An interview with Duncan So, the Director & Co-founder of The Burnout Clinic, Technologist and Humane Tech advocate.
Anna: So I wanted to interview you about your top five habits that you as a high-performer deployed to stay burnout free.
1. Walking to destress, ground and lose weight
Duncan: Oh, okay. Sure. The first one is walking and I’ve learned this the hard way because this was the first thing I did when I actually burnt out. So I burned out around 2011, 12, and during that, I obviously had zero mindfulness, didn’t do any meditation, any of that. And I started off with walking and I do that every day. It’s sort of a daily habit and not just as great for your stats and calorie count and all that great stuff, but it helps you to stay in the parasympathetic nervous system. As long as you’re looking at the things around you and not staring at your feet. Generally, when you come back from a walk you feel great, right? So especially when we’re feeling tired, and fatigued.
On the flip side for me, when I went through burnout, there was a little bit of an identity crisis.
That’s happening now with the Great Resignation [00:01:00]. And so when you’re sort of really down and depressed and you’re questioning your lifestyle, “No, I’m not doing so well”. Walks are always a great, easy, low resistant, low-impact way to start, not just releasing stress, but it’s really great for weight loss as well, because we also know that some people who do struggle with burnout lean on stress eating as a crutch.
And so if they’re wondering how do I do weight loss as well? I’m going to have no extra bandwidth. Do you want me to hit the gym? Do all this type of stuff? I’m like, hang on, hang on. Let’s just focus on the recovery first. Start with walking and it does all that. Has all of these great benefits. So that’s my number one habit. I generally recommend it for everybody.
2.The power of journalling
And then number two is, again, I go from more of the simple stuff to the more advanced stuff, but number two is journaling. So, if you’re not a practitioner of mindfulness or meditation, you’re not there yet, journaling is great. Generally, especially for those who are struggling with some sort of mental health challenge, emotional health challenge, journaling is a really great way to rebuild rapport with yourself.
In [00:02:00] my world of clinical NLP Dr.Milton Erickson always says that all the health conditions, where they come from, is us losing rapport with ourselves. So rebuilding rapport and using journaling is a great way to self-reflect and just have a conversation with yourself. And so for those who don’t do that and struggle with things like mental chatter and high anxiety, you would start to reap the benefits of journaling because once you write it down, it’s not invisible anymore, you actually feel heard through yourself.
Journaling is a really powerful tool. And also you can start adding all those questions to be more introspective. Help you to really become self more self-aware of some of the things. What are the self-sabotaging activities or decisions you are making on the day-to-day? You can start using that as a way to make slow and steady shifts. So journaling is also a very powerful recovery habit, but it’s also a very powerful prevention habit as well.
3. Learning to be in the now
So that’s number two, and then a little bit more advanced. Then we move into actual mindfulness. [00:03:00] And you’re beginning breathing and meditation and that work as well. And so mindfulness and breathing, we both know the benefits and sort of the, again, as I call it, the neutral. We’re so good at either living in the future, everything’s expectations and anxiety, or we live in the past and everything’s a walking trauma. And so mindfulness is all about being present, right? So all these spiritual gurus always talking about being present. And I know both of us are out of a science background, right?
I’m a, before becoming a clinician, an engineer. So starting from an academic lens into my first almost decade-long career, that space and really learning the power of just being still in a time where everything’s hustle culture, everything’s go, everything’s that dopamine hit. This is a skill, I wish this was something that our parents taught us, elementary school taught us. So if you don’t have that habit today, I’ll definitely recommend bringing in mindfulness. And obviously, breathing comes with that because if you breathe. You know, you’re aware of your breath and [00:04:00] that adds amplifies, sort of that mindfulness, but took a practice.
4. Emotional release
So that’s number three, a number four is habits. Now we get a little bit more into a specialty. So there is a process that I use at the clinic, mental and emotional release. We used to call it timeline therapy because what we do is we can start to release suppressed emotions and limiting beliefs, sabotaging behaviours in our conflicts, from our neurology. So for me, what’s very useful even as a, just as a practice, but using as part of a life philosophy you know, most people are like, I want you to focus cognitively on my goals, especially for a high achiever. Everything’s always go, go, go — hit achievement. What we find in our world is it’s not about all of the optimizations and bio-hacks and new strategies and things that you do to move forward.
If you have resistance on the path, meaning as you can imagine, you can be the most pristine rocket that’s flying over the atmosphere, pumping all of that energy into the atmosphere, but if you tell yourself to [00:05:00] anchor or a parachute, that resistance can completely destroy the trajectory of where you go.
And so MER is one of those clinical practices that is highly effective when it comes to release work. And so I use it for my clients. So all the way to the extremes of phobias and PTSD and trauma. Those things that cleared out in about, you know, 40, 40 to 45-minute session. And so obviously I do that as a practitioner, but for me, I use it on myself because every month that’s a habit. If something happens once, so I’ll just be like, oh, that’s really cool. How am I feeling? I can be mindful and start to adjust if it happens again, I’ll be like, it’s something I don’t like, what am I not doing properly? Or thinking, making the decisions properly? Or is there something I haven’t come to terms with, oh, that’s causing that. And if that happens a third time, I go straight to MER.
Right. Because at that point as more of a pragmatist, I just go, okay, this is a waste of my time. It’s just clear that from my nervous system and in reality it unfolds just like the work of NLP neuro-linguistic programming you know, a prime part of that is not just [00:06:00] effective communication. As clinical practice, if you were to get from point a to B and you’re not going to see what’s stopping you and how do you clear out, whether it’s a behaviour, whether it’s some sort of thinking or emotional block. Generally, if you can clear that out, then you can move back to where we need to go. And so, almost, and I know you know of agile practice as well, is that is one of the most effective ways to iterate because you can get the best feedback right down to your nervous system. So fourth habit I use once a month. I don’t do it every day and it is a powerhouse of a tool. So once I do it, it’s more then enough for me to just clear out some of the baggage that it might have, that triggers self-sabotage.
5. Habit of building habits
Number five is habits. Habit of building habits. Because so many of us like one-hit wonders, as we do go about novelty and hustle culture and all these things. And what we realize is we don’t move over. We call that mastery, right. If we don’t go down a mastery path and everything is just that a quick fix [00:07:00] short-term thinking, short-term behaviours, you’ll never be able to build the mastery or the autopilot — that automatic muscle behaviours you need to walk gracefully through life. And so everything’s always like learning and everything is stressful. Trying to be a master of driving, but you’re just learning to drive. Of course, we can’t do many things, but if you put your time and effort into doing those things then driving becomes effortless. And that’s why it matters.
So I make very cognizant decisions on a day-to-day if I’m ever going to apply or implement something into my life. Is it something that I can build habits from? And if it isn’t, then I don’t do it. And that’s the whole idea of being more strategic in your life. Because if everything’s just for a novelty, wonder, especially in today’s hustle culture, especially as an entrepreneur, as myself, I don’t have necessarily that freedom sometimes to just jump around with what we call a shiny object syndrome, right? That will crush you in all areas of life because you want, you’re a high achiever.
You want to do many things and achieve [00:08:00] all these great goals at the same time. You don’t want to stop you know, and at the same time sacrifice mental and emotional wellbeing. So if you want to hustle and flow, one of the big strategies or habits that I have is making sure that I make sure everything that I choose in my life can be turned into a habit so that it makes my cognitive load a lot less.
Anna: That’s wonderful. Super insightful. I’m actually, I’m really grateful that I got to meet you. I didn’t realize that you come from an engineering background. So it’s, it’s like, you know, I feel like we get each other, we come from a similar background in tech, right? Yeah. Yeah. Everything you’ve talked about, this is a beautiful spot. And what I’m finding is looking back at you know, just being around friends who are Agile coaches and who have always really struggled with change management in the organizations. I now realize that all of that has to do more with that inner mastery of [00:09:00] these skills than what we do. It’s not taught in school, unfortunately, more so than this kind of like external fitting, you know, the round peg into a square hole organizational culture thing.
A quick follow-up on what you talked about. Do you find the people you work with are then able to transfer these skills into how they lead organizations?
Duncan: Yeah. So I’ll give you sort of a secret sauce to the strategy we use in The Burnout Clinic. And so when it comes to burnout and I want to make a huge shout-out to your audience as well, something to reach those who are listening to us because you understand burnout recovery. So many people mistake burnout prevention and recovery. Different functions, period. Right? If you want to be like an engineer, I want to be more of a practical side of things, recovery and prevention are very different practices. And so a big part of it is change management, it is required for both.
Do we want to install new prevention practices or new recovery practices? And so, you know, our secret sauce because burnout is a nasty one, right? Burnout is sort of like like racism, right? As it gets so broad, it’s systemic issue. Well, that’s what I love doing as an engineer, as an engineer I’m a systems change leader. I look at changing things really from the root of where the value systems lie and look at, you know, sort of big picture change. And that’s what I’ve been doing. Pre the burnout clinic, working with groups of the United Nations and the British Council and you know, the world economic forum, looking at these.
Fundamental, like especially the fourth industrial revolution challenges, but flip side to that is that burnout it’s also a very individual problem just because when it comes to the anxiety, because of the fatigue, the exhaustion, the cynicism the performance efficacy, or the dark night of the soul that’s not a systemic issue. That’s actually a personal issue impacts not just your psychology is like your nervous system and all of your different human systems that makes sort of most people’s life a nightmare.
And that’s why, especially during our hustle culture today, what makes it so painful. And so the secret sauce really is, you know, what we do is we actually, because we work with HR, we work with workplace leaders is we have them focused on learning these, they aren’t just habits, but skills so that they actually recover from burnout. So that’s our key takeaway, right? Is you know, whether it’s from a clinical lens or from our coaching lens. You feel bad here. All the conditions are all the symptomology and all the energy that’s being drained after, our work that has to be gone, you gotta be liberated with more mental and emotional capacity and bandwidth and energy for you to do different things.
So usually the first thing that it does, is it destigmatizes how easy recovery can be, because most people are like, you know, I, I, I loved, I was reading your Instagram, right? How do you know when you’re burning out? If you need a vacation from a vacation and that’s like a fun one that we all know about because we know that’s in our nervous system or we go to vacation where it’s still so stressful when we come back, it’s just our habits our day to day. We’re actually, not that we’re burning out, we’re actually successful at burning out. Right.
You’ve had the habits that we’ve ingrained in ourselves that are leading us towards burnout. So that’s something that we should congratulate us for. So we shouldn’t feel bad. So really our goal is how do we fail burnout? If you want to recover from burnout is how do we fail burnout? [00:12:00]