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A surefire cure for burnout? Play Add to ...

Feeling burned out? Plagued by anxiety?

Try some improv. Throw a Frisbee around with a friend. Organize a pickup softball game.

Charlie Hoehn got rid of his anxiety and sense of being burned out through play. And the Austin, Tex.-based author believes you can also reverse some of the imbalance in your life by carving out time every day – 30 minutes – to lose yourself in such joyful activities.

“Now my state of mind is different. I allow myself to have guilt-free fun in everything I do. My work is a game, and my life is a ride. And you know what? I feel 100 times better than I ever thought I would. I’m back to my normal self. I love life again. And I have no fear that those awful feelings will ever return because I know the antidote,” he writes in his book, Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety.

This workaholic found himself attached for a time to Tim Ferriss, author of the bestseller The 4-Hour Work Week, and was toiling anything but four hours a week, as he organized events, keeping himself awake with caffeine and other stimulants. Finally, after a long period in which he stopped work only to sleep, coupled with the death of a family member and the attempted suicide of a close friend, he told his boss: “I can’t do this any more. I have to quit.”

But the momentary relief was soon surpassed by anxiety, as he searched for a job and felt guilty he wasn’t advancing his career or earning money. He felt he had no identity. And he recognized he was the author of his own misfortune, creator of his own anxiety and the one who broke himself with his workaholic tendencies.

The cure came when he was at friend’s and picked up a book about play by Stuart Brown. He realized he was constantly depriving himself of that side of life. He couldn’t play, since he was always so busy. But the reality was he was often too busy to be effective, in some ways just going through the motions of work. Even when he was playing with friends, he felt guilty, his mind elsewhere. He was incapable of being in the moment; he felt had to return to work. “I wouldn’t let myself have fun and relax. I felt guilty when I did it,” he said in an interview.

He calls it a “life is serious” mentality, which you may share. Work was slavery. Exercise was not a joy, but a chore. Food presented itself in the form of guilt. Friendship was an obligation. Love was a social construct. We can view life through a lens of seriousness or a lens of play, he notes. He was stuck with seriousness, sucking the joy out of every single aspect of his existence.

If life has become a grind, he asks you to remember the joy of being a child, enjoying life – and play. Kids don’t work out on a treadmill, meet with friends to chat over coffee, or attend networking conferences. They enjoy running, eating snacks and playing with friends.

He began to try to recapture that youthful zest again. As it happened, a friend had provided an introduction by e-mail to a buddy, who suggested they grab a coffee together, a typical first encounter. Instead, Mr. Hoehn asked whether they could just play catch in a park. He hadn’t done that in a long time and figured it would be more stimulating than having a cup of java. It turned out to be a blast, the pressure of such encounters replaced by rejuvenating play. Soon he was having a home-run derby with a pal every Saturday. And then he signed up for something a bit scary but which proved to be fun: Improv comedy classes.

Improv forces you to be in the moment. “It is play. It is getting you to chip away at your inner resistance and just be open to what happens to you,” he said. Not that it has come easily. Someone pointed out that the role he chooses to play in improv invariably is of someone who has everything together. “I was told to stop trying to fix – to just be,” he said.

A place to start in reclaiming play is with your past, developing your “play history,” the activities that you repeatedly have turned to because they were fun and you were good at them. Then schedule them into your day. Sure you’re busy. But make time. “It’s a choice,” he said. “People should value their own happiness.”

Disconnect from your devices and get back to team sports, even if you’re not all that proficient; enjoy the camaraderie and the game itself. Make sure you include everyone, seeking harmony over winning, just as you would if you were playing with your five-year-old nephew. Or throw a Frisbee around. It’s fun, easy exercise.

“Get back to what worked for you when you were young. Give yourself permission if burned out or depressed to play in a field, reconnect with a friend through play and unleash what’s inside you,” he concluded.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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