It was two years ago when I turned a slow-paced marathon toward mental and emotional burnout into a full-blown sprint. I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. Those around me certainly did. But by the time I realized how far off the path I’d strayed, it was too late to turn around.
Between working full time, planning a wedding, and trying to write my first book, I was spread thin. And while I probably could have managed everything in my life with better systems and more “work/life balance,” the problem wasn’t in how much I was trying to do.
The problem was that no matter what I did, I remained driven by an insidious feeling that I was never doing enough.
Luckily, I had devoured plenty of productivity protocols and work/life balance hacks. I was well versed in the proverbs of “millionaire mindsets” and knew how important it was to hustle now so I could relax later.
I told myself, “Things won’t always be this crazy. Just keep going. More work now will mean more freedom later.” But it didn’t take long for ripples of overwhelm to become tidal waves of stress. I’d wake up each morning feeling as though I was being waterboarded by buckets of tasks. Each night, I’d fall asleep on what felt like a bed of hot knives — haunted by what I didn’t get to, who I may have let down, and the countless ways I was letting myself down.
I could no longer deny what I’d done to myself. I’d become a burnt-out zombie with a Wi-Fi connection — sprinting through quicksand, repeating the mantra: If you’re not stressed, you’re just not doing enough.
Since then, I’ve been piecing my humanity back together one day at a time. I even wrote a book about how to stop competing with robots and stay human.
If you feel as if you’re trapped in a Groundhog Day of mediocrity, or have ever felt discouraged by what it means to be “productive” in the new world, know that there is another way. And the first step to getting “back to human” is to reconnect with yourself, other people, and the bigger picture of what it means to be human.
These are the 8 steps that have helped me realign with my humanity and trade burnout for purpose and meaning.
Just as they’ve helped me, I know they can help you.
1) Change The Story
“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” -Don Draper
Humans are natural storytellers, however, we tend to reserve our most elaborate tales for ourselves. When we get hit with an emotional charge, our imaginations fire up and create stories to help us make sense of reality. Within microseconds, the writer’s room in our brain mashes up past experience with present evidence to light up the storyboards.
The stories we tell ourselves the most get syndicated. And the more they play, the more they influence our thoughts, actions, and identities.
Do any of these stories sound familiar?
I am so busy.
This week is going to be so stressful.
Everything is ruined.
I have a face only a mother could love.
I’m not enough.
Humans aren’t robots, but our minds are programmable. And we do have a choice in how we spin the facts. The act of telling yourself a different story than what’s actually happening is called Cognitive Reappraisal.
A reappraisal is a second chance. It’s an opportunity to re-interpret just what the hell is going on from a perspective that’s more beneficial.
“This is too overwhelming” becomes “This is a lot of work, but I’ll get through it. I always do.”
“Why is this happening to me? becomes, “What is this teaching me?”
“I have a face only a mother could love.” evolves into, “Ya know, podcast hosts are making a killing these days…”
To change the stories playing in your head, first, realize that many of them don’t even belong to you. They come from other people. It’s other people’s limiting beliefs and negative perceptions that incept our own thoughts over time. We collect them through childhood and beyond, but we don’t have to keep them forever.
When your brain starts to beat you down with stories, ask yourself: Where did this story come from? Is it objectively true? Is believing this story holding me back or propelling me forward?
Brene Brown has a great phrase she uses right before describing her thoughts, “The story I’m telling myself is…” We should all take comfort in knowing that whatever stories our brains beat us with, we still have a chance to rise, act, and change the conversation.
2) Be Interdependent
“Getting older is just you and your friends each saying how busy you are and promising to hang out when things slow down, over and over, until you die.”
For millions of years, our earliest human ancestors lived in small tribes of around 50 people, enduring all aspects of life together. All actions, thoughts, and emotions were driven by a singular purpose: Do what’s best for the tribe. It wasn’t a question of morale, but a necessity for survival.
Then everything changed. The first agricultural revolution of 10,000 BC came around and tribes learned to farm. Small groups became large societies. Suddenly, people accumulated “personal property” and existed as individuals — two concepts that had never existed before.
Most evolutionary biologists agree that it takes at least 25,000 years before genetic adaptations appear in humans. And since it’s only been about 12,000 years since that first, big agricultural shift, humans today have hardly had enough time to update their hardwiring to fit the new world of optional isolation.
Armed with endless entertainment and on-demand dopamine machines, opting-out of in-person, human-to-human contact is more than optional — it’s addicting. There’s even a joke among millennials that goes, “Getting older is just you and your friends each saying how busy you are and promising to hang out when things slow down, over and over, until you die.”
Like many others, I’ve often fantasized about that remote cabin in the woods. The one where I escape from it all, crank out deep work, and avoid the distractions of others. I held this belief, or “story,” close as I dug myself into a hole of disconnect. I pushed off hanging with others in order to write. Instead of spending an hour catching up with an old friend, I’d tell them I needed to “catch up” on my work. I didn’t yet understand that time with other humans was a vital part of doing great work, being creative, and maintaining a sense of flow.
And while I still dream of that hidden cabin in the woods, I’ve learned that there’s a thin line between the power of solitude and the pitfalls of isolation.
You can take all the personality tests, read all the horoscopes, and decide where you fall on the scale of introvert and extrovert, but there’s no denying millions of years of evolutionary hardwiring.
3) Create Silence
“In order to understand the world, one must turn away from it on occasion.”
— Albert Camus
There is one key difference between being physically alone and finding solitude. It’s a thin line that runs a mile deep and it’s called Silence.
The human mind collects noise like a jukebox collects quarters. And it does a much better job at sorting out the messy mix of thoughts and emotions without external distraction. Think of it this way: A good music producer doesn’t mix their next hit single while listening to someone else’s greatest hits album.
We’re so rich with options to listen, look, and engage with the external world that true solitude is fleeting. It’s easier to keep someone else’s voice in our ear than face our own thoughts, or to live vicariously through the people on our screens instead of connecting with ourselves. With the constant hum of others coming out of our technology, how often are we actually alone? Ernest Hemingway praised the power of alone time to spark creativity, but he wasn’t streaming Dostoyevsky novels through Airpods while walking the streets of Paris.
Take your finger off the play button. See what happens when the talking stops and you venture into your own mind. Yes, you may be forced to deal with the troubling thoughts and realizations you’ve been drowning out. But it’s the avoidance of these things that generate static on our line. The static that stands between us and the life we truly want to lead.
We need other people’s voices to teach and inspire. But remember, it’s often through a canvass of silence that our own insights and ideas come alive
4) Remember To Play
“Eventually kids become adults. They become walking standardized tests with all the answers filled in.” — James Altucher
The author and play theorist, Brian Sutton-Smith nails it with the line, “The opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression.” And yet, most of us have grown to think of work and play as opposites.
How many times did you hear it growing up: this isn’t a playground… Or, when you sat still and nodded along that you were, so well behaved? Even sayings like, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” that are meant to promote play, further separate the two in our mind.
It’s true that not all work can be play. But play doesn’t always have to be a verb. Play is also an approach. An ingredient to sprinkle over work, school, sex, and love. Being playful with the important things in our lives doesn’t mean we don’t take them seriously, but it does serve as a wise reminder that, as a whole, life doesn’t need to be so damn serious.
The Stoics used the phrase, memento mori — remember your death. Focusing on our mortality while remaining light-hearted might seem like a Jekyll and Hyde contradiction, however, death and play pair together nicely. Because at the root of memento mori is the question: If not now, when?
Our ability to imagine, create, and focus is connected to our ability to play. To be playful. To laugh, love, and just be. Play oils the gears. It waters the flowers and pulls the weeds. It’s the emotional time travel that reconnects us with our inner child. The inner child who’s waiting for us to ring the recess bell. The one watching as we chase endless hours of productivity, asking, “If the life we’re so busy creating doesn’t make time for play, then what’s the point?”
Play is a mindset. Play is productive. It’s that silly yet poignant message in the fortune cookie that says, “Don’t take life too seriously, you’ll never make it out alive.”
5) Change Your Mind
“You’re only as young as the last time you changed your mind.” — Timothy Leary
Here’s one great reason that the ability to change your mind is important: You’re probably wrong. Not about everything, but more than you think. You, like me, probably aren’t seeing the whole picture. There’s evidence you’ve overlooked, perspectives you haven’t considered, and personal biases left unchecked.
Don’t worry, you’re in good company. It doesn’t take much digging through history to see how often, and how likely, humans are just plain wrong.
From 1500 to 1776, the whole world was positive California was an island. Doctors used to use bloodletting to treat virtually every illness for over 3,000 years. And in the mid-nineties, my parents were convinced a Beanie Baby collection would one day pay my college tuition. Yet, despite the amount of hindsight available to us all, the risk of being wrong — or changing one’s mind — is still risky.
Politicians who change their stance on issues are called flip-floppers. Those who entertain ideas from across the political aisle aren’t just wrong anymore, they’re considered evil. The unfortunate motto of many modern-day belief structures is, if you believe X, then you must be a Y.
Binary beliefs. Strict thinking. Blind loyalty. Doesn’t exactly sound human, does it?
The problem with attaching our identities to our beliefs is that it makes questioning those beliefs scary. But now, more than ever, truth is a moving target. New tools for blurring fact into fiction are being invented every day. Having the capacity — and the appetite — to sift through new information and welcome opposing ideas is vital for anyone who wants to thrive in the new world.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
AI and technology can do a lot, but it’s light-years away from replicating human empathy. And it’s empathy that allows us to think, feel, and see things from a different point of view. Without it, there is no human connection. We can’t maintain a strong connection to the outside world without the ability to see things from different perspectives.
Run toward the voices eager to change your mind. Because, ironically, there’s sweet freedom in knowing that you don’t know everything.
6) Step Into Nature
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” — Lao Tzu
Humans evolved outdoors so it shouldn’t come as a surprise how connected — and dependent — our minds and bodies are to nature. Over the last decade, data has poured in from the East and the West that proves time spent in nature helps people combat stress, lower blood pressure, and improve their overall sense of well-being.
It’s sad to think that for all the time I’ve spent lost in anxiety inside my house, the antidote might have been waiting right outside my door. I remember a trip to Big Sur I took with my wife, back when my robotic tendencies were at their worst. Standing there in awe under the redwoods, my bare feet frozen in the creek near our campsite. It all became so obvious to me in that moment: This is where I came from. This is where I belong. This is all a part of me.
It was there, standing face-to-face with nature, that I felt my brain dial down and shoulders finally relax.
There’s a reason people say things like, “the walls are closing in” when they’re stressed out. It’s because the daily hustle of modern life shrinks our point of view. It blinds us to the world living outside the bounds of our ego. We hear it all the time, “I just need to getaway. I need an escape.” That’s nature calling.
The world is easier to appreciate when you don’t think of yourself as the center of it. And while it might seem counterintuitive, the easiest way to reconnect with ourselves is by letting go of our own point of view.
The next time you feel blocked, stressed, or the general malaise of life creep in, allow nature to smooth the edges. Walk among the trees, stare at the moon, or put your feet in the ocean. Give your eyes a break from the screen and hold some soil in your hand.
When it comes time to reconnect with yourself, remember: You’re connected to everything.
7) Watch Yourself
“What you are aware of you are in control of; what you are not aware of is in control of you.” — Anthony DeMello
Self-awareness is defined as the “conscious knowledge of our own character and mindset.” To be self-aware is to be an unbiased witness to the concepts, feelings, and behaviors that shape our reality.
But despite the amount of time we spend thinking about ourselves, true self-awareness is rare.
Most of us — myself included — tend to self-reflect inside our head. We replay old scenes on the mental projector in our mind. Self-reflection like this is like getting dressed in the dark — you might get your pants on, but they’re probably backward and definitely won’t match your shoes. That’s because introspection doesn’t always equal insight. And that ongoing, up-in-your-head rumination we’re prone to? It often makes things worse.
Introspection is typically thought of as a good habit, but research has shown that people who are prone to introspection tend to be more anxious, less content, and more self-absorbed than people who spend less time in introspection. The Buddist scholar, Tarthang Tulku uses an apt-analogy:
“When we introspect, our response is similar to a hungry cat watching mice. We eagerly pounce on whatever ‘insights’ we find without questioning their validity or value.” — Tarthang Tulku
There is one tool, however, that works to drag the lake of murky emotions out of the darkroom and into the open. It’s been used as a secret weapon by some of history’s greatest leaders, artists, and icons to find wisdom and self-mastery. It’s the daily practice of keeping a journal.
Enter The Journal
One of the gifts of journaling is the ability to go back — to re-read, re-live, and remember who we were and how we felt at different points in our life. But the power of journaling isn’t only in the collecting, it’s also in the emptying. Because as ink fills the page, our inner canvass gets washed clean.
Journaling is important because it offers context between “past you” and “present you.” It’s evidence that feelings change, moods swing, and that your general sense of well-being shouldn’t be tied to any one moment. There’s nothing quite like an old angsty journal entry to discourage you from magnifying a passing emotion.
I’ve always been amazed at my ability to avoid what I know I need most. It was when I found myself in the thicket of burnout and disconnect that I realized that it had been months since I journaled. I knew that I had too many thoughts and feelings bouncing around my head, but for some reason, I felt more comfortable spinning on the haunted carousel of rumination. It was safer for me there. Standing on the cliff’s edge, refusing to take a hard look at what was waiting below. It didn’t know exactly what was down there, but I had a hunch it was coiled and ready to bite.
After months of avoidance, I returned to my journal. And it didn’t take long for words to fill the page and release the pressure in my head. My journal allowed me to pull the blurry emotions, vague ideas, and wild insecurities into physical existence. It allowed me to hold them in my hand and see them for what they were.
It was through journaling that I was able to see just how far off the path I’d strayed. I saw how I was neglecting friendships, forgetting to play, and drowning out my true feelings with external noise. I was competing with robots and forsaking what made me human. It was the pages of my journal that revealed what I was missing and what I needed to do to fix myself.
It didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t write a few pages of angsty prose and transform. But that was ok. Because awareness is always a journey and never a finish line. Awareness is a moving target because we are ever-changing beings. And while that might make the goal of self-awareness sound daunting, it’s actually one of the most beautiful parts of being human.
8) Put Purpose Before Productivity
Our longing to be productive is connected to our primal urge for ambition. Our impulse to add value, produce, and be useful members of the tribe goes beyond our basic need for survival. To feel and act upon our ambition is what it means to be human. Ambition alone, however, does not create purpose.
And without purpose, ambition becomes trigger-happy productivity — taking aim and firing at anything that moves.
There are many forces in the world today trying to convince us that life is nothing more than a series of experiences to be had, memories to be made, and adventures to document. But when we go on believing that life is just a collection of random experiences, devoid of any real meaning or magnitude, we end up lost in the tornado of movement — spread thin by options and jerked around by the fear of missing out.
I’ve gripped the reigns of productivity to the point of burnout. I watched as it happened and I told myself it was all in the name of freedom. I pointed my laser of focus toward the things I thought would provide money, security, and room to be free. But I’d fail to ask myself the most important question of all: What good is freedom without purpose?
A lifetime of being a productive human should provide more than freedom. It should provide fulfillment. Our hours of output and effort should be a vehicle that delivers connection, courage, and love. Without purpose, freedom is an arrow without a target.
If you’re someone who is just beginning their search for purpose, first be aware of the possibility. Know that there is something waiting for you. An outlet that will feed electricity into everything you do. Stay vigilant in your search, and remember that the search itself is part of the reward. Life can be spent waiting for death or searching for truth. Find what is meant for you.
And if you’re lucky enough to already know your purpose, hold it close. Don’t allow the static of hustle and grind culture steal your connection. Remove the blocks that stand between you and your escape from the ordinary world. You don’t need to wait for a global pandemic to hit, win the lottery, or watch your country get invaded. Life is calling out to you right now.