Author’s note: This is the second in my series of blog posts dealing with post-production burnout. If you enjoy this article, click here to download your FREE “Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Your Creativity (and Avoiding Burnout)”
After releasing my previous blog post about post-production burnout I surprisingly discovered that my story is not the exception in this industry, it’s the rule. What I also realized from the overwhelming reaction I received is that while so many people can relate to my story, very few actually know what to do about burnout or how to dig themselves out of the hole. So below I have broken down the three steps I took to overcome burnout and return to optimal health in only 4 weeks.
Before breaking down the actions I took and the habits I developed, I think it might be helpful to paint a picture of what my burnout actually looked like. I’m not terribly comfortable doing so, but if sharing my story helps someone else with their own recovery, it will be worth it.
THE DARK HOLE
It’s easy to assume that because I have spent the last decade researching how to perform at an optimal level that my version of “burnout” is very different than yours. “He’s a health nut who works on a hit show, how bad can it be?”
I was on the last week of editing a pilot that I was so grateful to be working on, but given my poor health just driving to work was almost enough to throw me into a panic attack. The last month of my life had been complete and utter chaos (click here to read the details in my previous post), and my body and mind were breaking down. I would sit in my car in the parking structure for a good 5-10 minutes every morning psyching myself up to actually walk into the office. When I finally arrived I put on a smile and walked straight to my edit bay and shut the door.
I could barely stand at my desk, I could barely eat, and spending an afternoon in the room with a producer was excruciating. All I wanted to do was go home and sleep. This was just the tip of the iceberg.
Arriving home at night I was agitated and short with my kids and my wife, and I couldn’t bring myself to do basic tasks like put my dishes in the dishwasher. Doing complex tasks like taking out the trash, opening the mail, or doing the laundry? Wasn’t going to happen. All I wanted to do was sit in darkness and be left alone.
A few days after completing the pilot I travelled home to Wisconsin to visit my family. I barely remember the entire week as I slept through most of it. I literally fell asleep in the middle of conversations on the couch in broad daylight. But the worst memory I have of the trip was the day before we went back home. We were staying in a hotel near the airport, and I had just spent the afternoon swimming with my wife and kids. But I was so exhausted that I couldn’t go out to dinner afterwards. While my wife took my two young kids to a nice dinner I spent two hours sitting alone in the hotel room staring at the wall and fighting back tears. That night I slept all of two hours because I was so overtaken with anxiety and guilt. The next day when we arrived home in Los Angeles, I knew it was time to start making sweeping changes in my life or I wouldn’t survive my next run-in with burnout. Literally.
STARTING FROM SQUARE ONE
I remember thinking to myself, “I am never ending up here again.” Life is too short to spend the one week I have a year vacationing with my family being borderline catatonic. So I started thinking through the 5000 different things I have learned about health & wellness over the last decade. And what I started to realize is that I’ve spent so much time collecting tactics, tips, & tricks, but I’ve never developed a strategy. So rather than thinking going back to my old habits would magically make things different, I decided to start from square one.
Then I thought to myself, where do I start? Should I jump right into exercise? Do I need to start eating healthy again? (my diet had gone to complete shit) Should I work on becoming more efficient so I don’t work as much, or just focus on wellness? And seriously, what does “wellness” even mean?
I recently polled some of the members of the Optimize Yourself Facebook group about their perception of where someone should start if they want to get healthier, and the overwhelming response was they should focus on diet and healthier eating habits first. While I would have most likely voted for the same thing a few months ago, I now disagree with this approach. Of course eating better is going to make me feel better…so would exercising. But when you are in the dark you can’t see straight, and you simply don’t have the willpower to make good choices consistently. What I needed was a force multiplier.
The pressure was on. The clock was ticking.
I had to start season 2 of Empire in 3 weeks. And I could barely get out of bed.
STEP 1: SLEEP, THE ULTIMATE FORCE MULTIPLIER
The main question I asked myself is, “What is going to get me the most bang for my buck?” The conclusion I came to was getting the best sleep possible and lowering my stress levels was the place to start. I wasn’t going to worry about exercising, eating better, or being a productivity machine until I had nailed sleep and stress first.
A very common mistake people make when they start exercising and eating better is not monitoring stress. They are busting their butt with a new diet & exercise program taking the “all or nothing approach,” but they are seeing no tangible results. If you don’t have stress under control, everything else is all for naught. For three weeks all I decided to focus on was getting better sleep and lowering my stress levels. If I had decided to eat better or get back on the exercise wagon without lowering my stress levels first I would’ve just continued pushing the same boulder up the mountain. But getting better sleep and reducing stress would be akin to dropping a tiny snowball at the top of a mountain and pushing it downhill.
While I came to this decision independently, I recently discovered that I share the same viewpoint as Tim Ferriss that sleep is the ultimate force multiplier. If you get restful, quality sleep every night, everything begins to fall into place. Your cortisol levels go down, your appetite suppressing hormones go up, it’s easier to focus, you have more energy…in short, life just gets easier. And I had spent extensive time learning about how to “hack” my sleep, so no research was necessary. The key was actually doing everything I had learned consistently and getting myself back to a place where I got restful sleep every single night.
Once I got sleep back on track, it was time to manage my stress levels.
STEP 2: MANAGING STRESS
Once sleep clicked back into place, my clarity started to return and my anxiety levels began to drop. Now it was time to start calming my mind and managing stress. Once again I had 100 different tools in my arsenal that were gathering dust, so all I had to do was go back to doing the things that were already working. The first habit I began again was measuring my Heart Rate Variability (HRV) every single day to monitor the state of my nervous system (Click here to learn more about HRV).
Secondly I started meditating again. I used to meditate in bursts here and there, but thanks to the app Headspace I have now consistently meditated for at least 10 minutes every single day since July (Click here to listen to a podcast with the creator of Headspace). Meditation is something I learned a lot about in my ten years studying various forms of the martial arts and I’ve even taught it, so I know the tremendous benefits it can have on well being. Furthermore in all of the research I’ve done on people who perform at a high level, meditation and sleep are the most consistent habits among the highest achievers in the world. To enhance the cognitive and neurological effects of meditation even further, I now use Holosync on a daily basis.
My third step to reducing stress was bringing yoga back into my weekly routine. I don’t have the time to get to a yoga studio, but thanks to Yogis Anonymous I don’t have to…it’s basically the Netflix of yoga, and I can’t live without it. If I were stranded on a deserted island and I could only bring one form of activity or movement with me, I would bring yoga.
With sleep under control and behaviors in place to manage stress, the last step was figuring out how to make it all stick this time.
STEP 3: DEVELOPING MORNING & EVENING ROUTINES
The question on your mind right now is most likely the one I kept thinking about over and over as well:
“Once I start working on Empire again, how the heck am I going to have time to sleep 7 hours every night, meditate regularly, do yoga, keep my stress levels down, work on Fitness In Post in my ‘spare time,’ and then start exercising again and eating better?”
Commuting 2+ hours a day, cutting for 12 hours (on a normal day) and raising two young kids should make these goals seemingly impossible, no? The only solution to overcoming these obstacles was developing strict morning and evening routines. What I’ve learned from just about every podcast, book, or course I’ve taken about high performance is that like meditation, EVERY single highly successful person has a strict morning routine. And the only way I was going to stick with it was automating it and essentially turning myself into Pavlov’s dog.
To be clear: I’ve never been a morning person. NEVER. Try growing up on a farm and not being able to physically wake up before 9am every single day. It’s hell on earth. But I knew that the only pocket of time I had to consistently focus on my health was the morning. As I’ve heard Tim Ferriss say a hundred times, “If you win the morning, you win the day.” Morning routines was an area of expertise I did not previously have in my arsenal, so I had to start from square one. Using suggestions from The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod as well as The Asian Efficiency ‘Morning Ritual Starter Kit,’ I started building a morning routine from the ground up in my productivity tool of choice Trello. And I now wake up with boundless energy at 6 am every day.
The theory behind automating my morning is that we have a finite amount of energy in a given 24 hour period to make decisions, and as an editor I make thousands upon thousands of tiny decisions on a daily basis.
As editors we often ask ourselves at the end of the day,
“Why am I so exhausted? I’ve just been sitting here doing nothing!”
Relying on willpower to make the right decisions never works. Have you ever tried making healthy dietary choices at 8pm on a Friday night? Never works. If it did pizza delivery services everywhere would go bankrupt. Why do you not care about making bad decisions late in the day? Because your decision-making energy is GONE.
By building a strict morning routine I have now eliminated three hours of my day that required decisions: What to make for breakfast, what exercise program to do, what tasks are important to achieve today, should I wear this shirt or this shirt? What should I make my daughter for breakfast, and should I do it now, after I check e-mail, etc etc etc. All of my morning decisions are now automated on a checklist. All I do is follow the checklist that I set up the evening before and follow it (I also have a checklist to help me follow my evening routine and set myself up for the following morning). If you want to dive deeper into the theory behind checklists and why they are so successful in instituting repeated behaviors, check out The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.
By the time I drop my daughter off at preschool at 9am every morning I have been up for 3 hours and I’ve already spent 15 minutes clearly defining my important tasks for the day, I have meditated, exercised for 30 minutes, checked e-mail and Facebook to make sure there are no emergencies I need to take care of, made breakfast for both of us, we have eaten a distraction-free breakfast together, I have cleaned the kitchen afterwards, showered, gotten both of us dressed, and taken care of any tasks my wife has left for me in the morning. Most importantly: I haven’t made a single energy-sapping decision in this time because everything was laid out for me and automated the night before.
THANK GOD FOR BURNOUT
After years of experimenting with hundreds of different tips & tricks when it comes to my wellness, I can say unequivocally without a shadow of a doubt that my latest experience with burnout was a Godsend and I am grateful to have gone through it. Why? Because it forced me to reevaluate my priorities and reorganize the way I approach my health. In the past my response to burnout was always focused on diet & exercise with a sprinkling of wellness thrown in, but now that I have reorganized the way I go about my mornings and evenings, how I approach sleep, and how I manage stress, I am more creative and churning out better work in less time than I ever have previously in my career.
If you enjoyed this article, click here to download your FREE “Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Your Creativity (and Avoiding Burnout)”