I recently read this article describing 5 properties of people who suffer significant stress, but don’t quite burn out. When I’ve read such articles in the past, I’ve reacted to them in frustration by thinking if I knew how to do these things, I wouldn’t be reading this article! I needed concrete steps to help me trick my brain to do what I needed.

I’ve tried many things over the past 15 years to deal with symptoms of burnout and even moderate-to-severe depression. I would like to share concrete steps that I’ve taken, which seem to have helped me, and which I believe helped me move in the direction of each of the 5 properties that seem to characterize people who don’t seem to burn out.

And, you know, I’ve actually felt much better the last few years.

Kandi Wiens and Annie McKee identified these five suggestions for forestalling burnout:

  • Don’t be the source of your stress.
  • Recognize your limitations.
  • Take deep breaths when you feel your tension and anxiety rapidly rising.
  • Reevaluate your perspective of the situation.
  • Deescalate conflicts by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.

I’ve taken steps in these various directions using the following techniques.

Perfectionism and Transforming Rules into Guides

The authors mention perfectionism as a common source of self-induced stress. A variety of people—too many to count, really—have helped me see how to dampen the effects of perfectionism by transforming rules into guides. This means identifying survival rules (absolute statements that I’ve come to believe) and challenging them, by systematically imagining situations in which I can break those rules while living according to my values. You might need someone to guide you through this process a few times before you feel comfortable doing it on your own. Some survival rules sit very deep in my thinking and it helps to have an arm’s-length person to help me tease them out. It can help merely to think about rules that you volunteer to live by and to ask yourself whether you can justify breaking them from time to time. Doing so can help reduce the impact of your perfectionism.

Recognizing Limitations by Assessing Capacity

In teaching Free Your Mind to Do Great Work, I take participants through an exercise in which they confront—many of them for the first time—the limitations to their capacity to do things. Any thing. When I first learned about Getting Things Done I didn’t appreciate the power of honestly assessing my capacity and recognizing that I will not be able to do everything I might want to do. This honest assessment takes several forms: eliminating the word “should”, self-care, recovery… it becomes important to recognize not only that you have limited capacity, but that nobody has the right to expect you to have unlimited capacity. It seems trivial, but it has real power.

Deep Breaths… It’s Stupid And It Works

If you’ve resisted the current trend towards mindfulness meditation, I don’t blame you. I resisted it for years before trying. It felt very much like woo. I like to think of deep breathing as a trick to fool the brain into believing that it’s not under immediate threat. After reading books like Influence, Risk: The Politics of Fear, and Black Swan I could no longer pretend that my brain perceives the world as it is and that my mind interprets events clearly. I need to resort to tricking my brain and mind. Deep breathing achieves this, buying me time to think more clearly about what to do next. If you think of meditation as bullshit, then you don’t need to go that far: breathing deeply tricks the mind into believing that it has enough time to make a clear decision. That sounds good, no?

Reframe Stress as Enthusiasm

I listened to a two-part podcast episode of “Invisibilia” in which they discussed emotions. One thing stuck out to me: the population of emotional responses that we thought of as “hardwired in the brain” is actually smaller than we had previously assumed. We have more opportunity to change the nature of responses than we’d previously thought. It might take decades of training that we can’t justify, but it is possible in principle. In particular, I could reframe the physiological sensations of “stress” as something like enthusiasm or excitement and thereby interpret those sensations more positively. So I started to do this and it helped me feel less beholden to what previously had been feelings of threat or dread. It took me time to change my immediate interpretation of these feelings and I don’t do it perfectly, but it helps.

Two Laws of Interpretations

Empathy and compassion have become buzzwords in the second half of the 2010s and into the 2020s. This might lead some to view these ideas with skepticism, but I found it transformative to learn about the Law of Generous Interpretation. In short, whatever the other person says or does, let us interpret it the most generously we can, painting that person in the most positive light possible. We’ve seen this in other forms, such as the Prime Directive of Retrospectives. If you’re not prepared for this, then you can take a step in its general direction by adopting the Law of Three Interpretations: don’t react until you’ve considered at least three different ways to interpret what the other person has said or done. If you haven’t thought of three interpretations, then you haven’t thought about it enough. If nothing else, it encourages me to slow down, to consider their perspective, and to avoid a premature and costly reaction.

I don’t know how much to attribute by current mood to doing these things. I can’t say for certain that they have helped me avoid relapsing in my burnout and even depression. I can only say that I’ve done these things and that has correlated with generally better moods. If you try them and they help you, then that makes me happy.