What McDonald's Has to Do with Avoiding Burnout

A few weeks ago, I was giving a talk and a participant shared how meticulously she used to prepare and freeze meals for her kids and husband when she left on business trips. As the process became more burdensome, she reassessed. She realized that her kids' internal organs wouldn't rot if her husband was responsible for dinner, which for him, likely meant McDonald's.
  
One of my favorite sayings is now, “Sometimes, we’re just going to eat McDonald's,” meaning recalibrate and decide what we can let go of. Sometimes the project just needs to get done--it doesn’t have to be perfect.
 
There are times we put ourselves into contortions doing what we or others have decided "should" do without reflecting on our own priorities.  You won't find my suggestions in the standard tips for avoiding burnout, but figuring out your own goals can be the most important factor.  
 
Here are three of my best strategies to stave off burnout.

1) Consider the stories you tell yourself and recalibrate accordingly.

There are so many stories we tell ourselves that can go unchecked if we're not paying attention. Our McDonald's Mama essentially told herself stories that being a good mom meant preparing healthy meals and that being a good attorney meant traveling for work.  Once she reassessed, she realized that while feeding her kids nutritious meals was a priority, she didn't have to put herself into contortionist moves to ensure that every bite her kids ate was packed with vitamins.
 
Another example: Are you subconsciously telling yourself that being good at your job means checking your email first thing in the morning and last thing before bed?  I certainly have.
 
When I ran a political campaign in 2012, I’d wake up at 7:30am and jump on my laptop, go through a whirlwind day, and fall asleep between midnight and 3am over my computer. I was telling myself a story that campaign managers are constantly checking and responding to emails.  Certainly replying to emails is an important way of getting most jobs done, but none of us were hired to be an Email Checking Robot

In retrospect, I know I would’ve been better at my job and happier had I slowed down. Especially for folks who don’t have an Election Day endpoint in sight, it can be important to catch the warning signs and recalibrate accordingly.

The way you start and end your day sets the tone for your day and the quality of your sleep. That feeling of exhaustion that can come with burnout is enhanced when a night’s rest starts and ends with looking at glowing rectangles (iphone, computer, take your pick). Adjusting your morning and evening routines--and ditching the frantic inbox checking--can help give you more control over your day and improve sleep patterns.

The Email Checking Robot story is one I hear all too often from my clients and friends.

2) Decide what you your priorities are.

As women, we’re socialized to be concerned first and foremost about the wellbeing of others. It can take tremendous emotional work for us to stop prioritizing what our companies, families, and loved ones want and need. Only when we have quieted those feelings can we decide what we want.

This brilliant 3-minute video "How to Say No and Take Back Your Life" encourages you to create “strategic anchors” so you can more efficiently figure out what you want to say yes to. I used this approach to decide not to volunteer for political campaigns anymore.

After working on the campaign it feels like I’m on every political list imaginable, so when any Tom, Dick, or Sally is running for office, I get pinged. Do I want more Sallys in elected office? Absolutely!  Do I need to attend every political event or volunteer activity I’m invited to?  No.
 
It can be hard in the moment to make that decision, since I care deeply about policymaking and know I could be of service. But because I’ve done the self-reflection and set an intention around it, I know it’s not a good fit for me or how I want to spend my time. Just like the late Nancy Reagan wanted, I don’t have to think about it, I just say no.
 
If the event is for a close friend or focused on engaging more women in politics, I’m in.  Otherwise, I’ve eliminated that decision from my inbox and that event from my calendar. One of the best things to come out of this is that I don’t feel guilty for saying no.

3) Name it.

Sometimes just recognizing you don't want to prepare each meal, be an Email Checking Robot, or run political campaigns again isn't enough. Finding accountability buddies can help you hold to your commitments. I now know I don’t want to be involved in the day-to-day of campaigns, but still, when people I respect run, it’s hard not to get involved.  
 
Having accountability buddies tell me “Lelia, you asked me to remind you that this form of politics, that level of intensity wasn’t a good fit for you,” has been vital to keeping me focused on what I enjoy and value most.

When I have felt the most emotionally exhausted and burned out, it was sometimes because of the quantity of work that needed to get done, and in those instances these strategies can help. But sometimes it’s just about fit. For me, no amount of top 10 lists for how to avoid burnout would have helped had I stayed on the campaign trail. The reality was that while I was good at and enjoyed many aspects of campaigning and loved my candidate, the role wasn't right for me.

Whether you’re taking "McDonald's moments” and deciding when done is better than perfect, or considering shifting roles completely, be gentle with yourself. Recognizing you’re on a path to burning out can be a scary proposition, so take it slow, decide what you want, prioritize it, and go from there.

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes