How I Use Priorities to Avoid Burnout (and you can, too!) 

Priorities itemized on a grid

Avoiding burnout requires living life by YOUR priorities
by maintaining supportive boundaries. 

However, figuring out what YOUR specific boundaries are…well, that’s the hard part. 

Let’s start off with really understanding what constitutes a “boundary”: 

  • It’s a clear indication of where one thing ends and another begins
  • It’s a dividing line that marks the limits of an area
  • It’s a limit placed on a subject or activity
  • It’s a limit as to the extent of your involvement in an activity
  • It’s the limits and rules that you set for yourself

Notice how all these definitions of “boundary” tend to focus on limitations?  In burnout recovery or avoidance, these limitations are a good thing because they are set by YOU. 

Because personal boundaries are self-imposed,
it builds your confidence in spending time on your real priorities.

But beginning to establish boundaries in areas where none had previously existed is a challenge. 

Consider physical boundaries:  they’re probably the easiest to set up.  Think of a fence around the perimeter of your property.  In the 20th century, most people went to an office and had an office phone that could only be accessed during work hours.  In other words, there was a physical boundary that prevented employees from taking calls from clients, their boss, or coworkers if they weren’t in the office. 

That all changed with technology.  While it has enabled the ability to work remotely, tech has also eradicated the physical boundary separating work from your personal life. 

This is where mental boundaries that focus on what you think come into play – and they’re a lot harder (but not impossible) to establish. 

To replace the physical separation of a work phone, mental boundaries can be established through letting your colleagues and clients know that there is a set time every day when you no longer check emails.  Even better, it’s committing to not checking emails on the weekend, or on holidays, or on vacation. 

Sounds easy, right?  But if you’ve tried to implement these email boundaries, you’ve probably experienced something that was somewhat unexpected:  emotional guilt, worry, fear, or anxiety.  This is where emotional boundaries that focus on how you feel become the critical linchpin in sustaining healthy boundaries. 

Considering the boundaries surrounding work emails, what do you believe you will gain in your life by committing to answering work emails only during defined work hours?  If you don’t have an emotionally compelling reason for setting up the boundary in the first place, then maintaining that boundary will be extremely difficult (if not impossible). 

Everyone has experienced the initial euphoria when starting something new that they believe will benefit them in some way.  Think of those new year’s resolutions to start exercising, eat healthy, and lose weight.  Within a very short period of time, the winter chill makes jogging undesirable…the siren call of the Doritos couldn’t be ignored…and somehow you gained weight. 

It’s the same things with setting boundaries around the times when you will read and answer work emails. 

  • Do you believe that this boundary will label you as a “slacker” at work and limit your potential for advancement?  If so, you’ll probably continue to check emails at 11:00PM. 
  • Or do you believe that this email boundary will enable you to make the time to separate yourself from work so that you can engage with your family in the evenings?  If family time IS important to you, saying “no” to emails outside of work hours will be a lot easier to sustain. 
  • But if you are only setting up email boundaries because someone told you it was a good thing to do, well, it is highly doubtful that you’ll succeed.  We do things and set boundaries because we want to – not because someone told us to. 

Boundaries are the key to not only overcoming burnout,
but avoiding it in the first place.

So while physical boundaries are relatively easy, in today’s 24/7/365 age of constant communication, it’s the lack of mental boundaries dealing with what you think and emotional boundaries acknowledging what you feel that contribute to burnout. 

But even though these mental and emotional boundaries can be challenging to establish and maintain, they are critical in avoiding or overcoming burnout. 

How the Heck Do You Determine YOUR Boundaries?! 

So boundaries are the cornerstone of avoiding and overcoming burnout, but several questions remain: 

  • How do you decide which boundaries to implement and where to implement them? 
  • How do you maintain boundaries that create a powerful synergy in your daily activities – and don’t conflict with each other? 
  • Perhaps most importantly, what’s the foundation for your boundaries?  In other words, what’s your “why?” 

One of the most important things that I’ve learned is that your actions are the only true reflection of your real priorities. 

Think about that for a minute:  your actions are the only true reflection of your real priorities. 

This means that what you do reflects who you are.  Actions reflect what’s really important to you.  They reflect your values and beliefs.  They emanate from your thoughts and feelings. 

Which means your behaviors are driven by your mental and emotional beliefs…
and they can only be changed by identifying the boundaries
between what you want and what you don’t.

The 21st century’s workplace is characterized by hyperactivity:  often not clearly directed and often appearing random at best. But it is a cultural trigger that leads many of you to do things because you think that you have to – even if they aren’t necessarily aligned with what you say is important to you. 

When this happens, it’s often because there is a conflict between what you say you want versus what you actually want.  But actions don’t lie:  they do speak louder than words.  A conflict between actions and priorities often indicates a misunderstanding or lack of awareness as to what is really important to YOU. 

The Power of Priorities

Once again, let’s start with really understanding what constitutes a “priority”: 

  • It’s a fact or condition that you believe is more important than something else
  • It’s required to be done before anything else
  • In other words, it precedes everything else

It’s just as important to understand what a priority ISN’T: 

  • It’s NOT a mind-numbing, constantly expanding “to do” list
  • It’s NOT the “have to’s” that other people are demanding of you
  • It’s NOT something that you are not emotionally connected to

Instead, priorities reflect your values, beliefs, and (when acted upon) your dreams, goals, and aspirations.  They’re what make you unique.  They’re the keys to feeling vibrant and engaged in life.  In other words, priorities create the story of your life. 

Saying something is important is not enough.  You must also make the tough decisions to act in accordance with those priorities.  In other words, you must learn to say “no.” 

Priorities only lead to action when you have the courage
to say “no” to anything that conflicts with those priorities. 

Far too often we don’t take the time to identify and verbalize what is really important to us. We start our careers and/or families, then struggle to keep up with the constant demands.  While initially feeling like a superhero, eventually exhaustion sets in and burnout often follows. 

My Epiphany

We all know that life is short.  But what we often forget is that, without priorities, it becomes impossible to attain that which we truly and deeply want.  We’ve become accustomed to busy-ness and forgetful of what bring us joy.  We forget what’s really important. 

If you’re lucky, you get an unanticipated wake up call that changes everything. 

In my own situation over a two month period, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and Nana (my maternal grandmother who lived with us since I was a little girl) died.  A short year later, my mother succumbed to cancer; she was not even 60 years old.

Thus, my wake up call occurred at the age of 28:  I knew that I was the final link in the matriarchal lineage – in other words, I was “next.”  It was life changing and incited me to critically evaluate what I wanted, where I was going, and the legacy that I wanted to leave behind.  I vowed to NOT reach the end of my life saying, “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” 

This tremendous shift in perception was accompanied by an undeniable shift in my priorities.  I quit labeling everything as important because I knew that nothing was a priority.  Instead, it was all just “stuff” to be checked off a list – and that’s not living.  I made the hard decision to decide what MY priorities are and vowed to live my life in accordance with them. 

A change in priorities always leads to a change in boundaries.

How to Identify YOUR Priorities

Life is multi-faceted and filled with wants, needs, desires, and demands that are continuously clamoring for our attention.  In addition, people are not static creatures:  we grow and change subtly as well as transformationally throughout our lives.  So as we change, so too will our priorities. 

No matter how hard we plan, there will always be surprises – some of which require immediate attention.  By remembering that we always have the ability to choose what is a priority, we also reinforce our resolve to focus on what is most important.  Priorities acts as a beacon so that, despite the unforeseen challenges, we can continue to move forward toward the life that we really want. 

But there is one important caveat about priorities – and it is what makes them so powerful, yet simultaneously so challenging: 

When you say “yes” to one thing,
you inevitable have to say “no” to something (or someone) else. 

Begin by having an understanding of where you are right now.  Keep a time log for one week.  Where do you spend most of your time?  What are you doing?  And finally, are you enjoying it? 

This is your life right now, but is it the life that you want? 

For some strange reason, it’s easier to verbalize what you don’t want – but much harder to decide the important things that you do want.  So your next step is to begin identifying your priorities by thinking about these 3 questions: 

  1. Is there anything in your life that you are currently spending a lot of time on, but doesn’t bring you satisfaction or joy?  Why are you doing it?  What’s the worst that could happen if you didn’t continue doing it?  Be specific
  2. How do you define a perfect day?  What are you doing?  Is there anyone you are doing it with?  What have you focused on?  What have you accomplished?  Is there a common theme in your activities – and if so, what is it?  Be specific
  3. Thinking into the future, what do you absolutely, positively NOT want to be involved with?  Think broadly here:  is it a micromanaging or unethical boss?  A company that rarely acknowledges your contributions?  A workaholic culture?  Be specific

Be patient with yourself when you answer these questions:  they are deceptively simple, but require a great deal of self-awareness.  It is a big decision is to courageously decide exactly what it is that you want in your life and then act accordingly. 

One important caveat:  living your life based on your priorities will automatically guarantee an effortless glide toward your goals.  This is a misperception that sets you up for frustration, discouragement, and burnout. 

But by recognizing that challenges and obstacles will appear, you can begin to view them as temporary.  You always have a choice as to the actions that you take:  are these actions aligned with my priorities or not?  So conscientiously make the microchoices as to where you will spend your time:  minute by minute, hour by hour, week by week, year by year. 

Don’t be afraid to set boundaries by saying “no” to anything that doesn’t support you, nurture you, or gives you a sense of purpose as defined by your priorities.

Dr. Geri Puleo is the creator of the Burnout During Organizational Change (B-DOC) Model, a research-based solution that defines the descent and recovery of workplace burnout.  Her current project is focused on gender differences in workplace burnout.  A frequent and popular keynote speaker, her TEDx Talk on Burnout v. PTSD:  More Similar Than You Think has been viewed over 600,000 times on YouTube (

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