Want to Avoid Burnout? Design Your Best Year with This Quick Audit

Category: Musing

It’s that time of the year when we’re back at it. Back to school, back to work, and back to everything. But what is “everything,” and how do we go about creating it intentionally? The story that follows gives you a glimpse at why I’m sharing five “energy buckets” and how to audit your own energy levels. Read on for my story, or skip directly to the “five buckets” and the quick audit here.


If you read my last issue of The Stoop, then you know that it was chock full of reflection questions and exercises to encourage you to take any down time you have to think about your aspirations for this year. For the first time in more than ten years, I had the luxury of having only one week of travel in December, and this gift of “less moving around” gave me a much-needed rest and time to think about my “everything” and how to refresh my everything for the new year.

My intentionality started with an uncharacteristic “no.” I chose not to go to Chicago for any part of the holiday season. This was a biggie because Chicago is my birthplace and was my home for more than forty years. My siblings live there, and I love the spirit of the holidays that Chicago ignites-especially the Glogg at Simon’s in Andersonville. Seriously, if you’re ever in Chicago in December, this is a Chicago institution you just can’t miss. Make sure you get the cookie and dunk it in the Glogg. Yes, it’s a Swedish thing.

Hometown traditions aside, the truth is that I was tired. The amount of energy it would have taken to get to Chicago on the heels of a family trip to England in support of my relatives who had lost my dear father-in-law would have been a lot. Something caused me to pause and make a choice for myself. Another trip would not have been just a lot; frankly, it would have been too much.

What unexpectedly came over me after relieving myself of that additional trip was energy, of all things. It was as if time had slowed down a bit. I had more room to breathe. It wasn’t about the actual chronological time and energy that I was saving by not going to Chicago; it was the spiritual energy that I gathered because I made a choice that was good for me and I honored it. I’m not sure about you, but that’s not something that comes easily for me.

One of my wisest teachers likes to say, “It’s okay to rest.” I think to myself, “Of course, it is. Who doesn’t agree with that? Why wouldn’t it be okay? I sleep in on the weekends. I totally get that.”

Oh. But wait. My teacher meant really rest. It’s okay NOT to do everything. It’s okay NOT to keep moving. Not to fill empty time with tasks, events, or more doing. To truly rest means to relax and recuperate physically, mentally, and spiritually in a way that restores my energy, reduces stress, and calms the nervous system, and to actually enter a state of relaxation and rejuvenation.

Maybe that’s why Christmas day felt so yummy. I walked to the ocean with my husband (still can’t believe I get to say that; I’ve wanted to live in California for that very reason since I was twenty-five). We simply sat and listened to the waves. It’s the first time in my life I wasn’t cooking, cleaning, making sure everyone was okay in every way possible, and forgetting who I was in all of that.

I’m still evaluating my “everything.” It’s too easy for us all to say there’s just too much to do or it’s impossible to accomplish it all in a day. But we can use some criteria to start to question what we’re saying yes and no to and pause to ask, “How did this ‘yes’ actually feel for me?” We can look back on our day and evening and ask ourselves “What did I say yes to, and how did it help me restore myself? How did it feed my heart and soul?”

These are better questions to ask instead of judging ourselves by a list of what we accomplished (or didn’t) and feeling depleted if there aren’t enough boxes checked. Do you have built-in reward systems at work or in your life that reward “doing” and productivity versus service? Versus being in alignment with your values? Versus helping others heal or be whole?

These are huge questions to ask, and many of us don’t have a three-month sabbatical to redesign our lives. But we can ask ourselves every day how we’re doing and use some criteria to thoughtfully answer.

Here’s How to Get Started with Evaluating Your Energy Levels:

We have “energy buckets,” and if we’re depleting our different buckets of energy faster than we’re replenishing them, we experience burnout. I didn’t realize that I was on the verge of burnout and would have reached it if I had agreed to more travel, more design and facilitation work, and more holding space for others-and, and, and-in December. I am so profoundly grateful that I caught this in time. It gave me a chance to look at my energy buckets and take an inventory of my “everything” to see what was being depleted at a faster rate than it was being replenished.

Here are the five buckets and how they’re filled or replenished below.

  1. Physical Energy – This is the physical energy your body is feeling and experiencing. Is what we’re putting in our bodies creating or reducing healthy energy? Are we getting enough movement? Sleep? Are we paying attention to the signals our bodies are sending us? The nagging pain in our neck or shoulder? The headaches?
    Are we in conversation with our bodies and are we willing to listen, or do we plow through until we can’t? For instance, why do we get sick when we finally go on vacation? Are we overriding every signal so that when we finally REST, the body is no longer running on adrenaline to keep us going and the depleted energy (in the form of illness) takes over?
  2. Mental Energy – This is the mental exploration of new ideas and perspectives or “mental play.” This isn’t video games or watching a new TV show; this is learning a new hobby, reading an interesting book, brainstorming with colleagues, generating new ideas, having our mind changed or challenged, shifting a mindset or mental model, being curious about the world or others, and taking in new perspectives.
  1. Emotional Energy – This is about navigating emotions internally and with others. If we’re constantly navigating other’s emotions and adjusting our needs or behaviors to control our effect on others, that is depleting. If we tend to our own emotions and befriend and explore them, we are replenishing our emotional-energy bucket.
  1. Social Energy – This type of energy is used when meeting new people, forging new relationships, experiencing meaningful and/or enjoyable connections with others-not just loved ones and our inner circle, but daily, weekly, with strangers, friends, and coworkers. This is where technology is really making it hard to keep our social energy buckets filled. Social media and texting can work against replenishing our social buckets.
    Nothing replaces an unexpected meaningful connection while waiting in line at the grocery store. Nothing replaces being told by a stranger that they like our hat and we look good. Being seen by others, connecting with others, in a minute or an hour, fills our social energy bucket. We can do this on video at work too. You don’t have to be in person. We can pay attention to each other, be curious, and see each other-especially if you’re a leader. Make time in your meetings for personal connection and curiosity and sharing. It fills the social energy bucket.
  1. Spiritual Energy – This isn’t a religious definition, though for some of us, religion can be our greatest source of spiritual energy. This is about our willingness to explore the unknown, experience mystery, and experience awe. Spending time in nature for just twenty minutes can bring about the feeling of awe. Seeing a painting and being open and curious can spark wonder. Being present to others and witnessing an everyday blessing can spark wonder. Spiritual energy is a willingness to step out of the known-or a proven, data-driven, intellectually proven world-and step into a space of unknown, mystery, curiosity, and exploration. Astronauts call it “The Overview Effect.

Here’s the Rub – Research shows that the spiritual bucket is the foundation and critical starting point for all the other buckets. Having a sense of purpose in your life, a connection to something that provides deeper meaning in your life, is the foundational source for all other energies. We must know why we’re choosing to say yes and what it’s all for so we can say no to the things that don’t really matter to us (and tap into the wisdom to know the difference).

Quick Audit – Try this quick audit by grabbing a piece of paper and creating two columns. Title one “yes” and the other “no.” Start to write all the things you say yes and no to in a day, week, or month in your life. Don’t overthink it; just start writing. Look at the “yes column.” Is there anything that as soon as you look at it you know should be a “no”? Perhaps it’s depleting your energy, it isn’t aligned with your values, or it’s costing you in some spiritual way. For now, don’t act on it; just cross it off the “yes list” and move it to the “no column.” See how that actually feels in your body when you do that. Take a second to notice. It could stir some things up. It could feel like relief.

Then comb the “yes list” again. Try to differentiate between capital YESes and lowercase yeses. What do you notice that you’re using as your criteria to discern? There are some things on my list that are obligatory. I don’t love them, but I’m saying yes to them. They’re not depleting any spiritual energy for me. For example, watching my stepson’s wrestling match was always a yes. Of course, I’d be there to cheer him on; I wanted him to know he was important to me, and I wanted him to feel supported.

Blocking out time to go to yoga on Monday mornings at 9 a.m.? That is a YES in capital letters. It’s good for me; I sometimes don’t have the energy to go, but I’m always, and I mean always, glad I did. It affects the rest of my day and sets me up for a grounded week. And I gotta tell you, it’s a fight to keep that space clear on my calendar on Mondays and Wednesdays. It’s scary to choose that over another call with a client. But it fills my spiritual bank account instead of depletes it and makes me much more effective at being of service to others.

Extra Credit – If you’re working, look at your calendar … like right now. Take a look at the calendar with a view of the entire week. Notice in your body how you feel. Notice any sensations, tensions, excitement. Just notice. Don’t judge it. Then take a deep breath. I invite you to close your eyes for just thirty to sixty seconds and just breathe and relax. Imagine a few meetings lifting off your calendar to make space.

They lift because, truth be told, you don’t need to be there. You can’t give or gain anything by being there and it’s more of a “should.” I should be there to support my team; I should be there to be seen so I appear to be a team player; I should be there to ensure that I’m included … you know you … and I suspect, because this happens every time I ask someone to do this, that there are things you are saying yes to that you could say no to.

Can you challenge yourself when you open your eyes and scan your calendar to remove at least one of the meetings from your calendar and block it for you-for deep work, for exercise, for thinking, for [fill in the blank]. Whatever you choose to fill this new gap with is a YES and fills one of your buckets.

And if that was super easy? Go for 10 percent. Try to clear 10 percent of your calendar for the next five days and immediately block the time out for you. Every time I do this with one of my clients, they’re shocked at how much easier it was than they originally thought it would be.

This year, take a few moments to audit your choices and look at how they’re affecting your different energy buckets. Look for the Ys on your list and explore ways you can protect them in your schedule and prioritize them. Are you achieving some balance between your two columns? Remember that life shouldn’t be measured by to-do lists and checked boxes. Instead, look for opportunities to do things that fill your bucket, even if it means saying no a little more often.

If you’re ready to say no a little more often, you’ll love my recommended reading this month. Learn more here.

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