avoid burnout

… Friday, July 28th I walked out of my insurance agency with no plans to return until August 23rd.

… Sunday, August 1st I logged off of e-mail with no plans to log back on until Monday August 23rd.

… Monday, August 2nd at 8:30AM I checked Facebook one last time and then deleted the APP from my phone with no plans to re-install it until August 23rd.

Before we dive into what led me to this “3 week pause” let’s go back to the date that started it all….

Friday March 13, 2020.

It was on this date that we locked the doors to the agency.  There was no “How-to Manual” for locking the doors due to a pandemic.  In fact, such an event had never crossed my mind.  My team was panicked, I was panicked, my home became a school with my wife teaching and three children learning; life as we knew it had abruptly ended.

Approximately 100 days earlier I had launched Insurance Agency Optimization with a mission to add value and increase productivity within hundreds of agencies coast to coast.  

Everything had been turned upside down.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed so many things for so many people.  Personally, my family and I have been blessed with good physical health throughout this entire ordeal. However, I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t taken a mental toll on all of us.

Your obituary is simply a detailed report of the decisions you made upon arriving at the dozen or so most critical crossroads you faced in life.  During the days and weeks that followed March 13, 2020 I realized I was at one of those crucial crossroads.  

Which path would I choose?  

Left, towards least resistance: Terminate employees, ditch sales and marketing, scrap the consulting company.

Or, right, towards the long and winding road:  Keep all employees, find opportunities during times of fear, position the consulting company as the branch agents were looking to grab onto, pull themselves up with and join a group of likeminded (scared) agents who were willing to fight and figure this thing out together.

The easy choice is always easy.  But the difficult choice is always RIGHT.

The long and winding road it was and we got to work.

The good news was there was plenty of time TO work!  No sports, no concerts, no cookouts, no travel, no dining out, no shopping, no NOTHING… except work.  And work, I did.  12-14 hours each day, seven days a week for months and months and months.  Writing, training, coaching, consulting, speaking, speaking and speaking into a computer for hours and hours only to deal with the exhaustion and “Zoom headaches” later.

It was great stuff.  Truly, it was.  I was meeting hundreds of new Agents and Team Members monthly, my agency was still on track to meet and exceed 2020 goals and the testimonials were pouring in.

I was exhausted, but told myself “nobody cares…work harder.”

I wanted to quit, but told myself “you can’t…people need you.”

If I wasn’t on the phone speaking to Agents and Team Members or on Zoom training Agents and Team Members I was answering questions via text, e-mail, messenger or threads on Facebook.  If I was awake I was either in front of a computer or on my phone. And sometimes both.

It was great stuff.  Truly it was.  However, it was a recipe for burnout and when you’re trapped in a bottle you can’t read its label.  The label on my bottle read: “Stop, take a break.”  Seventeen months later I finally got the memo. It was time I figured out how I was going to avoid agency burnout.

Believing the lies

One of the biggest problems we face is that we tend to believe our own lies.  Or, we allow our fears to create fictitious stories about the future and then we believe those stories.  For instance, I always told myself that if I’m not physically present at the agency I will be viewed as a weak or complacent leader.  I also believed my absence would send a message to my customers that I didn’t care or wasn’t interested in my business.  I also told myself that if I didn’t personally answer every email, reply to every text and respond to every comment on social media, people wouldn’t like me.  And I truly believed that if I deleted social media I would miss something, some sort of big opportunity. Suddenly I’d no longer be relevant and everyone would forget about me.  

The lies I told myself (and believed) for years were that I had to be accessible 24/7/365 in order to be the person I signed up to be.  Those lies were slowly destroying the real me, the real person I desired to be.  

I needed time to pause, reflect and reset.

So what would the “rules” be for this 3-week pause that I had decided to take?

This wasn’t going to be a “vacation” because I wanted to do work, but I wanted to work on my terms.

This wasn’t going to be a “sabbatical” because I couldn’t completely “leave” my agency work (well, I suppose I could have, but I didn’t want to).

I wanted to keep the rules simple while piloting some new systems, processes and mindsets that would ultimately create a more efficient work environment and prevent future burnouts.

Here were my 5 rules:

Rule #1:  No alarm clock.  I would wake up when my body was done sleeping.

Rule #2:  No schedule.  The calendar was completely blank.  No calls, no appointments, no commitments.

Rule #3:  No email.  I have three different email accounts and I delegated/forwarded them all to members of my team.

Rule #4:  No social media.  I deleted the apps from my phone and gave a team member my login and password.

Rule #5:  Turn the cell phone off while with friends and family.

I’m fascinated by time.  Specifically, how everyone is given the same 24 hours in each day and some struggle to accomplish the basics, while others are changing the world.

I’m fascinated by the concept of scaling a business.  How is it that Richard Branson owns over 400 companies and I struggle to run one insurance agency?

In order to challenge myself to become more efficient with time and scale my business efforts I began to study the titans of the business world.  The first golden nugget I extracted came from Elon Musk when I learned about his “5-minute rule.”  This rule states that Elon Musk’s entire day is pre-determined and scheduled in 5-minute blocks.  He does NOTHING for longer than 5 minutes at a time.  The thought process is when a person only has 5 minutes to do something they give that activity 100% focus.  This insured one of my takeaways from my time off. 

My 3 Biggest Lessons from my 3-week Pause

 1. The “Ten at Ten” daily call.

I certainly wasn’t going to time block my entire day into 5-minute blocks like Elon.  However, I did spin this concept into the “ten at ten” plan.

Each morning at 10:00 AM, my trusted and amazing Executive Assistant, Katie would call me and in TEN minutes or LESS she brought me up-to-speed exclusively on the most essential things that were emailed to me, on social media or happening at the agency that I either needed to know about or provide direction with.

Imagine that?  At first, I couldn’t either.  

Conservatively, I was spending 4-5 hours each day going back and forth with emails, scrolling through social media, commenting on different threads, replying to Facebook Messenger, and on and on.. How in the world was Katie going to bring me up to speed on EVERYTHING that happened over the past 24 hours in just TEN minutes?  

Well, she didn’t.  She only brought me up to speed on the most essential things I needed to know about.  And, by the way, we never had a call even reach the ten-minute mark.  There were even a few days where she just texted me one or two things at 9:50 AM that I could quickly answer and we skipped the call entirely.

Admittedly, I struggled with this.  My ego was bruised.  At the end of the first week I was wondering: “Am I really this unimportant or unneeded?”  

Then, I went back to the billionaire club and asked myself, how many emails each day does Warren Buffet respond to?  How many Facebook threads is Jeff Bezos going back and forth on?  If somebody calls Bill Gates’ office, do they really expect Bill Gates to answer the phone?  These were unchartered waters for me, but it all made sense and became an “AHA! moment.”  

When my team received a call for me, they handled it.  When Katie received an email, she answered on my behalf or delegated it to a team member who could.  When somebody tagged me or had a question on social media, Katie responded.  What was left?  The one-off call that only I could make, the email request that required my decision and the social media posts that were mainly just FYIs. 

My takeaway? Each day I was only presented with a handful of things that needed my attention or direction.  TEN minutes or less was all the time needed once all of the time-wasting nonsense was removed.

2. Parkinson’s Law

This law states that we expand our work to fill the time available to its completion.  If you go back to “Rule #2: no schedule,”… well, I kept that one throughout the first week.  What I realized at the end of that week was Parkinson’s Law was real!  For nearly a year and a half I told myself I would write my next book, create new training content and develop new programs IF I ONLY HAD MORE TIME!!!  Well, I created this “3 week pause” with nothing on the schedule so I’d finally have the time I was looking for to get all of this done.  

What happened next?

I golfed with my son, spent more time at camp with my wife, bombed around on the jet ski, hung out on the beach, rested in the hammock, hit up some happy hours, went to the horse track and all sorts of other non-productive activities!  

Don’t get me wrong, it was all super fun stuff, but…I justified blowing off my creative projects by telling myself that I HAVE PLENTY OF TIME.  The problem quickly became, an entire week had passed me by and now I only had two weeks remaining.  I was still far from wanting the Elon Musk 5-minute time blocks for 14 hours each day, but I knew some sort of structure was needed even during downtime.  I woke up on Monday morning of week two and designated specific time blocks where I would do the work I set out to do.  

The result?  By the end of that week I submitted an entire new training program to help Agents get newly-hired Team Members off to a fast start during their first four weeks on the job.  The program is turning out to be everything I had hoped it would be and more (it will be launching this fall — stay tuned!).  I found myself truly happy, relieved and fulfilled by meaningful work.  

My takeaway?  Parkinson’s Law is real.  In order to get anything done you have to set timeline parameters.

3. The Truth About Anxiety

I’ve been open with you about my struggles with anxiety.  It started in college. I was 19 when I experienced my first full blown, nearly suffocating panic attack.  For the better part of the past 25 years I’ve learned to live with anxiety and work through it without medication.  Side note, I’m not knocking anxiety medication, I’m simply stating I’ve made a personal choice to avoid it.

Obviously, this is a vast, complicated topic and for the sake of this blog, not one I’m going to dive deep into.  However, I do want to share another lie I discovered I’ve been telling myself for a long time now.  I truly believed that my stress and anxiety was caused by my type of work and workload volume.  I was certain that this “3 week pause” would finally allow me to breathe again, to relax, to eliminate confusion and get back to that carefree kid I was during the Summer that followed third grade.  

I was wrong.

Perhaps you read about my Week 1 activities (golfing, beach bumming and hammock resting) and thought, WOW…that’s great!  I wish I could just let everything go and relax like that.  However, the truth is almost none of it was relaxing.  When I was sitting on the beach I felt guilty that I wasn’t being productive.  When I was on the golf course in between shots I was wondering what I was missing.  And when I was in the hammock I couldn’t fall asleep because I would get short of breath thinking about everything coming up in the future that I wasn’t ready for (because I was in a damn hammock)!

The reality is, the things you stress about and have anxiety over don’t go away when you change your location, they follow you.  I suppose this is one of the curses of a “Type-A” (like most entrepreneurs are).  The day-to-day stresses of phone calls, training classes, emails and social media were removed from my day-to-day, but I quickly replaced them with new things to stress about. 

I do not have a “solution” to this. But, I do have a “takeaway” and it’s this:  AWARENESS

I feel more comfortable today knowing that it’s natural to carry a healthy level of stress and anxiety. 

My takeaway? Moving forward I will work on keeping it at a healthy level in the present versus what I had been doing which was running it up to unhealthy levels with the thought that a future event will bring it back down.  The truth is this, NO future event will eliminate these feelings.  Not a happy hour, boy’s night, long weekend or vacation; and that’s okay. 

To wrap up, I strongly encourage you to give a work break like this, or some version of it, a try. You may be thinking “I can’t just shut things down for 3 weeks.”  Well, the reality is none of us will ever be “ready” to do anything that we aren’t “ready” to do. Sometimes you just have to JUMP… and figure it out on the way down.  

Perhaps you cannot do 3 weeks, that’s okay.  Your rules may be different and that’s great — you do you.  Burnout in our business is real.  Have the leadership courage to admit you may be experiencing it at some level and create some space for yourself.  Help yourself avoid agency burnout: hit the “pause” button and come back as a better version of yourself.