Lessons In Burnout, from the Dancing Body.

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

Many researchers have debunked the notion that multitasking is effective. When we think we are multitasking, we are in fact dancing between tasks, hurriedly jumping from one to another. The end gain is nothing but inefficiency, increased stress levels and at best, mediocre results.

However, an interesting counterpoint is that successful dancers frequently multitask and are hired on their ability to do so. Within one dance-sequence a dancer will respond to and carry out independent instructions for the carriage of the arms, the action and placement of the legs, the articulation of the torso, the direction of the eye-line, the facial focus and the spatial orientation of the whole body. Then, of course, the musicality and pacing of every gesture are also finely cued. As a dance class or rehearsal unfolds, all these cues are adjusted and refined, and the dancer will continue to multitask based on the realtime feedback (which is hollered across the studio) until the teacher or choreographer is satisfied.

The point of rehearsals or dance classes is that eventually, the brain will assimilate all these separate tasks and instructions into the single activity, or meta-task, that we call 'Dancing'. The result, a sophisticated and elegant movement practice, is only achieved when the dancer first embraces the decreased efficiency, high-stress levels and moments of mediocrity that come with the act of multitasking. An experienced dancer may not necessarily appear to be challenged or struggling. However, you can be sure that they are certainly feeling a strain and that they are forever aware of how much better they will become with practice.

I'm writing this because the dancing body can teach us a lot about the prevention and recovery of burnout. At its core, burnout is about stress, particularly the accumulation of it from different sources. When stress accumulates and becomes chronic, and it can surpass what we can effectively manage. Resultantly we exhaust the adrenal glands, develop brain fatigue, overwhelm our senses and depress the immune system.

So, what has this got to do with the dancing body?

Firstly, I'm not saying that dancers don't suffer from burnout, and I'm not saying that dancers are immune to stress. But they are adept at using the meta-task of 'dancing' as a sort of switch-board into which they simultaneously feed myriad stressors. They can produce something beautiful whilst enjoying increased complexities in the dancing tasks, and I like this as a metaphor. Stress, in and of itself, doesn't have to be harmful, and we know it is a fundamental aspect of growth and development, but the way we relate to stress can determine our overall health.

Why is it that some people thrive on intensely busy workloads whilst others crumble under the same demands? Part of the reason is that their relationships to the workload and the thoughts that they have about it are very different. I have noticed in working with hundreds of individuals that some people can feed the many aspects of their work through a meta-task that fuels them. They become energised by purpose, and they operate from a place of opportunity and abundance. Others seemingly do the opposite; they separate their work into isolated items and form to-do lists of tasks, and each has a joyful or burdensome status. The jobs that we feel burdened will deplete our energy, and when enough of these unwanted chores accumulate on the to-do list, the stress grows into negativity and overwhelm. We start to procrastinate, postpone, avoid, dread, or worry about how much we have got to do, and that there isn't enough time to do it, and we operate from a place of scarcity.

Meta-tasks refocus us; they collect our burdensome activities and reframe them into gateway actions that facilitate the bigger picture. It's kind of like appreciating pennies or cents because they make pounds and dollars and the amounts that get us the goodies.

To be clear. I am not an advocate of multitasking. I recognise, though, that it creeps into my work life from time to time and can snowball out of control. But I also recognise that meta-tasking supports my well-being when things have spiralled, and on occasion when I do begin to dance between too many tasks, I can at least slow myself down enough to make sure I am directing my efforts into the meta-game.

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