Do you protect your downtime?  If your weeks include precious little time you can truly call your own, that can be a huge red flag for burnout risk.

Let's admit it right up front: finding ways to protect your downtime can be super-hard.  Most of us have a myriad reasons for laying ourselves open to the claims of others on our time, because we genuinely want to help make this world a better place. And we genuinely feel responsible for our bit of it.  And sometimes, we really are.  That's why getting good at figuring out when it's legit for us to withdraw our attention and our energy from others' concerns is a key anti-burnout skill.

Sometimes, the worst can be if we self-assigned the problem.  In that case, because of how our brains work, we can find it incredibly hard to unhook ourselves even when we've realized it's not a area we can actually help.

Check out the thought process, and how to find your way out of it, in today's sneak preview from my co-author, Dr. Marnie Loomis. Besides being a great naturopathic physician, Dr. Marnie Loomis is also an awesome speaker and humorist. She’s a big movie buff, too, and often draws her best teaching stories from the movies.

Here’s how she used a hero of the X-Men to help one of her medical students deal with having way more on her plate than she had the capacity to deal with.

Protect Your Downtime: Enter Magneto

Be prepared for a surprising, yet common, obstacle: you. Some of the hardest things to unload from your stress bucket are the things you put there yourself. These are the things that you took on because you thought they were important. Nobody asked you, though you may now feel accountable for them since you’ve declared that you would be.

If you’ve experienced any sort of hardship in order to continue your commitment to this goal, it is going to be even harder to give it up. The psychological process that leads to such commitment is the same that makes hazing so powerful. It is hard to admit that we’ve purposefully done something to cause ourselves harm.

So when we are faced with evidence that we’ve willingly put ourselves in harm’s way, we often tell ourselves that there must be a very good reason for it. We start to assign an even bigger value to that initial goal. “I allowed myself to be hurt, this thing must really be worth it. Otherwise, what the heck is wrong with me? I’m not stupid. No. So it must be super important.”

But is it? The longer this process continues and the greater the harm we allow ourselves to endure, the stronger this inflated sense of value, and the resulting bond to the goal, can get.

I once counseled a student who was dealing with this kind of issue, and we came up with a fun way to help her remember that it wasn’t worth the cost of sticking with it. Here’s a bit of her back-story: she had a lot going on in her life. Her Holmes and Rahe Life Stress Inventory score was incredibly high, and her many work and school commitments were pushing her to her limit. In addition to all of this, one of her major sources of stress was a personal matter that she spent a great deal of time and energy trying to fix.

Someone she cared about was in a relationship where she was afraid that person might get hurt. However, as we discussed it more, it became evident that the people in this situation were consenting adults. Nothing illegal was happening, it wasn’t an issue that affected her directly, it wasn’t even a situation where she had been asked to help; in fact, her help wasn’t even desired. She was doing this because she really wanted to protect a person she cared about from potential harm. Her intentions were admirable, but in the end, her efforts were a bit of a lost cause.

This all happened at a time when the movie X Men: First Class had been recently released.

Man grimacing as Magneto lifts submarine from the sea; a metaphor for the need to protect your downtime

GIF from the movie, X Men: First Class

I compared her situation to the scene where a young Magneto is desperately trying to hold on to the submarine of his nemesis as it dove deeper and deeper under the water. Magneto was in a situation that meant very much to him, but if he continued with it in the same way, it would destroy him. As we talked more, my student realized that this situation with her loved one was her “submarine” and she was being pulled deeper and deeper under water. She had done as much as she could. If she continued to hold on, spending time or energy on this issue, it had the real potential to break her, or at the least, cause her to fail classes and be kicked out of school. So she decided to drop the issue.

I remember how relieved she seemed when she realized that she could really be done with the matter. To remind her of this, I printed out a screenshot of Magneto holding onto the submarine and asked her to look at it if she ever found herself thinking she had to intervene in that relationship again. She laughed when I handed it to her, but months later, she returned to my office and told me that she would look back at that picture whenever she needed a reminder to stay focused on the things that mattered the most to her right now.

Text (exclusive of illustration) excerpted from Chapter 8 of  “Save Yourself from Burnout,” Bouclier Press, 2017. 

(c) 2017 Marnie Loomis and Beth Genly

Have you got too much on your plate? What is holding you back from re-thinking your priorities, so you can protect your downtime? Is it time for you to let go of a “submarine?”