Whether it’s the weight of papers and finals at the end of a really tough semester, a jam-packed schedule of gigs, students, and one-too-many Nutcrackers, the final stretch of months of intense audition preparation, or just the hustle and bustle and stress of the holidays on top of everything else, it’s the time of year when it’s easy to get a little frazzled and burned out.
Where you may feel drained – physically and emotionally. And maybe a little cranky too, with difficulty focusing. Making it hard to work or practice as productively as you normally would. Which could make you worry about being unprepared, and increase your stress. Leading to some tossing and turning and difficulty getting to sleep. Which puts you in an even worse place the next day. And can lead to a sense of detachment and loss of enthusiasm for all the important stuff on your plate. Ack!
So what are we to do? Is there a way to increase our resilience in times like this? And ensure we don’t end up slumped on the couch, watching reruns of The Office while eating all of the leftover Halloween candy instead of working on the projects on our to-do list?
Why do we get burned out?
J. Bryan Sexton is an associate professor at Duke University’s School of Medicine, and has a particular interest in resilience and burnout.
Noting that most interventions for burnout involve training people to develop more balanced thinking skills, so they can get better at perceiving positive emotions, he has suggested that “burnout, at its core, is the impaired ability to experience positive emotion.”
Indeed, it’s super easy to get so focused on the difficult, frustrating, unpleasant, and stressful parts of each day, that we don’t notice the good parts. The moments when we experience a tiny bit of joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, or love (and no, that’s not just a random list of positive words copy/pasted from synonym.com, but 10 emotions that are associated with insulating us from burnout).
Sounds a little cheesy, maybe, but then again I think we can all acknowledge that these are the sorts of moments that lift us up and keep us going when times are tough.
Burnout in hospitals
To test out the notion that positivity training in burned out or burnout-prone individuals could help increase resilience, Sexton recruited various groups of healthcare workers to complete a simple exercise every day for two weeks.
It’s an exercise known as the Three Good Things exercise, and simply involves a) writing down three good things that happened during the day, and b) describing your role in bringing about these positive experiences/events/results.
These “good things” could really be anything – a mock audition that went really well, a peaceful early-morning walk with your dog, or a really nice lunch with friends where you shared a lot of laughs.
The idea is to simply write down something that represents joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, or love. And reflect why this happened (in a way that helps to reinforce that you did something to make this happen, and that you have the ability to create moments of positivity in your everyday life, no matter how crazy a day it ends up being).
Did it make a difference?
Among 148 medical residents at Duke, there was a 15% drop in burnout within 2 weeks (65% to 50%). They also reported feeling less depressed and felt they had a better work-life balance.
A group of patient safety officers at Duke experienced a 19% drop in burnout (57% to 38%).
And a group in the neonatal intensive care unit at Stanford University hospital experienced an 11% decrease in burnout (64% to 53%).
Wait – there’s more!
What’s even more intriguing, is that not only did these changes happen relatively quickly, but they tended to be long-lasting.
Just 7-14 days of this exercise appeared to lead to benefits that could be measured even a year later. Among the Duke residents, for instance, the burnout rate remained at 48% a year after completing the exercise.
The studies here looked primarily at burnout in medical settings, so they don’t speak directly to whether the strategy would protect us from audition burnout, teaching burnout – or the inevitable holiday burnout which is fast approaching. However, I’d think that this exercise would be pretty useful no matter where our primary stress is coming from.
And again, with Thanksgiving coming up in a few days, isn’t this as good a time as any to give the exercise a try?
So here’s what to do.
- Find a pen and some paper, and leave them on your desk or nightstand.
- For the next 10 days, before you go to bed, take a few moments to write down:
- three things that went well today
- your role in bringing them about
Sort of like this:
Good thing #1: We had a nice, relaxed family breakfast this morning.
My role: I helped make this happen by looking up a new recipe for croissant/ham/egg/cheese muffins, getting the ingredients from the store, and asking the kids to help with the cooking.
And that’s it! Simple enough, right?
It’s not an official, psychological validated assessment tool, but if you’re curious to see if you might be on the verge of couch/Netflix/pint of Ben & Jerry’s, here’s a quick and easy burnout quiz to see where you’re at:
Burnout Self-Test @MindTools
And a talk by Dr. Sexton that gets into more of the research behind the Three Good Things exercise.