5. Gas Tanks, Checklists, and Burnout

I hate falling behind.

And when I say hate, I mean hate with the blinding heat of a thousand suns.

I adore feeling productive. I love the calculated assurance that I’m getting stuff done. The measurable indication that I’m not only on the right track, but I’m moving along said track at an acceptable clip.

Sometimes I make checklists of things I’ve already done, just for the relish of crossing them off. Maybe I’m crazy. But I’m sure someone out there knows what I’m talking about.

Did I mention I hate falling behind?

Here’s where I run into major trouble:  Taking a break feels like falling behind. Leaving margin in my schedule feels like a waste of time. And this mentality, my friends, is my own personal recipe for Burnout.

A Word about Gas Tanks

Everything in my life seems to be connected. I’m not awesome at recognizing how much gas I have left in my tank, literally or figuratively.

Stopping for gas feels like a massive inconvenience. Like a setback.

I’m the kind of person that used to drive around on “E” for an irresponsibly long time before I would finally sputter into a gas station on fumes.

Every time, I would mentally kick myself, making all sorts of internal promises that next time I wouldn’t wait till it was practically an emergency before I conceded to stop.

I’ve only actually run out of gas once and it was, like, twelve years ago. So in my mind, it wasn’t a huge problem. But I was constantly almost running out of gas.

It was really terrible and it added so much stress to my life.

And not just to mine…

The prospect of running out of gas was incredibly stressful on my kids.

“Mommy, the gas light’s on.” I’d brush them off, explaining I could still drive for miles before it was actually empty. The dinging would start. The needle would get lower.

Then all of a sudden I’d pass the invisible threshold between denial and panic. A fraction of a millimeter of margin. My heart would pulse hot in my ears, my throat would thicken, and my breathing would turn shallow and steady, like I was trying to diffuse a bomb. Frantically, I prayed there’d be a gas station in the next half mile, cursing my foolishness.

There was no one to blame but myself.

I was risking a dangerous hassle every other week, not only for me and my kids, but also for my husband who would have to come rescue us. Not that he knew about it.

When I finally confided in my husband that this experience was my norm, he suggested a revolutionary idea.

What if I just planned to fill up my tank every Friday on the way to my sister-in-law’s house? We go there every week for a family dinner. It could be part of my routine.

I just looked at him like he was speaking a different language. It was like my brain broke. I couldn’t imagine a world where I drove around with a mostly full tank of gas every day. Being on “E” was my identity. What would I do if I wasn’t on “E” all the time??

What would I do?

I’d have peace in my car. I’d reduce my family’s collective stress level. I wouldn’t be half a mile from a crisis all the time.

Friends, this is not just about gas.

This is how I used to live my whole life.

When we forge ahead, never stopping to replenish and recover, we add untold stress to ourselves and our families. We run out. And all that’s left is, frankly, monstrous.

Chances are, you have people counting on you in life. Refilling yourself is not a waste of time and it’s not a luxury.

You and I cannot operate with machine-like efficiency no matter how much we wish we could.

The hard facts have to be faced: When I’m not driving forward, it’s true, I’m not getting physically closer to my destination. When I’m not being productive, I’m not checking things off my list.

But life is not just one big massive checklist. Getting fixated on the to-do’s and refusing to pause and take a breath doesn’t end well.

Our bodies start to break.

We get snappy and short with the people we love.

We don’t have time for complicated questions from our kids. No patience for slight inconveniences.

Everything feels overwhelming. And we have nothing to give anyone because we are running on fumes.

Embracing the myth that you can’t take a break will keep you spiritually and relationally anemic, a shadow of the person you could be.

How different are the words of Jesus.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

Quite the contrast, isn’t it?

Practically Speaking

How do you know when to take a break and when to forge ahead?

To this day, my knee-jerk response is forge ahead. That always seems like the right answer. Just like it never seems like a good time to stop for gas.

So like my weekly fill-up strategy, I have to take the guesswork out of it.

I rely heavily on a predetermined schedule to help answer that tough question for me. If I start wearing thin, I know I need to adjust it.

Here’s what that looks like for me: (an introvert who homeschools four kids)

  • I set my alarm for 6AM. This gives me an hour of margin (if I don’t push snooze) before I go downstairs and start the day. I need time alone. To read, to think, to pray, and to remind myself of who I am, Whose I am, and where I am in the Story.
  • I hide away to write from 1PM-2PM while the kids have recess. Writing daily has been a wonderful way for me to slow down and process life as it comes.
  • On Sunday afternoons I take time to read, gaze out the window, and even take a nap.
  • In homeschooling, I follow a six-weeks-on, one-week-off schedule. This helps me tremendously in keeping my home under control and preventing burnout through the year.

Aside from my scheduled fill-up times, I have also adjusted certain aspects of my lifestyle.

  • I weigh new commitments carefully, acknowledging that not every good idea is a good idea for me.
  • I try to take the time to notice beauty around me.
  • I’m learning to slow down and hug my family, just because.

Again and again, I have to put incessant toiling to the side, and trade it for a more peaceful rhythm of life.

Running on empty is overrated. Nobody wins.

Maybe it’s time to take a break and refill.


This is definitely still a work-in-progress for me. I’d love to hear some ways you create margin and prevent burnout in your life. Scroll down to leave a comment!

10 thoughts on “5. Gas Tanks, Checklists, and Burnout

  1. I struggle with this. I have to make my natural response to think about things. I need margin in my life and my kids and husband often help me find that one way or another

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great post!!! After struggling with this my whole life and suffering the consequences of the lack of margin last November, in the form of shingles due to exhaustion, this became my “2019 word for the year,” . . . Margin! So far, so almost good 🤪 what a great reminder! Totally needed it

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Uuuuff. Yes. Thank you for this word. Altho I have been trying to incorporate more filling things in my life in the last year or so, it’s definitely not consistent. The idea to incorporate and plan in consistent fillers Before almost burning out is 🤯🤦‍♀️😅 Date nights with hubby, nights in/out with my ladies, nights in with other couples, morning mama coffee dates here at home, planning in time to read a good book, baking/cooking something complicated from start to finish Without help/interruption from 8 little boy hands… These are things that fill me. Wouldn’t say they happen consistently tho 😅

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I used to drive around with that big read E taunting me all the time, too! And I also ran out of gas once. I wasn’t married at the time and my brother had to come rescue me lol. I still don’t put gas in my car. My husband does. I wonder what that says about me lol.

    I still need to improve on creating margin.

    Like

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