First Published: February 14, 2021 | Last Updated: March 26, 2021

The gist: These are my notes from reading the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Drs. Amelia and Emily Nagoski

Note: Some of these links are affiliate links. So if you decide to buy anything, I'll receive a commission. Most creators say something like "100% of this goes back into the business," but I'm not most creators. Some months it goes into the business, others it will be used to buy inappropriate amounts of chocolate. Remember, working brighter is about balance!

Like I mentioned in the list of my favorite self-care books, Burnout was one of the books I read during my "self-care/mental health sabbatical" in 2017, which completely changed my outlook on work and productivity.

Since we're currently focused on it in the quarterly book club inside the Work Brighter Clubhouse, I wanted to share some of my favorite notes and takeaways from it. 😀

From the Introduction

  • Wellness has turned into another thing to do, and one that requires wealth and resources to achieve the "right" way. That needs to be rethought amidst burnout.
  • Burnout is defined by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and decreased sense of accomplishment. The emotional exhaustion can be caused by not letting yourself go "through" feelings and get stuck in them instead.
  • The patriarchy also impacts how women experience burnout, because we're conditioned to be human givers rather than human beings, offering their time, attention, affection, and bodies to other humans.
  • And this book won't skirt over that like most other self-help books, because just focusing on the things you can control is like teaching poker strategies without mentioning the game is rigged.

Create a burnout prevention plan

If this book has you motivated to start beating your burnout, try our free self-care action plan worksheet to come up with your own personalized burnout prevention ideas!

From Part 1: What You Take With You

Understanding the Stress Cycle

  • Dealing with stress is a separate process from dealing with the stressors. Dealing with the stress requires completing the stress response cycle.
  • Getting stuck in that cycle or experiencing chronic stressors can lead to chronic stress and cause burnout, and most of us have decades of accumulated incomplete stress cycles inside us.
  • To give a name to the process of completing the cycle, you can call it "the Feels." It's not an intellectual decision, it's a physiological shift. Some ways to complete the cycle include physical activity, deep breathing, positive social interaction, laughter, affection, creative expression, or crying.
  • Sometimes it's more important to step away from the stressor and deal with the stress response, than it is to deal with the stressor. Like if your body just feels really out of whack or you're stuck in a pattern of self-destructive behaviors.

Leveraging "The Monitor"

  • The brain mechanism that manages the gap between where we are and where we're going is "The Monitor," and it decides whether to keep trying or give up depending on your goal, how much you're investing in it, and how much progress you're making.
  • We can use planful problem-solving to analyze the problem, make a plan based on the analysis, and execute it. You can either change the effort you invest, how you view that effort, or both.
  • This takes a "non standard relationship with winning, focusing on incremental goals." This helps keep the Monitor satisfied. These incremental goals should be soon, certain, positive, concrete, specific, and personal. In cases where goals are more abstract, a nonstandard relationship with winning, losing, and failing is the way to go.
  • These are adaptive coping strategies, meaning they carry minimal risk of unwanted consequences.
  • Science's answer to the fight, flight, or freeze is framing it in terms of an explore/exploit problem: “Should I explore new terrain, or should I exploit the terrain I’m in?” To answer that for a specific situation, ask yourself what the benefits and costs of continuing and stopping.

Know Your Something Larger

  • The obstacles that stand between women and their sense of meaning is different from with men. 
  • There are different approaches to finding "meaning," focused on either thriving or coping, but in general it's about feeling connected to something larger.
  • People in touch with their meaning tend to be healthier and more likely to take preventative measures to maintain that health.
  • So it's really important to know how to engage your Something Larger as a coping strategy.
  • You can engage with your something larger through pursuing ambitious goals that leave a legacy, service to a spiritual calling, or loving connection with others. And it's normal for it to take some time to find yours, but it can help to ask, "What am I doing when I feel most powerfully that I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing?"
  • It can be especially hard when you have Human Giver Syndrome, and have learned to prioritize the needs of others over your own, including your Something Larger. This was Betty Friedan's point in The Feminine Mystique.
  • To turn negative experiences into an opportunity to engage with your something larger, you can rewrite your own "origin story" focusing on the lessons and strengths you gained through it. Like: "Even though I couldn’t control ________ (adversity), I managed to ________ (survival tactic), and then I used ________ (resource) to grow stronger. After that, I could ________ (skill/win/insight)."

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.

From Part 2: The Real Enemy

Patriarchy: The Game is Rigged

  • In Star Trek, Kobayashi Maru is an unwinnable scenario designed to test your character. Because you can't win, the goal is to lose in an honorable way.
  • Knowing you can't win, that the game is rigged, can make you feel better. It can help you fight learned helplessness. If someone tries to tell you the game's not rigged, they're gaslighting you. People who gaslight might not be doing so intentionally, it might be patriarchy blindness, where they're blind to the unique stressors women face.
  • The two kinds of patriarchy blindness are Human Giver Syndrome and Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry, which is when people notice their adversarial headwinds but not their beneficial tailwinds. So people in a dominant group don't realize the advantages they had as much as the struggles they face.
  • In the face of all this chronic stress, you can feel compassion fatigue. This is when you emotionally check out, tend to minimize all but the worst suffering, feeling helpless or powerless but also responsible for doing more, or staying in a bad situation out of feelings of obligation. To treat compassion fatigue, step 1 is to complete the cycle and feel the feels about patriarchy. As you start noticing all the ways the game is rigged, you'll need to. Step 2 is to unlearn helplessness by doing something, anything. Step 3 is to smash the patriarchy by engaging with your something larger. And smash it not with the goal of ending it completely, since that can feel hopeless too. You're just aiming for a few cracks.

The Bikini Industrial Complex

  • We're taught we can measure wellness by the appearance of our bodies, but we can't.
  • Every culture has an "aspirational beauty ideal" and ours is the Bikini Industrial Complex, and it's lied to us about what "well" bodies are. Weight and health are not the same thing. "People of any size can be healthy or sick; you can’t tell by looking at them."
  • And this constant vigilance over our bodies and wellness...what else could it be used for? "If you’re using up decision-making and attention-focusing cognitive resources on choices about food, clothes, exercise, makeup, body hair, “toxins,” and fretting about your body’s failures, what are you too exhausted to care about, that you would otherwise prioritize?"
  • The obsession is dangerous. It makes some people sick and kills others.
  • As Naomi Wolf puts it, “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience.” Thin bodies are signs of obedient women.
  • Four strategies to combat the bikini industrial complex are mess acceptance, "you are the new hotness," "everybody is the new hotness," and "hi body, what do you need?" They're all focused on practicing body acceptance, embracing body diversity, and listening to your body.
  • Mess acceptance means accepting how your body is and your complicated feelings about it.
  • The new hotness game is about redefining "beauty" and looking fabulous without referencing socially constructed ideals. "You are the new hotness" is texting shorthand for feeling and looking great. "Everybody is the new hotness" is about exposing yourself to a wider diversity of bodies in the world.
  • Finally, "Hi body, what do you need?" helps you notice what it feels like inside your body. Most of us have learned to ignore its needs so well we don't even notice them anymore. Turn to your body and talk to it like someone you're taking care of and ask it how it needs.

Part 3: Wax On, Wax Off


  • Everyone needs connection, and not necessarily the romantic kind.
  • We're build to oscillate between connection and autonomy.
  • The study of the way we connect with people is called two-person neuroscience, and has found that our internal states are profoundly contagious.
  • Sharing space with people means sharing energy with them.
  • Relationships with trust and connected knowing are what's known as your bubble of love. Trust lets you be intentionally authentic and inauthentic.
  • Connected knowing means coming to understand an idea by exploring it within the context it comes from.
  • You can bring your rage into your bubble of love with their permission, and they will help you complete the stress cycle together. "Rage gives you strength and energy and the urge to fight, and sharing that energy in the Bubble changes it from something potentially dangerous to something safe and potentially transformative."


  • What makes you stronger isn't the thing that almost killed you, it's the rest and recovery afterward. And rest doesn't mean sleep, but also relaxation from mental energy. Feeling like you don't have time for that rest is a consequence of human giver syndrome. It's necessary for your brain and body to process the world around it through both mental rest and active rest, where you're engaging different parts of your brain.
  • This plays into why sleep is so important, especially if you have health issues. You shouldn't do anything you wouldn't do drunk when you're sleep deprived. But for some reason, moral judgement about sleep is deeply engrained in Western culture.
  • In reality, we should aim to spend about 42 percent of our life resting, on normalized average. That's about 10 hours per day, and doesn't just include sleep. It might be 8 hours of sleep, half an hour of stress reducing conversation, thirty minutes of physical activity, thirty minutes of paying attention to food, and thirty minutes of wildcard.
  • In sum, rest means sleep, food, friends, and movement. "Rest matters because you matter. You are not here to be “productive.”"


  • Every person has a madwoman, the chasm between reality and hope, trapped between the "dichotomous roles of demon and angel." The madwoman manages the chasm between who we are and who Human Giver Syndrome expects us to be.
  • It presents in different ways in everyone, but a common way is toxic perfectionism, which can be combatted by practicing/exercising self-compassion. And like exercise, it's not always fun or comfortable but helps us grow stronger.
  • One thing that can help is personifying your madwoman into a character you can distance from yourself and get to know through connected knowing.

Create a burnout prevention plan

If this book has you motivated to start beating your burnout, try our free self-care action plan worksheet to come up with your own personalized burnout prevention ideas!

From the Conclusion

  • Wellness is not a state of mind, but a state of action.
  • Trust your body.
  • Be kind to yourself.
  • Your joy matters.
  • You are enough as you are right now.