Wednesday, August 21, 2013

On burnout, the role of pets in our wellbeing, and organisation: interview with Michelle Nickolaisen

Bombchelle and Rain.
SAT sat down (well kinda...on opposite ends of the earth) e-chatted with Michelle Nikolaisen, the powerhouse behind and a burnout-kicking, systems-wielding, organisational guru. She discussed her relationship with her significant non-human other, Rain, as well as the role of Rain in helping her maintain her own wellbeing. 

Burnout seems to reaching plague proportions everywhere - not just veterinarians, but entrepreneurs, academics, politicians - so I thought the topic was worth a visit. And Michelle also reveals her amazing Rain-inspired tattoo.

Who are you and how did you become an organisational guru?

So, my name is Michelle, I live in Austin, TX, with my dog Rain (which you will soon be hearing all about!). I've been working for myself for almost four and a half years now and I actually started as a freelance writer; I got started doing organizational stuff in a funny way - one of my friends asked how I plan my days/projects/etc. and I wrote her this literally 3,000-word email detailing the process. The idea that not everyone did that or was that organized had honestly never occurred to me (which is laughable in retrospect!). So that's when I started looking into helping other people with their organizational issues. (FWIW...the word guru makes me giggle ;) )

What does an organisational guru do?

I do project/operations/launch management for online business owners, as well as doing consulting on systems and productivity for business owners, and I teach classes/create products on those same materials. 

You mention your dog Rain a lot. Can you tell us a bit about Rain - how did you meet and what do you guys do for fun?

Yes! Rain is a Shiba Inu, who I actually got from my parents. My mom used to show dogs and was gifted two Shibas by one of her friends, and Rain is the offspring of those two Shibas. She was living with my parents in Missouri, but as she got older, she didn't get along with one of the other dogs, so she had to be an outside-only dog; when I was up for the holidays in 2011 I was lamenting to my mom about how I wanted a dog, and she suggested taking Rain home, and tada! 

Rain adores attention.
She's very snuggly, kinda defying the stereotype about Shibas being aloof (although in my experience they tend to bond really strongly with 1-2 people and be more aloof with everyone else). She also LOVES meeting new people, though not so much other dogs, depending on the dog. And she likes to chase the tennis ball...not so much catch it (which you can see here). Sometimes when she gets bored she'll toss it up in the air and bat it around like a cat, it's pretty adorable. 

Have you ever been to the vet with Rain? Can you tell us about the experience?

Actually, she's been in really good health since I got her, so we've only been to the vet once, and it was to get her spayed. I think it was scary for both of us - she's very attached to me and not used to being left alone in strange places, and I almost cried. But of course, she was fine afterwards and so was I. Lots of snuggling involved! 

[Ed: I think its good for veterinarians to hear these things. Owners don't always show us their anxieties at the time, and I think its important to provide reassurance].

Rain keeps watch of her tennis ball whilst scoping snuggling options.
One of the things you talk about on your blog a lot, and help people avoid, is burnout. Why do you think it is so prevalent in today's world?

I think it's kind of a perfect storm of things. We put a lot of focus on productivity and a lot of value in creating work (at your job, etc.) and being successful. Sometimes lip-service is paid to self-care, but the advice is usually pretty fluffy, and it's kind of the equivalent of putting a band aid on the situation - we don't talk about the things that get you burned out in the first place, that got you to where you needed so much self care, and how to prevent that situation from arising again. We kinda just put the bandaid on and then act like that should fix it. 

An example from my own life is that July was a bit of a hellhole - I had a bad reaction to some medication which caused a lot of side effects, one of the most notable ones being insomnia (it'd take me a few hours to fall asleep, and then I'd sleep 8-10 hours, but wake up feeling like I had got maybe 4 hours of sleep). I literally could not stop working, though, because I had a launch that had been in the works since May slated for the first week of August. I got the medication sorted out around the last week of July and then spent most of last week (the first week of August) sleeping 10-12 hours a night. I also had, that week, an acupuncture appointment, a massage appointment, and I got a mani-pedi the week before - all self-care-y things for me - so I was doing pretty good self-care wise, right? 

And I feel like if I was following conventional advice I would have jumped back in on Thursday or Friday when I started to feel ready to work again. But because I'm aware of how burnout works and just how much July drained me, I had the self-awareness to know that my "gas tank" wasn't full, it had just been running on empty for so long that getting it half full felt amazing. So I didn't start getting back into work until today (the 12th), and purposefully made myself get extra sleep and rest this weekend, even though I was starting to have ideas about my next projects and was itching to work on them. 

In the Kick Burnout Kit you mention that Rain is involved in your self-care regime. How does this work?

Having an animal in my space that has very real needs means that I need to take care of her, right? So she's a great way to stay really grounded instead of getting in that space where I accidentally work for 6-8 hours without taking a break. I take her out first thing when we get up and often play some catch with her (because, as shown above, she doesn't play fetch, haha), which starts off my morning exercise/yoga routine, and then I also take her out on my lunch break - which is a good self-care thing because she expects it at a certain time every day, and it gets me out/walking around/actually taking a break. 

It seems win-win: you take a break and Rain gets attention. How can people involve their own pets in this way?

I'd suggest maybe to think about the traps you tend to fall into when it comes to self-care/burnout and then seeing if you can use your pet to help get you out of it. Like, before I started making such a point of taking Rain for a walk on my lunch break, I would take her out for 5 minutes in the middle of the day and that was pretty much my only break the whole damn day. (Until I realized that it would be illegal to make someone else work that way, so why in the world would I do it to myself?!) If you know that you have a tendency to get sucked into projects, set an alarm for once an hour and have it be a five minute play or snuggle break with your pet - things like that. 

You've spoken publicly about struggling with anxiety in the past. What role did Rain play in helping you through?

Rain has been hugely helpful in managing my anxiety - she's one of those dogs that sees when I'm upset and wants to come over and make me feel better. There's been like, a million studies showing that playing with or petting animals boosts helpful emotions and chemicals in the brain, and I know that taking a few minutes to snuggle with her has got me out of many a bad spot. It's also just really heartening to know that there's someone around who loves me unconditionally and shows it in such obvious ways; of course, there are people that love me, and I know that intellectually, but there's a big difference between that and actual doggy snuggles, yanno? 

How has Rain changed you as a person?

I think she's made me a more caring, more patient person, and also more loving. I think that having someone around you who loves you deeply makes it easier for you to be patient in the rest of your life, too. 
Rain has changed Michelle in other ways too...this is a tattoo which was literally done yesterday in Rain's honour. "Fox because she's named after Renard, a medieval trickstery fox figure", says Michelle.
Can you share with us a favourite tip on avoiding burnout?

I don't know if I can pick just one! Definitely, know what the difference is between your tank being actually full and your tank being half full, so to speak. When you start to refill it, make sure that you're not running off half full. Also, know where you're spending your time, and know what activities you find draining and what help prevent burnout for you (they might be different for everyone).

Thanks Michelle and Rain.