The Firefighter Myth: Breaking The Cycle Of Burnout

ff blog post

Dwight Eisenhower once talked about the need for leaders to avoid confusing the urgent with the important. If you have ever taken a time management class or read a book on how to get your life organized, this idea is probably familiar.

Importance – the value of the task. What are the consequences of non-completion?

Urgency – how quickly the value of the task degrades over time. Can this be done later?

The skill of prioritization, or focusing on what matters most (if you are a devotee of Covey), is essential to leaders at every stage of life from student to professional. Many high performing leaders do a good job of understanding this distinction between urgent and important, and applying it to the way they invest their time and effort. In this way, they avoid the first trap of time management: Distraction – urgent tasks masquerading as important.

However, many high functioning leaders allow themselves to be caught up in the second trap: the Burnout Cycle. Because these leaders have a tendency to take on a lot of responsibility, and because they are sometimes overconfident in their ability to handle a large volume of work, leaders often find themselves spending the day dealing with tasks that are both urgent and important – emergencies. We refer to this as “fighting fires”.

When we spend all day fighting fires, we come home exhausted. We have all been there. When you have had one of those days at school or work, what do you do when you finally arrive home? Most people crash. We need to shut down our brains for a while and recharge the batteries.

This is smart actually, but the problem is that most of us overshoot relaxation and land squarely in the time wasting zone. When we spend our available time on tasks that are not important or urgent it means we are not focusing on preparation, practice, or prevention – the very things that will limit the fires we need to fight tomorrow. And so, after binge watching our favorite Netflix show until 3 AM, we catch a couple hours of sleep, drag ourselves back to our growing task list…and the Burnout Cycle continues.

How do we break this nasty downward spiral? Do you need to quit or give up activities you value? Maybe, if you are truly overcommitted. But, more likely this is an issue of forcing yourself into the right balance of invested time.

Take a lesson from actual fire fighters. If you speak to one you may be surprised to discover that the majority of their time (90% or more) is not spent fighting fires. Instead, they are investing time in practicing their skills, preparing their tools, and preventing fires from happening in the first place. Remember when, as a little kid, firefighters came to your school to talk about fire safety? That is just one small example of their biggest job – making sure that they have to deal with as few emergencies as possible.

So, if you are one of the thousands of high performers out there trapped in the Burnout Cycle, take a moment to reflect. How can you invest some time today to prevent a scramble next week? What can you change about your relaxation routine to make sure you are focused on recovery and not just wasting time? Take a moment right now and make a list of 10 things you can do this week to practice, prepare, or prevent.

The Burnout Cycle is a trap that can be avoided. Take back control.


How Pocahontas Helped Me Grow Up

By: Ruby Thompson


My Pocahontas dress can be spotted in photos of me from the moment my mom bought it, to two years later when it fit more like a mini-skirt. I was absolutely in love with this dress. To avoid ever taking it off, I wore it over my pajamas.

I’m sure a four year old wearing the same costume day after day looked odd. But, my mom supported this obsession whole-heartedly (or maybe the tantrums that came along with the attempt of a change were more convincing).

When I was four years old, I mistakenly expected Pocahontas to be able to go to pre-school like everyone else. When my mom told me otherwise, I absolutely lost my mind. I was not ready to let go of such a dear part of myself.

My mom eventually had to explain to me that I had to be a “big girl” and take off the dress. Besides the fact that it was old, ragged, and did not fit properly anymore, my Pocahontas dress could not transition with me to school. It was a huge comfort for me to wear it, and pre-school was the first time I had to learn that I was not always going to be comfortable.

This experience stuck with me all the way through high school, when I was terrified to leave for college. I was comfortable at home and I was nowhere near ready to leave my family and friends. I even considered going to community college to avoid the need to leave at all.

I avoided applying, visiting, or committing to any college until the last possible moment. I refused to get excited – because I wasn’t – and could tell my parents were not satisfied with my procrastination and lack of enthusiasm. Just like my Pocahontas dress, I was not ready to leave my comfort of home.

College is – as cliché as it sounds – the best part of anyone’s life. You gain so much knowledge and the greatest experiences. I couldn’t see that at that point; I was blinded by the dread of leaving home.

When I did decide to take off my Pocahontas dress, everything was okay. Not only okay, everything was wonderful. Comforts are not necessities and they should never hold you back. Going to college was scary and uncomfortable, but it led to more amazing things than I could have ever imagined.

If you’re afraid of something, it’s most likely because you’re comfortable where you are. Don’t be afraid to let go of that comfort and leap to the unknown. Take off your Pocahontas dress and see what’s waiting for you out there.






Diary of an In-betweener

By: Ruby Thompson


“In-Betweener?”  My mom questioned.

“Yup. That’s exactly what I am.” And at that point, I was convinced that was all I’d ever be.

Okay, yes, in-betweener is a totally made up word. But it describes exactly how I felt all throughout high school and exactly how thousands of other high school kids feel. I wasn’t the best player on the team, but I wasn’t dragging us down either. I took some really hard classes, but I also took some really easy ones. I did well in the things I tried, but I was never “the best” at absolutely anything. I was the poster child of mediocrity – or so I thought.

This deep-rooted feeling of being ordinary turned that “leadership” section of college applications into a nightmare. I never tried to be in charge of anything because I truly believed I was better off being told what to do. Once someone told me what to do, I knew I could do a great job. But nothing inside of me made me feel that I had any authority to make big decisions. And that was exactly my problem.

What makes the president of the recycling club or the captain of the football team’s ideas better than yours? You could – and probably do – have the exact same ideas as the person in charge of you. The only difference is that they took the initiative and had the confidence to put their ideas out there. Once you get past your belief that your ideas aren’t good enough or that someone else could do better, you’ll see that “leadership” section fill up and feel an overwhelming confidence in everything you do.

It took me until I graduated high school and went off to college to realize my potential and understand that my success was in my own hands. I was in charge, and I began to lead myself through my exhausting and exhilarating freshman year. I set out to make new friends, get good grades, and get as involved as possible.  I suddenly became the leader in group projects and a leading voice in class discussions. I stepped out from between the shadows and showed my true colors.

Don’t let the comfort of being an in-betweener keep you from stepping up to the plate. Get out there and take charge. I don’t see myself as an in-betweener anymore – and neither should you.

Have confidence and stand behind everything you do. Start by getting out of your comfort zone and out of the in-between. You’ll be thankful that you did.