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Burned Out on Meaning?

3 simple things you can do to uplift your day.

Key points

  • There’s a point when doing more doesn’t get you more.
  • Too much of one thing can become a bad thing if you don’t add variety.
  • Add in more play, spontaneity, and fun to your life.

My client, who is also a therapist, asked me the other day.

I know my values. I follow my values all day long. Then why do I still feel so blah, uninspired and exhausted?

My simple answer to that question is that too much of anything can become a bad thing.

Wise effort isn’t just pointing your arrow toward your values and going at a level 10 on repeat. It’s about using your effort wisely. Sometimes that means dialing it up, and other times that means dialing it back. And almost always it means changing things up. If you want to upgrade your day from blah to hurrah!, try these three simple ways to turn your energy around.

1. Notice What’s Worth It

There’s a point when doing more doesn’t get you more. And some things just aren’t worth putting extra effort into. The question to start asking yourself is, What is worth your precious energy? One way to do this is by tracking what’s worth it and not worth it to you. When is the point of diminishing returns?

It’s not so black and white. You can listen inside, ask yourself whether something is worth it to you, in this moment, in this context, and decide. Some days, waking up at 5 to get to the gym is worth it, and others you could use some extra sleep. If you were to make a worth it/not worth it list of your effort, what would it look like? Here’s mine from yesterday.

Worth it / Not worth it

Writing in the morning from 7 am-9 am / Writing from 11 am-1 pm

Making waffles for my kids / Not sitting down to eat with my kids

Walking with my mom / Talking about myself the whole time

Having make-up sex with my husband / Picking a fight in the first place

Make a list and pay attention to points of diminishing returns. By noticing what is worth it, you will start to make wiser choices as to what you take on and what you pass up.

2. Try Productive Procrastination

When you have lost joy in what you are doing, even though it’s guided by your values, its also time to look at what you are doing, not just how much. Too much of one thing, even kale, running, or taking care of your aging parents, can become a bad thing if you don’t add variety.

One principle that can help with diversifying your energy diet is something called “productive procrastination.” Productive procrastination is when you swap one values-aligned activity with another adaptive—albeit less important—one. Erin Westgate, a researcher at University of Florida shared with me in a podcast interview that she came up with the concept when she noticed that in graduate school she would write papers to procrastinate studying for an exam. In her research, Dr. Westgate found that not all forms of procrastination are equal. In fact, students who engaged in productive procrastination (e.g., cleaning your room to procrastinate doing paperwork) had the same benefits in terms of lower alcohol use and higher GPA as nonprocrastinators. So try diversifying your energy diet with some productive tasks. Sick of working on your taxes? Try answering some emails. Sick of answering some emails? Call your mom.

Take a look at how you are using your energy. How can you diversify it a bit? Where could you try something new, or mix it up, or productively procrastinate so that you have a more nutritious effort diet? Included in that is, of course, to have more fun. Let’s look at that next.

3. Have More Fun

One of the things that surprised me most when we took our kids to a summer retreat at Plum Village Monastery was that the nuns wore tennis shoes under their robes. They’d spend the morning in sitting meditation, leading dharma talks, cleaning dishes, and chopping vegetables. But by afternoon, they’d be out playing ping pong, basketball, and volleyball with the kids. It’s quite a sight to see bald nuns in brown robes spiking a volleyball or a nun stealing a soccer ball from your kid. This type of fun, like all things done at Plum Village, is done on purpose.

Fun isn’t just good for you, it can be a form of activism. In the book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, Adrienne Maree Brown writes that engaging in pleasurable activities challenges the norms and structures that perpetuate suffering and oppression. By prioritizing happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction in our own lives and communities, we can enhance our resilience and effectiveness in political and social movements. Living out your values does not need to be joyless and full of sacrifice.

When I interviewed Dr. Michael Ricker, author of The Fun Habit, he recommended we generate a “fun file.”

The purpose of the fun file is to serve as a tangible reminder of what activities make you happy and to encourage you to incorporate more of these elements into your daily life. What would be in your fun file? Keep a fun file, and from it, make a list of 8 to 15 enjoyable activities. Make sure to include on your list things that require no preparation or little time, things that are moderate in planning and time, and things that take a little more effort to make happen. For example, here’s mine:

Low Effort/Prep/Time Commitment

  • Play Uno with my son
  • Garden
  • Make dessert on a weeknight

Medium Effort/Prep/Time Commitment

  • Go to the farmer’s market
  • Hike with my dog
  • Make pasta from scratch

High Effort/Prep/Time Commitment

  • Go to an outdoor concert
  • Take a beginner’s painting class
  • Lead a retreat in Costa Rica

If you are feeling burned out on all the meaningful activities you do, it’s time to add in more play, spontaneity, and fun to your life. Make your list and make a commitment to do something fun every day. Even if it’s really small. And when you do it… savor it!

More from Diana Hill, Ph.D.
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