Leading by example can be a double-edged sword

I’m gonna get right to the point and address the giant elephant in the room: You haven’t heard from me in more than a month, friend. While it’s very unlike me to disappear into the ether, it’s been necessary. And today’s newsletter is the VERY long version of where I’ve gone and why.

TLDR; The shortest version of this story if you don’t have time to read is that in order for me to be in a position to cure your Case of the Mondays, I had to address my own first.

Now for the much longer version…

As someone who prides himself in leading by example, I’ve done my best over the last eight years to consistently send out an email newsletter (at least) once per week and also release a brand new podcast interview or in-depth article so I can continue to provide you resources that educate, motivate, and inspire you to pursue goals that help you realize your true potential and design a more fulfilling life…without having to sacrifice your health, relationships, or your sanity in the process.

But sometimes leading by example can be a double-edged sword (and a painfully sharp one at that).

I came to the realization a couple months ago amidst what has quite possibly been the most stressful, overcommitted, and chaotic three months of my life that

The only way for me to continue leading by example was to take a break.

If you know me at all, you know how difficult (and painful) it was to make this decision. The last thing I ever want to become is yet another internet marketer, influencer, or thought leader who preaches one thing but practices something totally different behind the scenes. I’m not gonna be that asshole on Instagram standing in front of a jet holding champagne who’s hopelessly in-debt. I refuse to be Mr. Work-Life Balance who endlessly stresses the importance of boundaries, time management, and prioritizing relationships while privately sacrificing sleep, time with my kids, and my mental health simply to keep the content creation hamster wheel spinning.

Since returning from the holiday break in early January I have worked a minimum of 14-hour days (for 5-6 days per week) coaching my current Optimizer mentorship students, editing & locking four episodes of Cobra Kai (including the most difficult season finale I’ve ever cut), and also training for another shot on the American Ninja Warrior course. To give you a brief glimpse into the chaos that has been the last 3 months, in a single seven day stretch I flew to San Antonio, TX for four days to compete on the show, locked the S5 finale of Cobra Kai two days after landing, dealt with the loss of a close family member, and received what at the time appeared to be catastrophic health news about one of my parents that got me one click away from dropping my entire life and flying home (luckily it ended up being a false alarm). It’s been pretty much 3 solid months living at that pace. And the icing on the cake? We also got a brand new puppy that I’ve been training and managing largely on my own during the workday.

Needless to say, I realized the only way for me to weather this storm and come out the other end with some semblance of my sanity in tact was to hit the stop button on everything non-essential. I’ve made the mistake too many times of pushing through “just for a few more weeks” simply to sacrifice month’s worth of productivity (and sanity) on the backend.

I refused to make the same mistakes yet again.

Burnout & Depression Are Not Binary

What I’ve learned from my own experiences with burnout & depression is that they aren’t binary, they exist on a much wider spectrum. What I mean by this is that you aren’t fine one day and then completely burned out and depressed the next. You can either be pregnant or not pregnant, it’s very black & white and there is no in between. But there’s a giant chasm of grey when it comes to burnout and depression. You can think you’re fine one day and continue convincing yourself that nothing is wrong for weeks or even months, and then suddenly it appears you are completely burned out. However it is possible to develop and hone a much keener awareness of your mental & physical state such that you can identify the signs much earlier and be more proactive about not letting things reaching the point of no return.

Having spent over twenty years researching burnout, depression, and other topics related to mental health I’ve developed a much more acute sense of awareness specific to whether or not I just need a good night’s sleep or if I’m slowly slipping down the hole towards burnout and depression (more on that hole later, btw). The more awareness I’ve developed over the years, the quicker I’ve been able to identify when it’s time to slow things down or even take a break. It’s now been five years since I’ve even questioned whether or not I was experiencing any form of burnout or depression which is also a victory, because this used to be an ongoing battle almost on a yearly basis. But similar to many other forms of addictions:

I will never be a recovered workaholic.

I will also consider myself a recovering workaholic.

Five Early Signs of Depression & Burnout

Below I’ve provided five signs I recognized at a very early stage that helped me become more aware that I was edging towards depression & burnout:

  1. No matter how much sleep I prioritized or rest I snuck in during the weekend, it always felt like I simply couldn’t catch up. I kept saying “I just need a good night’s sleep,” but no matter how high the quality of my sleep or how long I slept, I woke up feeling like I just needed more.
  2. I started losing passion for my work and things I usually love doing felt like a burden. Writing a weekly newsletter, training with my ninja buddies on the weekends, or editing a kick-ass fight scene were no longer things on my calendar that excited me, all I could think about was getting through them so I could get back to resting (or sleeping).
  3. Very small, doable tasks started to feel overwhelming. I pride myself in being very effective with how I use my time and prioritize daily tasks, but no matter how much I organized my calendar or batch processed things on my to-do list, I simply couldn’t overcome the feeling of overwhelm (or plain dread) of crossing the next item off my list. And writing is perhaps the hardest task of all, hence why this newsletter has suffered.
  4. I became very short and irritable with everyone around me. Working from home always comes with it’s share of distractions and interruptions, but I found myself hiding in my office more than usual because I was always irritated when around other people, and the tone of my emails and Slack messages was edging towards being the grumpier curmudgeon version of myself I’ve desperately tried to eradicate over the last several years of my career.
  5. The last and most important telltale sign that I was slipping towards burnout was that I stopped being proactive about my life and instead went into what I call “productivity survival mode.” Given what’s going on in the world right now I realize “survival” is a VERY relative term, but at least as far as managing my day-to-day life I was no longer time blocking or actively planning my days and weeks. I was instead waking up as late as I could and simply reacting to the day’s emergencies which is a vicious cycle because the more exhausted I was the less proactive I was, and being reactive was simply contributing to me feeling so exhausted.

Needless to say, it’s been a long few months, but the subject of today’s newsletter is the first piece of solid evidence that I’ve adhered to The First Law of Holes:

When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Had I continued to maintain my weekly cadence of writing newsletters and releasing podcast interviews, I’m fairly convinced I’d be in a straight jacket right now having had a complete nervous breakdown. But because I was aware of the signs of burnout and depression very early on I was able to take the last couple of months to step away from the website, the newsletter, and the podcast to reflect on what’s important to me big picture rather than maintaining the illusion of consistency to you -one of my most important readers, listeners, and followers – but at the expense of my sanity.

So What’s Next?

Now that I’m back into building the Optimize world full-time again, there are going to be a lot of exciting changes, improvements, and brand new additions to the program this year including a new YouTube channel (still very much an early work-in-progress), Optimize merchandise, multiple online workshops, in-person networking events, Spartan training, and a whole lot more. But in order to continue providing all of the above for you while maintaining my own sense of work-life balance, this is going to take some time.

Fast. Cheap. Good.

I get to pick two.

I absolutely refuse to sacrifice quality, so “good” is a foregone conclusion.

Given I’m bootstrapping the construction of this program and this community, “cheap,” while a relative term, is also a foregone conclusion.

Therefore I must sacrifice “fast” in order to provide you with the highest quality resources that are also affordable.

Keep an eye on your inbox over the coming days & weeks because there’s a ton of good stuff coming your way very soon.

In the meantime…

Be well.
Zack Arnold
Creator, Optimize Yourself

Zack Arnold (ACE) is an award-winning Hollywood film editor & producer (Cobra Kai, Empire, Burn Notice, Unsolved, Glee), a documentary director, father of 2, an American Ninja Warrior, and the creator of Optimize Yourself. He believes we all deserve to love what we do for a living...but not at the expense of our health, our relationships, or our sanity. He provides the education, motivation, and inspiration to help ambitious creative professionals DO better and BE better. “Doing” better means learning how to more effectively manage your time and creative energy so you can produce higher quality work in less time. “Being” better means doing all of the above while still prioritizing the most important people and passions in your life…all without burning out in the process. Click to download Zack’s “Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Your Creativity (And Avoiding Burnout).”