How to Raise the Bar Without Burning Out
“What habits did you pick up from working with Ira [Glass]?” asked Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek and host of The Tim Ferriss show.
“There’s a certain level of ‘comfort with crisis’ that wore off on me,” replied Alex Blumberg, former producer for This American Life and co-founder of Gimlet Media.
Blumberg thought this might be a bad habit, this regular bumping into crisis motivated by high standards. I had other thoughts.
As an entrepreneur, crisis is part of my life. Even when things are well-systematized, edited into something beautiful, and leveraged, there are times when you need to push yourself harder, work longer, or expend more energy to raise the bar.
With a brand new book launch, a rebranded business coaching program now open for new clients, 2 keynote addresses, and a 30-day CreativeLive workshop to prepare for in the next 6 weeks, I’m in that mode right now. While there are many months of the year that my business works like a well-oiled machine during which I regularly work 25-30 hours per week, right now I’m at the brink of crisis.
Great opportunities create points of near-crisis.
Raising the bar takes risk.
You’re never completely ready. They never come at exactly the right time. They never exactly fit in that plan you hammered out 3 years ago.
So you push yourself. You make the tough decision and you say “yes” knowing that it’s going to push you to your edge–and a little past.
You do it in the name of service, you do it in the name of excellence, you do it for a challenge. You do it so that you know your ideas are represented in the best way possible. Whatever reason motivates you, you do it. You allow yourself to creep up to the point of crisis and you get more and more comfortable with that point.
I’m not suggesting that you enter true crisis. The brink of crisis–the point with which you get comfortable as an entrepreneur–is a place you can push yourself to in the name of [fill in your personal values here] and float for a few days, a week, maybe a month at most.
As I thought about it more, I came to believe there is a continuum of high-level creative work that leads to comfort with crisis, and ends, potentially in burnout.
The continuum begins with Boredom. We are all people who hate to be bored. The only thing we might hate more than being bored is the kind of busyness that’s more mind-numbing and less purposeful than truly having nothing to do. Then there is Busywork. It’s the stuff that you do just to get done. Hypothetically it serves a purpose, but you’re not exactly sure what that purpose is.
As you move closer to your zone of genius, you get to a stage of Productivity. This is where most of us want to be most of the time. You have a purpose, you’re doing great work, you’re getting things accomplished.
If you push further, if you challenge yourself harder, if you bump up against every edge or deadline you have, you get to the brink of Crisis. The more you get comfortable with this feeling, the more facility you have in pushing yourself there when you want to.
Of course, “when you want to” is key.
In my own experience, it’s when I’ve intentionally pushed myself into a “comfortable” Crisis–one bred from opportunity and high standards–that I am accessing my zone of genius, even entering a state of flow. I solve problems, find creative insights, get stuff done, and raise the bar on my own expectations.
I’m not encouraging you to constantly live in this state, so please don’t email me with your concerns about my dangerous lifestyle. What I’m saying is that we all find ourselves in this state from time to time, and, when we better understand it, we can make it a choice not a necessity.
We can become proactive about crisis instead of reactive.
On Tuesday, I hosted a webinar for over 900 people on how to create focus in their businesses using a technique called the Chief Initiative. One of the benefits of focusing your business on a Chief Initiative is that it creates intense drive toward a thrilling (and ideally lucrative) destination.
Maybe it’s publishing a book, landing a big fish wholesale client, or transforming your speaking career. Those things don’t happen without quite a few stars aligning. But to make your stars align, need to push yourself out of your comfort zone a bit. You need to do things you haven’t done before in the name of achieving something that’s really important to you and the long-term health of your business.
Most likely, raising the bar is going to require getting at least a little comfortable with the brink of crisis. Whether it’s the Terror Lite that comes in the run up to doing something for the very first time, or the crunch of multiple projects being birthed at the same time, it’s going to happen. Growing pains and all that. Will you risk temporary discomfort for impeccable output?
When you stay in Crisis mode for too long or when that Crisis lacks a clear purpose or isn’t motivated by your personal values, you end up in Burnout. That’s the far end of the continuum and that’s a place none of us want to be.
Of course, you can “achieve” Burnout without the benefits of edging up to Crisis. You can skip all of the middle stages and go from Boredom or Busywork right to Burnout. I fear that’s where you might be at.
If you’re working yourself to the bone but without a clear purpose and destination, you don’t know which edges need to be pushed, which bar to raise. You can’t say “yes” to opportunity and you can’t plan for growth. All you can do is try to keep all the balls in the air.
…people fixate on execution (‘doing what’s required’) instead of finishing up strategy (‘choosing the direction’) because it’s easier to see progress during execution than during strategy formation and development.”
— Nilofer Merchant, The New How
This is when you need to rely on Focus more than ever. Your strategy must be to bring attention to one achievement (your Chief Initiative) that would change the game for your business. Then, you reverse engineer—making tough decisions all the way down—the action plan so that you can immediately recognize what’s important and what’s not.
That’s how you raise the bar without burning out. That’s how you align your day-to-day actions with your vision. That’s how you actually achieve the things that move your business forward.