The Burnout Cycle

September 1, 2023
Do you ever feel like you’re stuck in a relentless cycle of burnout? You’re not alone. In this episode, Joe and Brett dive into the nuances of cyclical burnout — the dependence on adrenaline, the self-perpetuating sense of urgency, the inevitable fiery crash. Learn to feel the difference between stressed idleness and deep rest, exploring the interplay between fear, joy, and excitement. Explore alternative ways of working that may be more energizing than relying on adrenaline, and see how gratitude can open up a powerful escape hatch from the burnout cycle.

Episode Intro:  Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease.  I am Brett Kistler and this is Joe Hudson.

Joe: Hi, everybody.

Brett: We have been getting a lot of questions about burnout, and given I just got back from a long festival weekend with no sleep and 120 day time temperatures and you are in your final week before your month long time off to rest and recover, I figured this might be a perfect time for both of us to go into this.

Joe: Yes, absolutely. This is definitely the time of year where I am most likely to be a little burnt out, a little tired. Great timing.

00:59 Brett: From this grounded, centered place you must be in 100% of the time, tell me what it is that you refer to when you talk about the burnout cycle so just so I can get people on the same page.

Joe: I would think about it in three different ways. Let's talk about the nervous system way first. I remember when I was running my first company and I went to an acupuncturist. I lived in a place and this woman told me to go see this acupuncturist. This was a while back and I thought acupuncturist, what the hell is that? I went, and this doctor was amazing. He basically gave me something called adaptogens to help my adrenals recover. He didn't say that. He just told me to take this. I asked him if he was a Western doctor what he would do. He said what would happen is I would drink a lot of coffee and eventually get depressed, and then I would put you on antidepressants. This was before Western people would give anti-anxiety medication to depressed people. In his world, the way it worked was you would be anxious and your adrenals expend. When they start drying up, you get a coffee and if you dry it up even more, you are depressed. That's what I would say about the physiological system. That's how it works. The lack of adrenaline leads to this burnout. That's how I would describe it there.

If I were describing it from the psychological or the human brain, the prefrontal cortex brain, I would think about it as for whatever reason you are constantly in a fight or flight situation. You have created things where you have to do this instead of getting to do things or you should do things instead of wanting to do things. It has to be at a certain time and perfect, whatever it is, which constantly feels like you are under attack or under pressure. If you go through life that way, all of those psychological things are going to create the burnout. Then on the last piece of it and the emotional system, it is typically not wanting to feel something, meaning that there is some emotion that you are not wanting to feel and therefore you are running from it. It is that running from the emotion that creates a certain amount of adrenaline in your system. I would say the burnout cycle is if you have been running on adrenaline for your anxiety for an extended period of time, then typically eventually you are going to burn out. You see this all of the time, especially in corporate America.

Brett: I notice a distinction here worth exploring between running on and burning out from fear and anxiety or there being fear and anxiety present in your life. Often people have the perception that what's happening externally around them is the cause. If you look across the population, there are some people who can be living a lifestyle others would be burned out in and they are not. Some people are living a lifestyle and others ask how this person living this lifestyle is burned out without the view of what their internal state is and how they are psychologically relating to their life and to themselves.

Joe: The other way to think about this is having been a venture capital and a coach I have worked with a lot of CEOs. There is a lot of pressure and a running off of a lot of adrenaline. When they sell or leave their business, I often see them stay in their pajamas for two years. They are so burnt out from that running so hard for so long that they just basically are in a burn out. The other thing that's interesting is we do this assessment for folks, and I work this way, which is the way I recover from long, extended breaks of doing nothing. I work really hard and then I recover with these long, extended breaks of doing nothing, which is what I am about to do for a month where I focus fully on just physical and mental well being. Some people run like that, and some people on a daily basis do the things they need. I do daily practices obviously but I definitely need these long things to be able to get back into a place where I feel completely resourced, ready and fresh. I do that. Some people just work their butt off for 10 years and then take two years to sit on the couch and typically beat themselves up.  

Brett: Or in the opposite direction from taking time off, my coping mechanism for a long time was going into a very scary situation so that the adrenaline made sense. People would call me an adrenaline junkie, but I found that if I didn't get out into the mountains and I wasn't jumping or doing something that was scaring me on a regular basis, then the accumulated background fear underneath my psyche would become debilitating unless I had the opportunity to burn some of that off. I noticed that after jumping, I felt so grounded. Nothing scared me at that moment because nothing is quite as intense as what I had just experienced. I could get back to my email and get some work done. Things were great until it started to build back up again and [unclear] needed to occur.

Joe: That totally makes sense. I remember something similar where I went to Alaska for the summer and we would work 100 or so hours a week, physical. It was draining. You were definitely running off of adrenaline just because it took so much energy to do it. I remember when we got out, the first thing I did was sleep for 20 or so hours. Then I remember we went to Oregon and one of my favorite things to do was to jump off things into water, and I remember jumping off of a bridge and no adrenaline. I remember asking myself what had just happened since there was no adrenaline happening. We just kept on going bigger, and finally I did something so big, I could feel the adrenaline. I had sucked the last little adrenaline out of me. I totally understand, and because that felt like refreshed in some way. That's what it is, I would say, the burnout cycle.

The reason it is really important to me to talk about it is because so many executives that I know are in that place of burnout or are about to be burned out. When it happens, the brain caves in itself. You don't see opportunities clearly. You don't take enjoyment in your work. It is just very hard to see things with the optimism that's often necessary. How to think about it is very important, I think, for any kind of sustained productivity.

Brett: I think that makes a self reinforcing cycle. To the extent you have some unprocessed and unfelt fear in your system, as you start to get more and more burned out, you are going to start seeing things even more in that scary or pessimistic catastrophizing light, which will increase the level of fear. Going back to that distinction of there not just being excitement, fear and adrenaline present in your life, it is that you are driven by it. It becomes the driving force that eventually brings you to the brink.

09:00 Joe: That's one of the many traps that are available in it. There is a sense of feeling alive that comes with it, and it can be exhilarating. You can do this thing that brings that thrill, and at first it feels really great. The first time you drink a cup of coffee, you think this feels really good. Then if you are drinking three cups every day, you notice the jitters. Then pretty soon you just need it. I think it is the same way. That's one of the traps of it. The other trap is that a lot of people use it for motivation. I had a really famous investor that I worked with for a while, and he just wouldn't do anything until it became urgent. Then he would use the urgency to motivate himself, and then the whole team realized urgency is what motivates this person. They would create these urgencies and they would be motivated, but all it did was make him more and more burnt out. People use it as a form of motivation rather than enjoyment or inspiration or vision or any of those things to find their motivation.

Brett: Tim Urban of Wait but Why has this really beautiful Ted Talk. The metaphor is there is a monkey on your shoulder, and that monkey is the thing that motivates. You find yourself very distracted up until the moment of the deadline, and then you use that deadline to motivate yourself. It just seems like a very common cycle. I relate to it so much through much of my life and the languaging around ADHD very much fits that pattern as well as many other depression and anxiety.

Joe: I would say those are some of the things that keep you on that side of the cycle, and then there is the other thing that keeps you on the other side of the cycle. Then you are burnt out, in your pajamas, not doing anything. What happens is your mind keeps on attacking you. You should really get up and do this or that. It starts beating you up, which continues to create the adrenaline because you are under attack. What you need is just to rest and instead what you are doing is sitting on the couch beating yourself up. I have noticed when a CEO I am working with is done with a big project and they are not beating themselves up, their recovery time is three to four months. Similarly if somebody is beating themselves up, it can be two, three or even five years. That's a pretty tremendous difference just in how it keeps you stuck on the other side, through self abuse.

Brett: Especially if you have a conflation between relaxing and resting and laziness or some kind of judgmental description of it, then any time your body wants to recover, you are going to go into self attack and self threat, which is just going to stymy any attempts that your body wants to recover, leading you straight into burnout.

Joe: That's right. I was talking to this Olympically trained athlete, and he was saying that the best athletes he knows know how to recover really well. They work really, really hard and then they do absolutely nothing to recover. It is this unknown secret that the Olympic athletes train really, really hard but the recovery is really important. I thought that was fascinating.

Brett: What are some other traps around this that people fall into that get them stuck in the cycle?

Joe: I think the other trap that isn't particularly what keeps you in it but there is this idea that people have, which is if I don't beat myself up, if I don't have a sense of urgency, how will I ever get anything done? That is an amazing thought process because you look at little kids, and all they do is do stuff. You look at mice, and all they do is do stuff. It is not like they are under this idea of urgency. They are just doing stuff. It is our nature to do stuff, but somehow in our brain we get this idea that without this motivation of urgency or without this beating ourselves up, we won't get anything done, which is interestingly true and not true. What I mean to say there is that it is not true at all. However, if you are burnt out, then there is some truth to it because you are creating more of that adrenaline high to get to something. They see this with kids who do this thing called unschooling. If a kid burns out in school, maybe because they feel attacked by their teachers or their kids or they are under this crazy stress, they will drop out. If they go into this idea of unschooling, one of the things they say to a kid is okay, no screen time, but you can do whatever else you want. Tell us when you want to start learning again. They will read cartoons or comics or they will just hang out  or go off into the woods. They will do all the stuff. What they won't do is screen time or videos. Those aren't allowed because they increase your adrenal fatigue. It turns out that eventually, usually four to six months later, the kids want to learn again.

There is this short term thing of not being motivated if you have been under this sense of urgency. As an adult, we might not be able to take six months off and we might be burnt out, and so then our other option is how we do things without the adrenaline. You have to start thinking about the things I am going to do, but I have to figure out ways to do them without the adrenaline rush, which is one of the ways I help CEOs all of the time. We look at the things that drain them and we figure out ways they could do them that feed them directly and make them feel better about their day.

15:19 Brett: We have been talking about this in terms of burn out on an individual level, but you can also see a lot of the same dynamics play out in society or in a company or in a movement. For example, there is so much around marketing or grass roots movements where the prevailing wisdom is to hook into people's sense of urgency. This is a problem we need to fix. If we don't fix it, the world is going to hell. That kind of message is prevailing everywhere, and so we all find ourselves walking through life being hit by a bunch of these messages, these arrows, environment, social.

Joe: Politics this, religion that.

Brett: That would tend to reinforce those cycles we have individually when our media is that way, but also if you are the CEO of a company, how do you bring that energy into your product? How do you create meaningful change in the world from a place of people with me needing to buy into this fear and urgency place and use that as a tool to hook other people into our mission with us? What is the alternative? I am curious if you have any reflection on that before I lead into the next section on what we can do about it.

Joe: That's a great question. There are a couple of things, too. I have also seen it on a societal level. If a society is all run up on an idea, like making as much money as you can in a cocaine or caffeine fueled expansion on a societal level, you can just wait for that downturn to happen in the economy. I think it happens, and I see it happen in companies, too. What's fascinating is I have literally watched someone go from burn out to being free of several ideas and then be inspired again, like a CEO says they are done. Asking if they have to deal with it this way, if these constraints are real, and what if they are taken away, and then the CEO is excited again. That's a really fascinating thing to watch. It is rare, but I have seen it several times where what was actually the thing that was taking their adrenaline was some limiting belief or false idea they have.

Brett: Same in a relationship as well.

Joe: I just worked with a group of CEOs, and we did this exercise where I asked what takes the most out of them, and I asked them questions about alternative ways of doing it that actually feed you. Every single one of them saw this breakthrough of them doing it in a way that takes their energy when they could be doing it in a way that gives them energy. I think that is the way you handle it inside of a company. If a CEO thinks they have to push themselves to get through, then their company is going to feel the same way. If a CEO thinks it is more efficient for them to figure out how to enjoy it and to get energy from everything they do, then they will start looking around and seeing how powerful that is. They will organize their company in the same way so that the people in their company have that same experience. It will be part of the questions that are asked. How do you get the same results but enjoy it twice as much? It is funny because I ask that question when I go into work with teams. I ask what we could do that would double the results and what we could do that would double the enjoyment.

Brett: That also feels very relevant for business negotiations as well. Ultimately if you want to work with somebody and you are just drilling into how we are going to get our senses of urgency met rather than how we are going to get our deeper spiritual and psychological needs and those of our companies and organizations served by what we are doing, then you are missing some of the puzzle.

Joe: As a matter of fact, this is a golden thing for anybody negotiating. When I talk to people about negotiating for a position or for a job, I say there are three stages of the negotiation. The first is how you want to work together because that is what actually motivates everybody if it is a match or it pushes people away if it is not a match, which is perfect. The second is what the resources are that you need to do your job really, really well, and then the third is what the salary is. I notice when it goes in that position, it is clarity the whole way or you get to a no quicker rather than what most people do, which is work on the salary, which is really not what motivates us. There are great studies on this, but most people would take a little less money if they were three times as happy in their jobs.

20:40 Brett: Let's get this back to the individual level of burnout and talk a little bit about what we can do to avoid it or how we can work with it or fall deeply in love with it.

Joe: If you are in it, then love it but I think there are ways to just not get there. One of my ways is to take significant time off. I am able to do that now. I wasn't at some point. I had other methods. Making sure that you have physical health, like running or anything that destresses the system whether that's meditation, yoga or massage, I think that's a huge benefit. On the psychological level, I would say we have all of the podcasts from the master class. Each one of those is a reduction in adrenaline. If you are operating from your wants instead of your shoulds, there is less adrenaline that's happening. If you are operating from how to be authentic instead of how to improve yourself, you are absolutely using less adrenaline. All of those are tools to use less adrenaline. Then on a deeper level, if you always have to be on time, which is something I have struggled with, then usually that means there is a parent you got in trouble with if you weren't on time and therefore you are running from meeting to meeting. That's a lot of adrenaline use. How do you undo those psychological components?

Constantly look at your adrenaline use. I think there is a huge amount of time and energy put towards time management, but I think energy management is critical. You can spend a lot more time if you are really managing your energy well, and so that's another thing is to just pay attention to when you are running on adrenaline and what's creating that and what's a way to do it where you are not running on your adrenaline to get that same job done. If you problem solve there, then you have so much more energy, which is why I have done a lot of that work. It is why I can work that way I work, at the speed at which I work, and not burn out. That and taking a month off every year is really important to get back to my physical health and well being.

Brett: It also feels like a good dose of self inquiry would be helpful here. If I am running to the meeting, what am I afraid of? I am afraid of being late to the meeting. What does that mean? If I am late to the meeting, I feel like I am unworthy, I am going to be yelled at or I am not good enough, but if I were to message and say I am going to be 5 minutes late and then showed up much more prepared for the meeting and less burned out, what is it that I am actually concerned about? When we have all these fear stories and stress triggers, what is the actual trigger that's going on? Not just the surface level one, what is the deeper one? What is it that we actually need underneath that?

Joe: That's right. That's where the head stuff comes in. It is in the shoulding ourselves and what the psychological things are that make us rush. The best way to go about that is to really look where you are spending that and how you do it differently. Is the way to do it differently to let people know you are running late? Is the way to do it differently to give yourself 10 minutes between meetings? What is the way to do it differently? That's one of the things we sat with today. There were folks who said they had to have conflict with somebody or I have to run the sales meeting and I hate it, so I do it through adrenaline. How do we do this? In each one of these CEOs who had the issue, there were literally infinite solutions, at least 20 inside of five minutes from the other CEOs who had all figured out some way to do that thing in a way that they enjoyed it. It was really cool. When you really see it and you see you can take anything that takes energy from me and figure out a way to do it that gives me energy or delegate it, it is pretty amazing to watch that.

Brett: Earlier we talked about allowing the rest to actually occur. How about welcoming the experience of being tired? Maybe not burned out, but just noticing when you feel burned out, what does that feel like? I feel tired, like not doing anything or X, Y or Z. Then doing the emotional inquiry on those feelings, including even just the physical sensation of tiredness. The sensation of tiredness is my body signaling it needs to recover. In fact, it may actually be a direct signal for recovery. Sleeping is a feeling of tiredness that is an actual recovery. If we flip the script on how we see those signals and recognize they are actually reparative and not a sign that we are doing it wrong, then that can allow the deeper restfulness to arise when it is needed.

Joe: Some people just resist feeling tired. Also we have been running really hard, and we have been compartmentalizing feelings. We have not been paying attention to the sadness and the fear, and so there is a lot of backlog that just needs to move. If you resist moving it, you are going to take a longer time to recover. The other little trick I will play on folks is with COOs I will ask how we measure how well they are resting. Are you going to be the best at resting or are you going to be half assing it? What's going on here? I will literally flip the script on them that to rest well is an accomplishment because it is. It is not an easy thing to do, to rest well. We think it is, but most folks don't. It is some combination of taking care of our physical body, the nutrition, and self-talk. It is a very aesthetic thing to really rest well and to support yourself in it. If we start looking at those metrics and see how well you meet the goal of resting well, it can totally change the whole dynamic in the head. It is a short cut, but it works. It gives them some way of being able to feel like they have done something meaningful.  

Brett: To flip that to the other side of the spectrum, if you can rest well, what would it mean to fear well? For example, if you find yourself in that elevated state, how much resistance is there in it? Fear can become excitement. Fear is excitement without the breath, and so when you are finding yourself in the elevated state and everyone's at the board meeting doing whatever, politicking or trying to get their thing met, and you are running out of time. If you are elevated, how do you allow that to move through to a really clean, energetic flow of excitement, determination and fully showing up? How much more energy efficient is that?

Joe: The other, which is one of the things people have a problem with resting is they start feeling good, and that scares them. That level of exuberance, excitement or peace scares them. The same thing, on the rest cycle, how do you really allow yourself to feel great in it and not just immediately rush back to the work at hand? In about a week and a half into the month, I will have 100 ideas and a lot of stuff I want to do. I will have the energy to do it. I know that if I actually prolong that rest period, sit with all of that excitement and exuberance, and I move through that into deeper states of peace, joy and slowness, I am so much more effective. I actually extend my rest time once a year so that I can go beyond the state of being ready to do work again and go into states of much deeper peace and joy. From that place, my work is so much better. What I do in the world, how I do it, how quickly I do it all improve remarkably.

Brett: I have noticed myself too that if I take a week backpacking, halfway through I have got a million ideas that I am ready to go with and the second half of the week is where the magic happens. I think a lot of that comes from the celebration and the gratitude. There is time to just sit with how good it feels to feel this way, continue to reflect on my mission, my purpose and my enjoyment, then third just to be with it in the wilderness as it is not possible to do anything with it, and to have the gratitude for all of that that is actually present right now without needing to be contingent on my actual execution. I am curious how you would bring gratitude into this as well.

Joe: I can totally see how the gratitude would be helpful, and what I notice is when I am rested and resourced, gratitude is well spring. It is just what happens continually. That's the most common thought when I am rested or one of the most common. Wow, I am so grateful. I am so lucky. I feel so privileged.

Brett: I am really grateful for this conversation and grateful to all of our listeners.

Joe: Thank you all for showing up.

Brett: If you enjoyed this episode, just pick one person you think would love it and send it to them but only if you would enjoy that. You can find us on Twitter at artofaccomp or hit us up at, find the contact form and shoot us a question. Come take a course.

See you next time.

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