Keeping the Flame Lit

Guest blogger, Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized speaker concerning communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at 
Keeping the Flame Lit without Burning Out

There is an old axiom I learned from a marketing expert, People trust the familiar, yet desire the novel. In marketing this is used as a reminder to infuse tried-and-trusted products with a little flair. That way the consumer won’t get bored, but also won’t be asked to make too big a stretch when presented with something new. This is also a good reminder for us all when it comes to avoiding burn-out.
Burn-out comes to everyone differently because we are all engaged in work that either feels like work or feels like play. For those lucky enough to be able to work at what they truly love, burn-out is an unfamiliar feeling because their work is their play. For everyone else, it is vital to know how to bring novelty to the familiar routine.
A friend once asked me how many days a week I spend running my business. After some thought I replied that I don’t know of very many days that I don’t do something related to my company. She scowled and said, “You work too hard.” I replied, “Any yet I never feel like I need a vacation. Other people need to get away at least a few times a year; sometimes for big, exciting trips. I like to travel and vacation, but I never feel the need to.” I can feel this way, not just because I love my work, but because of how I manage my brain’s need for novelty.
Simple neurology dictates that the brain achieves a state of calm by engaging in familiar behaviors on a regular basis. Familiarity leads to productivity, which leads to a feeling of positive self-worth. This is, in a nutshell, our Comfort Zone. The Comfort Zone theory was created by two psychologists in the early 1900s.
Robert Yerkes and J.D. Dodson were studying the effects of stress on the brain, and the resulting ability for the brain to learn and grow. The Comfort Zone is marked by certain qualities: high familiarity with your surroundings and daily tasks, and high productivity. The downside of the Comfort Zone is that very little learning occurs. You are comfortable because of the familiar, but not necessarily challenged. Every now and then you must step in to the next zone, the Risk Zone. The Risk Zone is characterized by low familiarity, which causes a drop in productivity and a slight raise in stress. However, learning spikes to extremely high levels in the Risk Zone (this is called the Yerkes-Dodson Learning Curve). A brief foray into the Risk Zone allows you to return to the Comfort Zone refreshed and able to approach your work with a fresh perspective.
The slight stress of the Risk Zone is not a problem. A moderate amount of stress is actually healthy for us; it improves focus and provides needed excitement. Too much stress, of course, is another matter. Bad stress is a product of the third zone, the Panic Zone. If you go too far past Risk and into Panic, you’re in trouble. The Panic Zone is characterized by the immanent risk of a loss of something of value.
What human beings value the most, besides food and shelter, is our self-image. If our self-image is threatened we immediately retreat to the Comfort Zone. We re-establish our self-worth by doing things with which we are familiar. However, because we experienced Panic, we are far less likely to venture away from the Comfort Zone again. The resulting loss of learning will cause a slow decline in the brain; we lose the vital excitement of the Risk Zone and eventually burn out.
What all this means is that, to avoid burn-out, we must seek out ways to infuse risk into our work every now and then. The risk should be manageable, not career-threatening. We should do an old task in a new way. Not because there was anything wrong with the old way, but because the brain needs a shot of novelty and excitement every now and then in order to learn, grow, and be happy. If you do step too far and experience a little panic, recognize what is happening so you can consciously avoid the trap of staying in the Comfort Zone too long.
You don’t have to do wild and crazy things to infuse excitement and avoid burn-out, just make it a priority to change your routine and take a risk. The reward is a refreshed and learning brain, and less of an urge to get away from it all.

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