10 Practical Strategies Avoiding Burnout

Although the pressures associated with being a principal can be daunting, a building leader can focus on personal strategies to alleviate the demands that accompany the job. By asking ourselves guiding questions, we can stay refreshed and avoid burnout. Consider these 10 strategies.

1. Find a Critical and Empathetic Friend

A critical friend is someone who will be honest with you without judgment. Ideally this relationship will be infused with a healthy dose of empathy as well. Empathy allows a colleague to be honest even if the advice given is critical. In a relationship built on empathy and nonjudgment, honesty is effective. The person giving advice might be judgmental of the action, but never judgmental of the person.

The hope is that you and your critical friend form a symbiotic relationship, allowing for a free flow of ideas and sharing of advice on situations you currently face. While social media can help you find people in your chosen profession, the relationship will require face-to-face encounters, as the critical friend bond is cemented with informal interactions. A person of this caliber can be a challenge to find, so you may need to look outside the building or district. Who is your critical friend?

2. Release Stress

A principal needs to have a purposeful strategy to counteract stress. While employment contracts should have a section on well-being, they most often do not, so we must take it upon ourselves to find the time to do things such as exercise, eat properly, and get enough sleep. This includes eating lunch at a reasonable time in order to remain focused for the rest of the day.

Practice staying calm during difficult situations. “This too, shall pass” is commonly heard (from many a critical friend) during hard times. That means remaining focused on the task at hand and being armed with the knowledge that this is not the first time this situation has occurred. How do you release stress?

3. Practice Professional and Personal Hobbies

Taking time for personal hobbies creates a gateway to creativity and a clear mind. Hobbies that involve your profession may include being active in charitable organizations, foundations, and professional associations. Being a giver of both time and energy to these causes will actually invigorate you. While you might feel you do not have the time to participate in the short run, being a giver will benefit you over the long haul. It will inspire you and uplift your spirits when you help others.

Finding a personal interest outside of work also has benefits. One of my colleagues creates paracord accessories to relax his mind, while another looks to photography to recharge. What are your hobbies?

4. Read

Reading for professional purposes is more than a hobby, as it increases knowledge and contributes to lifelong learning. The best way for a leader to be a lifelong learner and to model professional development is to read. While some may enjoy having a book in their hands, digital accessibility makes it even easier to read every day and keep up to date with current events.

Reading provides an escape from your current reality, and research shows that reading can build the empathy that is necessary to lead others. What are you currently reading?

5. Opt for Optimism

Take control over your state of mind. When faced with challenging circumstances, you have a choice. You can be pessimistic and believe you are destined for failure, or you can remain positive about your situation and seek out possible solutions. As leaders, being optimistic is the only choice. Unfortunately, when we are drained after a tiring day, our optimism is tested. Pessimistic views can multiply more rapidly than optimistic ones and need to be stopped before they become ingrained in your culture.

Surround yourself with positive people; complainers rob you of your positive energy. Keep a mental list of optimistic colleagues and seek them (or your critical friend) out when necessary. How do you stay optimistic?

6. Measure What Matters

We often measure only what matters to others, or determine our success based on what is easy to measure. Quantitative measures such as GPA or points per game are clean and easy to communicate. These statistics make sense, and most people understand what they represent. Data points such as happiness and well-being can be more important than GPA, but since they are hard to quantify, they get ignored.

There are many surveys and methods being created to measure items difficult to quantify, but they have yet to hit the mainstream. Remember to measure what matters to you, even if there are no conventional ways to gauge those things. For example, sports analytics have changed drastically over recent years. A major league pitcher was recently recognized as the best pitcher in baseball, but he amassed only 10 wins. Just a few years ago it would have been inconceivable to award this player such an honor. But it’s a reminder that what was once important data might have just been data that was easy to collect. What is your metric?

7. Stay True to Your Purpose

Finding your purpose and using it as your guiding light will bring satisfaction to your work and personal life. The old adage can be true—that if you find a job you love, you won’t work a day in your life.

I encourage colleagues and friends to have a sentence that describes their purpose or passion. This sentence will guide you and help prioritize the many tasks that encompass your life. A sentence I often use is, “Do what is right in a respectful way.” Staying true to your purpose will motivate you intrinsically, which will make your days move quickly. What is your purpose?

8. Simplify

Once you’ve taken the time to create a sentence to sum up your passions and purpose, simplify that sentence to one word. Write it on a sticky note and display it someplace you see it every day. Simplifying your goals will make them more likely to be fulfilled. Some examples of simple word goals include: balance, strength, or present (as in being present, not gifts—although that sounds fun, too). If you’re having trouble coming up with something, ask your staff, family, and friends to help you choose that one word.

Similarly, when you simplify your tasks on the job, you can manage your day with fidelity, stay motivated, and stay true to your purpose. How can you simplify?

9. Reflect

It is imperative that we reflect upon our day, our week, our year, our lives. It is through reflection that we better ourselves by taking time to celebrate what we’ve done right and think about ways to improve when we’ve stumbled. If we believe in a growth mindset, we must be intentional on when we reflect in order to make sure it happens. Try to build in time for reflection around the same time each day so it becomes a habit, such as reflecting while eating breakfast, on the car ride home, or before bedtime. Reflection leads to happiness, as it either validates our choices or reminds us to get with the program. When do you reflect?

10. Create Your Own Strategy

After reflecting upon your different strategies, it’s time to create one for yourself. Use your knowledge to tailor a strategy to help yourself deal with the challenges you are facing. It may involve working with your critical friend or building in time to read or release stress. What is your personal strategy?

Oscar Wilde said, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” If we stay focused on the impact we have, we will remember and celebrate all the students and staff we have positively influenced. Utilizing these guiding questions and strategies will remind us that we do not have to go to work each day, we get to. What strategies will you use?


Paul M. Fanuele is the executive principal of Arlington High School in LaGrangeville, NY.