Updated: Oct 30, 2018
Work burnout refers to feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced efficacy at work. Exhaustion is a physical and mental feeling of strain from work that is overtaxing. Cynicism is a negative mental state in which workers feel disengaged from their work in an effort to protect their energy or as a result of feeling like their work lacks meaning. Reduced efficacy is when workers realize they don’t have the energy (due to exhaustion) or the mental interest (due to cynicism) and thereby start questioning their ability to do the work. Researchers have pointed out that what leads workers to this point of burnout is often the demands of the job itself. While there is much truth to the fact that job sites are placing overwhelming demands on their workers while providing them with inadequate support, could there be more to the equation? Could the overwhelm stem from the inside?
In this article, we explore the effects of internal demands on stress at work including where those demands stem from and a perhaps unexpected solution to overdoing.
High Achievers and Unrelenting Standards
What is a high achiever? According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is “a person who is hardworking and successful.” That implies that your input creates your output. You have to have motivation which translates into tremendous effort and that will lead you to success. But surely, that can’t be the whole story because there are lots of people who work hard but aren’t successful and there are people out there who are successful but perhaps don’t work so hard. By its name, the term ‘high achiever’ implies that you are successful, but in this article, we will focus more on the person, the ‘high aimer’ because it is the mindset of the person that gets translated into action. We will explore the mindset and efforts that lead to ultimate success.
The Mindset of the High Aimer
People who are ambitious often work very hard to attain their goals. They have an inner drive to prove themselves, to succeed, and to be recognized for their accomplishments. Many of them set the bar very high and don’t settle for mediocrity. Even when everyone around them believes their work is exceptional, the high aimers may not be satisfied. That is indicative of a perfectionistic mindset.
When you are a perfectionist, you aren’t perfect. You just want everything you do to be perfect. You may have unrelenting standards where you feel like nothing you do is good enough. This keeps you striving to do better, do more, and can create the opposite effect of what you want.
Some of the biggest problems perfectionists face include a critical inner voice that tells them they aren’t good enough, a fear of failure, and a tendency toward procrastination. This trifecta is crucial to understanding what drives high aimers who are perfectionists and what can lead them to burn out.
Our core beliefs get developed early on in life. One of the most common beliefs I’ve seen in my clients is the belief of personal inadequacy. This belief drives us to focus on our productivity. By ensuring that what we do is good enough, we get a temporary sense of relief. It’s as if we hope our output will be an indication that we are enough. The reason this doesn’t work is exactly because it is temporary. As soon as we are done working on project x, we barely have any time to absorb our achievement. We are off to project y, hence the unrelenting nature of this mindset and the propensity towards burnout.
The other issue perfectionists face is the fear of failure which can lead to avoidance. If we don’t believe in ourselves enough or if we worry so much about what other people think of us, we are less likely to take risks. This can lead to procrastination, where we put off our efforts until the last minute so that if we fail, we can save face by saying that we only really worked on the project for a very short time and it’s not indicative of our true ability.
Relative Motive Strength
There is a continuum between achievement motivation (AM) and failure avoidance or fear-of-failure (FF). This is known as Relative Motive Strength (RMS). When you are closer to the achievement end of the spectrum, you are more likely to associate your efforts on demanding tasks with positive outcomes such as “dedication, concentration, commitment, and success.” When you are more fearful of failing, you are more likely to associate effort on demanding tasks with negative outcomes such as feeling “overloaded, stressed, obsessed,” and burned out.
When you think about what is behind the difference between these two extremes, it is the way the person sees themself. Self-efficacy is the belief that you can be successful. This belief can be affected by your overarching core belief about personal adequacy or can be task specific. Either way, it is an illustration that when faced with demands from our external world, our thinking can shape how we perceive those demands and ourselves.
When you see yourself as adequate, you do not allow your failures to define you. You understand the importance of your long-term goals and that failure is part of the learning process. Alternatively, when you fear failure to the point of short-changing your efforts, it is because you see yourself as inadequate and want to avoid this point of pain which will confirm your beliefs. In short, it is about your inner dialogue, your self-judgment.
Both the AM and the FF individuals have a goal. The former is more focused on achievement. The latter is more focused on avoiding failure. Their actions will be different because of their varying focal points and their success rate will therefore clearly vary as well. As such, it is easy to see why FF individuals enter into a self-fulfilling prophecy where their lack of success becomes attributed to their inadequacies, which reinforces their avoidance of demanding tasks, thus linking their past, present, and future.
Most individuals fall somewhere in the middle of the RMS continuum. But if you are a perfectionist, you can end up on either end. That means that you may be able to reach great heights, but it will be at a cost, namely, to your state of balance.
So how can we achieve greatness and be more balanced? How can we attain success without burning out in the process? One answer to this dilemma lies in ancient philosophy.
The Art of Nondoing
Over 2,500 years ago in India, a monk began teaching what came to be known as the Middle Way. This monk, now known as Buddha, taught that the Middle Way was how you can be free from living in extremes. His teachings challenge much of how Westerners run their businesses and their lives.
Many of us, including high aimers and perfectionists, focus on what we can do. We busy our days with lists of tasks to accomplish and seem to never have enough time to get everything done. This is a very stressful way of living. Because we can feel buried by our work, we start to multi-task with the hope that we will get more done. But Buddhism teaches us that “when one becomes two” we fall out of balance. Focusing on multiple areas is a distraction and can lead to confusion. Instead, we need to master one area before moving on.
According to Buddhism, doing is the way of limitation. It is filled with our thoughts and judgments and creates a world of pleasure and pain. Instead, it proposes action without doing. That is, we have to get beyond our thoughts and that will make our actions perfect.
There are two targets in this art of nondoing. First, we look at what not to do. This helps us eliminate tasks from our list rather than continually adding more. This helps us focus on what’s most important rather than multi-task and lose our integrity. This also includes not thinking and judging because this prevents us from action. This philosophy is in line with the saying “less is more.”
Secondly, we focus on how to do without doing. So, rather than swimming against the current, allow the current to lead you. Every sailor knows that using the power of the wind can move the boat more forcefully in the direction you want rather than opposing the wind’s strength. This translates into being flexible in our thinking and actions and building momentum on the existing structures around us.
Recall the first time you learned how to drive. There were so many aspects to think about. You may have wondered “how do people make it look so easy?” You had to be very focused to avoid making mistakes, to making sure you were safe and ensuring you followed the rules. It may have felt overwhelming to simultaneously think about signaling when changing lanes, slowing down with adequate space so as to not hit the driver at the stop sign in front of you, or merging onto the highway when there were fast moving cars flying by. But with lots of practice, your mental focus lessened. Now that you’ve mastered driving, you likely have days that you get to work and don’t even remember how you got there.
There are two lessons in this example. The first is that mastery comes with time and consistent practice, but until then, much mental energy is required. We may need to focus on strategy to get things done. With mastery, you are able to get into flow and engage in the task without being overly focused on it. You become one with the action.
The second lesson is that when we fall into habits, we can end up engaging in tasks mindlessly. However, this is quite different from nondoing. The key difference is awareness. Nondoing is doing with awareness which is different from unconscious action. It is intentional and comes from letting go of our thoughts and feelings which cloud our awareness.
According to spiritual teacher Samvara, perfection is achieved through a formula:
Tremendous Attention + Extreme Abandonment = Perfect Action
What he refers to is being very mindful and focused rather than having mere thoughts. It is about taking action without focusing on the outcome. It’s like aiming your dagger at a target, pulling back the bow, and then letting the arrow go. You can’t hit the target unless you release the arrow. Similarly, you have to be in the zone, hyper-focused on what you want, take action and then let go so you can move on to the next perfect action without judgment, worry, or fear about the outcome of the previous action.
It’s about turning off the struggle. When you’re faced with a problem, you head into the solution rather than looking for excuses or for whom to blame. This is differentiated from those who are stuck in their mind, who obsess over details, and who ruminate and become paralyzed. This is a way of doing but having little to show for it. As Samvara says, “when you’re doing, the shadow of the self is cast over everything.” By this, he is referring to the ego. This is when we get caught up in what it means about us when we accomplish or fail and how others might perceive us. “When you’re not doing,” he says, “everything you do exposes the light of truth.” In essence, with perfect action, you are being authentic, you are in the moment, and whatever happens is a direct result of your mindset.
You might be wondering how you can accomplish this art of nondoing. I will share two ways. The first is the essential practice of meditation. This is a tool that, according to authors Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, “trains the mind and reshapes the brain.” It is a continual practice of clearing our mind that allows us to get beyond our thoughts. When we direct this mindfulness to our actions, we are able to get in the zone, become one with the action, leave behind all judgments, get out of the way, and achieve perfection.
To help you have tremendous attention, you cannot be filled with thoughts about success or failure, such as “I’m going to flunk this” or “I’m going to ace this.” These are future-based thoughts which take you out of the moment. You have to still the mind. Just like anything else, this can be mastered through a consistent practice of meditation.
The other takeaway, according to Samvara, is that “when you are impeccable and selfless, there is power in everything you do.” Taking perfect action with the intention of helping others rather than focusing on what success or failure means about you, makes you more powerful and allows you to derive more meaning from your efforts. And according to the theory of karma, your intentions and good deeds today contribute to your future happiness. As the saying goes, “you get what you give.”
Hard Work and Success
We started out by defining the term “high achiever” and saw that it is a combination of hard work and the success that follows. There are some truths to this definition and some myths to it as well.
To be successful, we need to work hard, but this is less about putting in endless hours, taking on copious amounts of work, or pushing ourselves beyond a state of balance where our work interferes with our health and personal life. Hard work, as it is defined here, is about training the mind through meditation so we can reach a state of total focus on tasks. It is about moving beyond our self-judgments, our fears, and our tendency to avoid. You are a high achiever when your mind is not cluttered and you can point your arrow at the target and shoot it with “tremendous attention,” releasing all attachment to the outcome. The reason this is associated with achievement is because we know our perceptions affect our efforts. Our perceptions are how we hold the arrow and pull back the bow. Our efforts are how we release the arrow. It is therefore our mind that shapes our success.
What this article has demonstrated is that we can work hard and not have success. This is often because we hold ourselves back with our limiting beliefs which leads us to sabotage our efforts. This can result from having diverted focus that attempts to get too much done without mastering anything or being clouded by our thoughts so that we take less action. The fact that we are busy does not mean we are being effective with our energy.
We’ve also demonstrated that to be successful, all that is required is intention, acting with attention, and without thought. This eliminates the need to work as hard as we otherwise do, removes the pressure of having a certain outcome, or the attachment of meaning we assign to our self-worth as a result. We can have perfect action without perfect results, but it is the former that will lead to success in the long-run, not the latter.
The demands of the workplace can certainly lead to burnout, but it is the demands we place on ourselves that can change our experience. We have more control over our own minds than over our environment. It is therefore in our best interest to harness our power from within, to train our minds to work for us, not against us, and to understand what leads to true success, not just moment-to-moment, but also long-term.