In 2021, everything changed.
I won’t bore you with the details of why or how, but the outcome was clear: I was starting to burn out.
I was no longer happy with my work or my life. I started to fall out of my routine, meticulously built on healthy habits.
I felt lost, unfocused, tired, and scared… I just didn’t want to do any of it anymore, which was so unlike me—and that is what scared me most of all.
I took some time and asked myself some difficult questions:
Why was I feeling this way? What changed, and why? What did I want? What would make it better?
Over the course of the year, I’ve had this burning passion inside me to write.
I mean, I already write. A large part of my job is copywriting, but I mean to write for myself and earn an additional lucrative income stream.
However, the constant day-to-day pressure of working with and keeping up with clients in order to keep the lights on and my staff and I paid always won.
Most of the time I just powered through. Everyone has to work hard to earn a living, Julie. Just deal with it. That’s what I would tell myself to get through the tough days. And I would. At the end of the day, I would feel grateful that I do have clients.
Déjà Vu is Real
I think back to what my life and routine looked like before I started my business. My routine was the same for a solid decade. The alarm went off at 4:30 am. I crawled out of bed, got dressed, packed a lunch, and then rushed to catch the train into Boston to spend yet another 9-to-5 workday at my “corporate” job.
Then, one warm spring morning in May 2017, the alarm went off at 4:30 am, and the first thought in my head was, I don’t want to do this anymore.
Less than three hours later, I walked into the office, submitted my resignment letter, started my business full time, and haven’t looked back.
Then, it happened again.
Four and a half years later, on a cool, rainy Tuesday morning in October in the mountains, my alarm went off at 5:00 am. I woke up, got dressed, shuffled into the kitchen to feed my cats and make my coffee. I glanced at the bowl of super overripe bananas that sat on my countertop. I really have to do something with those before they go bad. I’ll make banana bread this weekend.
After all, I had to stick to my routine that morning. I had to make my coffee and sit down to work ASAP. Clients were counting on me. My team was counting on me. Bills need to be paid.
Before I dismissed the thought, and wrote down “make banana bread” on my weekend to-do list, I stopped…
Wait… If I want to make banana bread on a Tuesday morning, why can’t I? Who says I can’t other than ME?
I must seem ungrateful. When I quit my job in May of 2017, I swore to myself that I would do everything in my power to make my business work. That meant pushing myself harder, and working long days, hours, and weekends, If needed.
After nearly five years of working multiple jobs, meeting with client after client after client on project after project, I was tired of being busy.
And by “busy” I mean the unhealthy kind of busy—rushing from Zoom call to Zoom call, feeling anxious about taking an hour in the afternoon to run an errand, working into all hours of the night, being in a constant state of worry, and fearing failure.
I realized that I made a grave mistake—the same mistake most entrepreneurs make.
Working harder doesn’t mean working more.
That Tuesday morning in October, I had a revelation. It was time to slow down, rethink my approach to my work, reboot my life, and try an experiment…
The Banana Bread Experiment
The “Banana Bread Experiment” was code for my “go dark” week, which meant no meetings, no phone calls, texting, or social media, no digital distractions; just deep, focus work.
This would allow me the time and space to think, finish some of my biggest personal projects (including this blog), and regroup and refresh.
For someone who has spent the last decade putting clients first, catering to their every need in a desperate attempt to grow the business, it was extremely difficult for me to just “go dark” for even just an hour, never mind an entire week. I was scared of losing everything.
During my first day of my “Banana Bread Experiment”, I began reading The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, by John Mark Comer. In the first half of the book, the author lists and describes 10 signs of “hurry sickness”. Well, let’s just say I experience 50% of the “symptoms”. I realized that I was tired of “the hurry”. I was tired of fearing failure. It was time to rethink my work and my life.
As a result, I developed a system for focus work. And it looks like this:
The System for Focus Work
1. Cancel all meetings.
After years and years of Zoom calls and meetings (long before COVID), I realized that I was packing my schedule with too many meetings, and that was causing me to rush, increasing my anxiety levels.
Part of the Banana Bread Experiment involved canceling all meetings for nearly two straight weeks. This meant reworking some of my weekly scheduled calls with clients, or even releasing clients who were no longer a good fit for us. This would force me to slow down, get back into the right mindset for focus work, and realign myself with my purpose. Needless to say, this was a huge and scary risk, but I took the jump, holding onto nothing but faith.
2. Shut down digital distractions.
Heart disease, cancer, accidents.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), these are the top three most common causes of death in adults. I’m willing to bet we see “social media consumption” added to the list in the next decade…
When most of us think about not checking our phones, social media, or email for even just a few minutes, we panic. It’s actually pretty ridiculous if you really think about it.
I am definitely a victim of becoming a slave to my phone, email, and Slack—to the point where if I had to run an errand in the middle of the workday, I would feel anxious and even guilty because I wasn’t “online” to immediately answer a client’s question or respond to a message. Over the years, I realized I had developed some pretty unhealthy habits and even an unhealthy relationship with my business—and this was one of them.
In an effort to unravel all that, I spent the two “Banana Bread Experiment” weeks to shut down my phone, email, Slack, and all the other “noise” for the entire workday so I could just focus.
The surprising result? No one got mad at me. No one fired us. And, no, I didn’t die.
3. Listen to music.
Everyone is different, but this is a must for me. I absolutely need music to tune out the world of distractions and get into the right zone to work. Sometimes I even put one song on repeat to just focus.
4. Write and reflect.
Before getting overwhelmed with a sea of emails, Slack and Asana notifications, due dates and deadlines screaming in my face (which is another reason why #2 is so important), the first thing I do every morning is write down my goals, thoughts, and feelings for the day. This helps center myself, increase awareness, which increases focus.
Wait, so before you get ready to write, you write?
Pretty much. I consider this a “writing warmup”. Take the time to do a stream of consciousness and write out anything on your mind. It can also be daily affirmations, moments of gratitude, and even finding joy in the little things.
Each new day is a new beginning.
5. Be present.
All the preceding steps lead up to this one… being present. It is easy to get overwhelmed with all of the things. Shut it all down. Tune out the world and its distractions. Focus on the here and now, even through challenges. Go to a place of quiet—peace, solidarity, solitude.
Life only exists in the present.
6. Tackle something.
This could be something you’ve been pushing off, something challenging you don’t know how to solve, or a personal project that you just never seem to have time for. Whatever it is, just do it. No, you don’t have to finish whatever you are working on, but the goal is to make some progress. Do one thing for five minutes. The goal here is to tackle something.
Slow Down Your Thinking
Slow down, System 1… Let’s hear what System 2 has to say…
There is a lot of research out there on how our brains work, specifically how we think. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes the two systems in the human mind:
System 1 – operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort, energy, or voluntary control.
System 2 – allocates attention to mental activities that require substantial effort, such as performing complex computations, solving problems, questioning conclusions and the validity of those conclusions rather than jumping to them. All in all, system 2 is often associated with subjective experiences.
I have been in a constant state of “System 2” overload, resulting in task switching as a result of time pressure, depleting my overall mental effort and energy. “System 2” becomes lazy. Then, “System 1” takes over, which is risky business. “System 1” often puts us in a position where we fall victim to cognitive illusions and cognitive biases, preventing us from really thinking through problems, jumping to conclusions, and making illogical errors.
During my “Banana Bread Experiment”, I focused on exercising and strengthening my “System 2”. I noted all the different types of cognitive biases and illusions as well as how many times my “System 1” responded before my “System 2”.
Over the course of two weeks, I noted over 14 different instances. I shudder to think how many errors, judgments, and incorrect conclusions I have made over the course of my career just due to a “lazy System 2”, which is incredibly dangerous as a business consultant and project manager.
While focusing on the past is useless, I can create a system for going forward. Exercising and strengthening “System 2” is different for everyone, but the first step is to slow down and eliminate hurry, and free up mental space to think, question, and focus.
Wisdom guards my thoughts, my words, and my ways.”
During my “Banana Bread Experiment” week, I spent the majority of my time reading, writing, revisiting my goals and my “success metrics“. I did this by asking myself and answering these questions:
- Which areas of my life do I want and need to improve now?
- What makes me feel stressed? How do I eliminate those stressors?
- Who makes me feel bad about myself?
- How can I clarify my boundaries?
So what do I do when it’s time to make hard decisions? Seek wisdom. And like “Focus Work”, I have a system for that, too.
1. Stop worrying.
I know, I know… easier said than done. As a chronic worrier, this is incredibly difficult. I fail over and over again. However, by following the steps above (slowing down, relaxing, activating “System 2”), I can think about a problem clearly and from various angles.
Wisdom enables us to see the big picture clearly. However, we are also our own worst enemies. We often become so caught up in trying to see the big picture, that we completely overlook the value of mental clarity.
2. Ask the right questions.
You don’t learn unless you question. But not just any question. I’m talking about the right question.
Asking the right questions can be an extremely powerful way to solve challenges and make the right decisions that allow you to take big leaps forward.
Here are some examples:
- What specific actions led to your biggest achievements last week?
- Can you repeat them this week?
- What seems to interrupt you every day?
- What were your biggest distractions this week?
- What were the intentions you set last week?
- Which of them did you get done? And why?
3. Relinquish some control.
This is another difficult one, especially for us control freaks and “Type A” personalities. However, thinking about—or overthinking—a problem doesn’t mean you’re being productive. And just because you’re planning or thinking about every possible scenario doesn’t mean you’re any closer to a solution. If anything, you’re just making yourself feel more prepared.
We try to imagine everything that we’ll do. How everything will play out. How to solve all our problems at once. But it’s impossible. We have to take it one moment at a time. And things often turn out differently than we imagine.
What I’ve learned? It’s okay to plan. It’s okay to have goals. Just know that there may be a greater plan waiting for you. So create calendars, checklists, to-do lists, and so on if that’s what helps you, but also be ready to pivot.
Remember, you don’t have to be in the driver’s seat trying to control the direction of everything. No, I don’t mean let go of all your responsibilities and sit back and do nothing. Learn to listen to and trust your inner wisdom to guide you.
By letting go of some control, and allowing God, or another higher power, or the universe (whatever you believe), to work, you give yourself more freedom, relieve some of your responsibility, and see the solution more clearly or even allow things to work out on their own.
Revisit Your Goals
Revisiting your goals might not necessarily mean asking yourself what you can do, especially if you already do enough. It can also involve asking what you can stop doing.
Another “Banana Bread” realization is that in order to slow down, I needed to stop doing certain things and ask myself, what can I afford to get rid of?
Running around and constantly being busy doesn’t make me successful. But spending time on the things that matter most and that will move me closer to my goals does. I can get more done by simplifying my life, reclarifying and reclaiming my boundaries, and saying no more often.
Change Your Mindset
Neuroplasticity is how the brain is modified by our patterns of thinking. By making wise choices as to where we focus our attention, we can essentially “reshape” our brains. Sure, this requires a lot of mental energy to develop and strengthen our “System 2”, but it is possible. This influences our capacity to feel, think, and act wisely.
I need to give myself permission to enjoy that freedom. I need to tell myself, It’s okay. You’ve done ‘the hurry’ for most of your career. You deserve more freedom. You deserve to slow down.
I need to remind myself of what success is. Success isn’t rushing around, jumping from meeting to meeting. Although it might feel good to be busy, it’s temporary enjoyment. Like eating a Big Mac. It tastes good at the moment and temporarily satisfies the “System 1” part of our brains, but it damages our bodies over the long term. (Sorry, McDonald’s…)
Protect Your Time
We are often led to believe that being alone is a bad thing. Let’s clarify that: Loneliness can be an unhealthy thing, but regardless of whether you are an introvert or extrovert, being alone is something we all need from time to time.
Create space in your day and life for comfort, and define what that means to you. Maybe it’s reading, writing, painting, drawing, exercising, building a bookshelf. Whatever your “comfortable space” is, make time for it and guard it with your life.
Celebrate the Small Wins
It’s easy for us to conquer those “big rocks”, solve those problems, finish those projects, but we rarely take the time to celebrate or reflect on our accomplishments. This is something I tell all my coaching clients, but I also occasionally need a reminder.
If you take the time to celebrate your successes and accomplishments, regardless of how big or small, you will experience a sense of fulfillment. Remember, fulfillment is progress forward.
The Banana Bread Experiment Outcome
So, aside from all the realizations, learnings, and reminders that I noted during my “Banana Bread Experiment”, what were the outcomes?
- I reduced our existing client list, including releasing our largest client to date (in terms of company size and revenue).
- I cut back approximately $5,000 in overhead expenses.
- I had positive and focused conversations (without worrying about what I didn’t get done that day, what I still had to do, and my next meeting).
- I focused more time on my writing (this blog, my eBook, and my articles on Medium).
- I felt more motivated to stick to my healthy habits, such as dieting and exercising.
- I regained control and power over my routine and my life, and gave myself freedom to go for walks, hikes, and attend dance class (gasp!) in the middle of a work day.
- Do something different.
Above all, the “Banana Bread Experiment” allowed me time, energy, and space to breathe. This inspired me to regain control of my life, my business, and take some big risks.
As I mentioned several times throughout this article, I fear failure on a daily basis. But where does that get me? All it does is cost me all of my energy to fight the panic that rises in my throat—the panic of losing my business, bankruptcy, destitution.
On the flip side, I stopped waking up with headaches. I felt calm, peaceful, and… free.
A Recipe for Your Own “Banana Bread”
I hope this article inspires you to take risks, conquer fear, make changes, and just do life differently. As far as what your own “recipe” looks like, that’s up to you. But here’s what I used:
- Kodiak Cakes Pancake Mix – High protein pancake mix for power, boldness, courage, and strength to face change.
- Overripe Bananas – For extra sweetness and taking risks.
- Chocolate Chips – For doing something different, enhancing creativity, and breaking the “rules”. And because… why not?
After all, who doesn’t love a good banana bread? Even if you don’t like bananas…