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  • Writer's pictureSana Z

Prevent Burnout by Filling Your Three Buckets—Vitality, Connection, and Contribution

A lot of research has focused on the experience of #burnout over the past few years. This is a topic about which I will be posting more in the coming weeks and months. For now, I wanted to share some tips and a formula that I like to use to address feelings of emptiness, “stuckness” or fatigue that can lead to burnout.

(This post does not intend to give advice on how to heal burnout. If you think you might be suffering from burnout, please seek professional advice.)

Thanks to the pioneering work of psychologist Christina Maslach, we know that burnout is a complex syndrome that has three main components—exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.

Exhaustion is characterized by physical, cognitive, and emotional fatigue. People are not able to see the bigger picture or even concentrate on routine, mundane tasks, which before seemed easy.

Cynicism is an erosion of engagement. It can be triggered by various situations, such as work overload, conflict in the workplace, a feeling of unfairness, or lack of participation in decision making.

Inefficacy is the feeling that your skills are not adequate (the famous “imposter syndrome”) or you worry that you won't be able to succeed or accomplish certain tasks. It often creates a vicious circle with exhaustion and cynicism. When you feel drained or have lost your motivation at work, your productivity declines.

From my personal experience and the work I do with clients, I like using the “Three Buckets” lens—Vitality, Connection, and Contribution—to prevent burnout more holistically. This idea is inspired by a book I recommend, How to Live a Good Life by Jonathan Fields (2016). The author argues that to live a good life, we need to work on filling three buckets: Vitality, Connection and Contribution.

The Vitality Bucket requires that we give priority to what I call “Radical Self-Care”. Depending on where you stand on the burnout spectrum, it might take some time to replenish your physical, mental, and emotional energy. Below are some tips to start doing that. Recharging is not only a physical process, Radical Self-Care demands focus on body, mind and spirit at the same time.

Body – Create non-negotiable habits around good quality sleep, a healthy diet, and regular exercise. Replenishing your physical vitality can also mean spending more time in nature or doing more of what your body needs. For example, if you're a salsa dancer, join a salsa group. If you love yoga, create a daily yoga practice.

Mind – Engage in meditation and mindfulness practices to calm the “monkey mind”. Establish habits that give you a positive outlook on life such as keeping a gratitude journal. Start noticing when your mind goes on a downward spiral of negativity, and make a list of evidence about why this is not true. For example, if you start to think I am incompetent at work, make a list of all the instances where you felt or were told that you were competent in the past. Start a positivity portfolio, as recommended by positive psychology expert Barbara Fredrickson.

Spirit – Engage in spiritual practices, whether you are religious or not. Here too, mindfulness and meditation help tremendously. Chanting and the repetition of mantras (religious or not) can also be used as a spiritual practice.

The Connection Bucket is one we often underestimate, especially as we tend to isolate ourselves when we feel burnt out. Efforts to seek out rich interpersonal interactions can pay off even if limited in time (when you have limited energy). Think about connecting to your “tribe”, the people who “get” you and are a source of core acceptance and belonging. If they are far away, make a commitment to call (or Skype) to connect with them. Filling your Connection Bucket can also mean looking at relationships that are draining or not nourishing you and making a conscious decision to cut those ties, even if only temporarily. Finally, find help through counselors, coaches and mentors. They can help you feel understood without judgment and “normalize” what is happening to you.

The Contribution Bucket is how you “bring your gifts to the world” and contribute in a way that is meaningful and important to you. I find this one tricky. When burnout is triggered by deep dissatisfaction at work, it often causes an identity crisis. We can feel like we have lost our appetite or motivation for any work at all (the cynicism component described above). To create a shift, start by making a list of your "superpowers". What are you good at? What comes naturally to you? So natural you do not realize it is a gift. Consider volunteering to a cause that you still care about. This can often take you away from ruminating and worrying about your issues. Reconnect with passions and activities from the past, maybe something you were passionate about as a child or a teenager. This often can slowly bring back joy and motivation, along with a new sense of purpose and meaning to your life.

Which one of the Three Buckets needs your attention right now?

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