Too many tasks, too many people, too much stuff. Whether fueled by the roles they want to play or a multitude of obligations, most people are overloaded.

Companies and leaders are waking up to the fact that a relentless focus on doing more and being more isn’t sustainable. Burnout is both a personal problem and an organizational liability.

What can be done? Try these strategies to quell your overload:

Examine the network. High performers are good at building networks and also smart about pruning them, according to Rob Cross of the University of Virginia. Cross —who studies personal and organizational networks — said high performers also look for bottlenecks or pinch points in the network, which create overload and frustration for everyone.

He suggests that leaders first look at the things that routinely consume too much time and find other ways to get them done. Are decision-making rules unclear or do they involve too many people? Do certain requests or problems consistently get stuck in one place or with one person?

The second thing to look at is your own behavior. Do you insist on going to meetings just to be “in the know?” Do you want to be available to employees and are you eager to jump in? What’s making you your own worst enemy?

Stop ruminating. The mental process of thinking over and over about something and attaching negative emotions to it — rumination — creates stress symptoms and is the enemy of resilience. Non-ruminators may have plenty of pressure or hardships in their lives, but they aren’t stressed by it.


CCL’s Nick Petrie writes about resilience and rumination in the book Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success. He advises overloaded corporate leaders — and anyone who is feeling overloaded — to practice 4 mental habits:

  1. Wake up. Focus on where you are and what you’re doing now. Don’t let your mind drift into worrying about the past or the future.
  2. Control your attention. Practice consciously putting your attention where you want it to be and holding it there.
  3. Detach. Get appropriate distance from the situations you’re facing. This helps you maintain perspective and know the difference between care and worry.
  4. Let go. Ask yourself a simple question: Will continuing to focus on this help me, my people, or my organization? If the answer is no, let it go.

Change your mental model. “Doing it all” is a bigger task than it used to be. Deciding what effort to give where may require new thinking. One useful perspective comes from Jeremie Kubicek and Steve Cockram, authors of 5 Gears: How to Be Present and Productive When There is Never Enough Time.

With the metaphor of driving using a manual stick-shift, they help clarify the value of different “modes” of thinking and behaving:

  • 1st Gear — Time to fully rest and recharge. Crashing doesn’t count and recharging doesn’t happen the same way for everyone.
  • 2nd Gear — Time to connect with family and friends without an agenda or goal of being productive.
  • 3rd Gear — Time to socialize and engage with a variety of different people — this may be work-related or purely social.
  • 4th Gear — Time to get work done, checking off our to-do lists and multi-tasking.
  • 5th Gear — Time for focused, uninterrupted work. You’re “in the zone,” working on what matters most, thinking strategically or being singularly productive.

Most of us are stuck in 4th Gear, or unsatisfactorily trying to drive in several gears at once. To feel less overwhelmed and more effective, we need to know which gears are needed when and how to drive in all 5.

You won’t single-handedly change the nature of work, so stop holding your breath and waiting for things to settle down “someday.” Instead, build some new habits that can make a difference in how you focus, how you feel, and the results you get.

4 thoughts on “4 Mental Habits to Reduce Your Stress & Burnout

  1. Sarah says:

    Thanks for the advice – It’s really helpful to think of these things in the context of leadership

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