Aquila Capital Partners

Austin &
New York City

A Practical Guide To Avoid Burnout as a Leader

Burnout, a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress, is hitting companies and organizations nationwide. In a post-pandemic world, many are experiencing blurred lines between work and personal life thanks to remote or hybrid work environments. The sense of always being “on” is imminent.

But how can we, as leaders, avoid the tell-tale symptoms, like loss of motivation, decreased sense of accomplishment, and feelings of helplessness? The answer is simple: Take care of yourself while you take care of your business.

My quick strategies to avoid burnout are just that: fast and fail-proof. While they may seem obvious, a lot of us can get caught in the trap of two-hour meetings, only four hours per night of sleep, and a protein-bar lunch (as opposed to something actually nourishing) in order to keep up the momentum of work. These tips will have you thinking clearly, operating efficiently, and avoiding the ever-present threat of exhaustion that’s plaguing many of our colleagues and fellow leaders.

Shorten the Length of Your Meetings
Ask yourself a higher-level question: Why am I having this meeting in the first place? Everyone wants to connect via drawn-out meetings and multi-message threads when something can easily be resolved with a five-minute phone call.

Meetings expand like gas—they’ll last as long as the time allocated for them. Most meetings rarely need to last more than 30-45 minutes—you’d be surprised at what you can even get done in 20 minutes. You just don’t need that much time. Executives spend about 50% of their time in meetings, and most professionals attend approximately 15 meetings a week. That’s a lot.

Shorter meetings with very precise agendas in advance (and this means more than five minutes before the meeting starts) help reduce wasted time and prepare attendees, so they know what they want to focus, address, and resolve.

We are living and dying in meetings, as the more meetings we have, the more drained and fatigued we feel. But as a leader, you hold the key to eliminating these long meetings by approaching them differently and honoring the time of others. Parkinson’s Law, which states simply that work expands to whatever time is allotted to it, surely applies here. But make sure you’re using every minute of that time to your advantage. 

I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve had—when I was out in Las Vegas for ITC 2021 recently, for example—that were scheduled for 30 minutes, and after 10 minutes, we were done. We either reverted to social pleasantries, or we looked at each other and decided to end the meeting early. And that’s okay.

Don’t Multitask
Don’t multitask—it’s neurologically impossible. Studies show it makes us less efficient and more prone to error. In reality, only about 2.5% of the population can multitask efficiently as “supertaskers.” Unless you are part of that 2.5%, you’re better off choosing one task to tackle at a time.

This is especially true during meetings. If we’re thinking about our checklist of tasks—what we must complete as soon as the meeting is over—we’re not present. We’re definitely not present if we’re returning emails during meetings. Make sure that everybody on your team is clear and present as well.

Be an active listener. Lead by example—turn off your phone during video calls or leave it in a different room. Don’t allow staring at a video call screen to turn into scrolling through your LinkedIn or Facebook. Don’t assume that people think you are typing notes, when you are really returning instant messages—use pen and paper for notes to remove digital distractions. After all, writing physical notes yields a higher rate of information retention.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called a colleague, and they’ve responded, “Hey, I’m in a meeting, but you can text me.” I always respond by telling them to call me after the meeting. That lack of full attention is simply not fair to the person that you’re in the meeting with. Being fully present means that I’m engaged with you and you’re engaged with me, and neither of us is multitasking. As humans, we can only truly do one thing well at a time.

Get Your Eight Hours of Sleep
As CEOs and business leaders, we must be present and thoughtful throughout the work day, but the only way your brain works properly is with a good night’s rest. It might seem like common sense and a bit of a cliché, but the Centers for Disease Control cites that 35.2% of all adults in the U.S. report sleeping less than seven hours a night. And according to the National Library of Medicine, insufficient sleep has an estimated economic impact of over $411 billion each year in the U.S. alone.

If you don’t sleep, you can’t think, and if you can’t think, you can’t innovate and execute. The numbers don’t lie. Your sleep debt is costing your business in the long run. People who think they can get by on four or five hours a night are fundamentally incorrect, as sleep is critical to helping us succeed as leaders and achieve our long-term goals.

Don’t Neglect Physical Health
In order to be as rested as possible, you don’t just need to get your eight hours—you should eat well and exercise a few times a week. Even if your daily schedule is full, you still need to make time to exercise in order to stay healthy.  If you have time for nothing else, turn phone calls into opportunities for movement. You can walk and talk: return phone calls from your treadmill or while you’re walking around the block. Most likely, you can turn some video calls into phone calls, increasing opportunities for exercise as well. Make sure you’re getting your recommended 10,000 steps in every day.

Sailing is a great way to exercise while recharging; it is my respite, as well as my time to reflect and ideate. Problem-solving and innovating are often triggered by movement and exercise—and sailing requires stamina, strength, and concentration—all things that improve my ability to think clearly. I know most of us play golf; it can be as simple as walking around the course instead of taking a golf cart.

Pick whatever hobby you want; I enjoy doing things that require me to focus on something other than work, while still using my mind. It will cause you to think differently, and that’s great therapy for us as business leaders. 

Schedule Downtime for Yourself

This may seem obvious to many, but it’s something a lot of leaders bypass or simply forget to account for: Schedule time for yourself every day. Taking time for yourself periodically—or with your spouse/partner and family—is crucial to avoiding exhaustion. Part of the reason so many leaders get burnout is because everyone is trying to achieve the proverbial work-life balance.

One gets burned out when they do too much of one thing—and too much of any one thing leads to imbalance. It’s hard to completely energize with the present (both physically and mentally) when you don’t have that balance.

Take some time for yourself—some call it fallow time. Play golf; go for a walk; have a game night with your family; go sailing. Nothing clears your head faster than spending time in nature.

Being present, sticking to shorter meetings, avoiding multitasking, taking care of yourself physically, and scheduling downtime are all great steps to take to avoid burnout. As leaders, our employees need us to be attentive, on the ball, and responsive. And by implementing practical and simple strategies, that’s totally possible.

Read more for additional insights from Mark E. Watson III