Burnout taught me 5 key lessons

I was sitting in the operations cell of our Joint Task Force in Mosul, Iraq, staring at books. I should have been devouring this book with the precious few minutes I had available before we started another relentless night cycle of hitting high-value targets.  The cover of darkness became our alarm clock to plan and execute missions worldwide during the Global War on Terror. 

By my 15th combat deployment, I should have been conditioned to this incredible operational tempo.  But this deployment was unlike the others before it.  Every night, I started to become more exhausted than the night prior.  I was losing focus.  My commitment to the mission and my men remained strong, but the power and passion to do my job in this unrelenting cycle of combat deployments was taking a far greater toll than I recognized.

I was working harder than ever before in my military career but was getting less accomplished. I forced myself to be engaged with people and planning even though my mind felt thousands of miles away. A fog had been sweeping over me for weeks, every day becoming thicker and harder to shake off.  I counted the fleeting minutes on my watch before we started another lethal cycle of dismantling the Al Qaeda network in Iraq.

Fog replaced my focus

The fog was getting thicker. I couldn’t focus on my watch. I couldn’t focus on the missions; I couldn’t even focus on the book that I was reading to escape the reality of the war for just a few minutes when I realized that something was very wrong with me. I wondered if I was losing my mind because of all the blood and trauma I’d witnessed.  

Then… like a bolt out of the blue… I came to the shocking realization that I was experiencing BURNOUT.

This general malaise has only occurred one other time in my life- after a year of work without a break and six months straight without a day off. This time was different.  This fog was so powerful that I couldn’t find my way out.  To make matters worse, the harder I worked to find a solution, the deeper I descended into this fog.

My feebleness in the fight

One of the scariest phone calls of my life was phoning my supervisor from the operation cell in Iraq. I knew there was no easy solution to this burnout I was experiencing. I knew what happened next was going to be very painful if I was going to be able to recover from this challenging circumstance. 

I was in my dream job, but there was no simple solution.

I called my boss in the middle of the night (Iraq time is the middle of the afternoon US Eastern Time) to ask for a meeting as soon as I returned from combat. Although he was confused about my condition, I could hear the concern in his voice. I needed to return to the United States right away. I told him I didn’t have the endurance to finish my combat deployment.

As I went to my home base, I told him I needed to change some things, because the operational tempo of my unit would not slow down for a long time to come and because family responsibilities continued to grow. I knew my only option was to ask for a different assignment.

How burnout led to my benefit

My boss quickly sprang into action and helped me find another assignment in a unit that did not deploy and had a more predictable schedule. It was a slight change with a significant impact. This quick and decisive change caused me to bounce back from burnout much quicker than anticipated.

11 months later, I was invited to return to the old unit in a new and better capacity. Eventually, I returned to Iraq and Afghanistan with all the focus, energy, and attention I had lost due to burnout. 

There was nothing pleasant about the fog and frustration of burnout.  However, it helped me learn my limits and adjust to the unique nature of serving in a special operations unit during the most extended war period in American history.  This experience taught me a lesson I hope you can learn without going through burnout.   

Here are my top five lessons that you can use to prevent burnout or deal with the beginning stages of burnout:

  1. Know your limits. Everyone has limits to their capabilities. You can temporarily function beyond your limits but will experience burnout if you try to live beyond your limits.
  2. Make small changes. You don’t have to make significant changes in life to avoid burnout. Often, making small changes towards a healthier lifestyle has a significant impact.
  3. Build on your successes. After making small changes in your life, use your progress to motivate you to tackle bigger challenges. Your small wins can lead to bigger victories.
  4. Only own your problems. We live in a world where people love to pass on blame for their mistakes. If you’re not careful, you’ll accept the accountability or responsibility for other people’s issues. This is a big step toward burnout.
  5. Set a character goal. Burnout often occurs when your goals let you down.  This lack of fulfillment traps people in an endless performance cycle of replacing one lofty goal with another.  To avoid this trap, make goals based on your personality or character.  These successes stay with you long after the temporary dreams fade away.

I hope you’ll learn from my career mistakes so that you don’t experience the same fog and frustration that I went through because of burnout.  If you want to learn more about how to beat burnout, listen to my recent Unbeatable interview with Clint Callahan. He helps people defeat the burnout that almost unseated him. 

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