional – harder to define, but you’ll probably recognise it if you’ve ever had a long conversation with a friend in crisis or a family member who needs support. Emotional energy is depleted when we support others or are dealing with a situation in our lives that triggers emotional responses. It can be replenished by time alone (if you’re an introvert) or by choosing to spend time on activities that keep you calm and give you joy, like creative pursuits.

Intellectual – the energy source we need to think about hard problems. You’re low on intellectual energy if you can’t be bothered to engage with a problem you’re facing or if you’re procrastinating more than you usually would. Intellectual energy is depleted when we spend a lot of time thinking about hard problems (especially if you aren’t getting to solutions) but can be replenished by playful activities like games, a good page-turner or physical exercise.

Spiritual – doesn’t apply only to religious people, but is rather about our sense of purpose and our priorities. You can usually spot your spiritual energy is depleted if you’re having one of those ‘what am I doing with my life’ moments. It can be replenished by refocusing on your personal priorities and making sure you’re spending time on the things that are truly important to you.

The above might help you, or it might not. Either way, I’d encourage you to think about the things you enjoy doing and make sure you’re scheduling them into your days and weeks. When things get busy you might be tempted to skip them as non-essential, but trust me, that’s a short-term strategy that won’t pay off in the long run. I’m trying to make time for yoga classes, life drawing, cycling, the theatre and live music in my schedule. I’m not managing it 100% of the time, but at least I know what I’m aiming for.

Adopt some positive psychology

Positive psychology sounds cheesy, but it really works. This is because our thinking patterns are formed by habit. When we repeatedly revisit a negative rabbit hole it’s easier to get back into it. Our brains naturally look for evidence that reinforces this negative thought and even relatively small things can end up triggering a completely disproportionate spiral into despair. If you spot yourself getting on the stress express train, get off! Just noticing the pattern will help, and if it doesn’t, take some time away from the situation causing it.

A specific positive psychology technique I tried and found helpful was to write down 5 things I am grateful for before I go to bed. They don’t need to be big things. Just the act of reminding yourself of the good stuff in your life is positive, and doing so before bed increases the chances of you getting a restful night’s sleep.

Embrace meditation (in whatever way suits you)

My husband is a practicing Zen Buddhist who meditates for an hour every morning. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried meditation. And how irritated I get when people tell me I should try it because it will help me to stop overthinking things. Meditation isn’t a magic pill to turn your thoughts off, so don’t go into it expecting that. I didn’t find it helped until I realised yoga was a form of meditation, and that I could use the headspace app on the train in the mornings. Once I embraced the principles of meditation (the connection between mind and body and appreciating the present moment) without getting fixated on the rules of what counts as meditation, I found a way to work it into my routine in a sustainable way that works for me.

Take ownership of your day

Morning routines are really helpful if you’re having a tough time. Tejay White did a great talk about this at Ladies that UX Manchester a few months ago and what I liked about how she approached it was her pragmatism. It doesn’t need to be 2 hours of yoga, meditation and bathing with scented candles. It can be a 5 minute journal, or yoga in bed or a good cup of coffee - whatever you want to do for yourself. The important thing is to try and make part of your morning about you and your needs, not just a prep for work phase.

Spend time with the people who inspire you

We all have people who, when we see them, are like a tonic for our soul. For me, this is the One Team Gov community and the other groups I am a member of like Product Tank Manchester, LadiesthatUX and SheSays Manchester. I also rely on people in my team and Twitter friends who share interesting things for me to read and are always available for a coffee when I need timeout. These people inspire me and help pick me up when I’m feeling lost or lacking in spiritual energy.

Unplug

Technology and its constant demands on our attention have been shown time and time again to affect our mental health. If you’re plugged in 24/7, try taking a break from screens and technology-based stimuli. Kit Collingwood wrote an entire blog post about this, so for more practical tips on how to unplug check out her musings.

OK, I think this post is definitely long enough. But I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. So if you’ve got ideas please add them in the comments so others can benefit.