Emma Gannon is no stranger to success.
She met Queen Elizabeth II, she’s been featured on Forbes 30 under 30, and has written best-selling book The Multi-Hyphen Method.
Her latest offering is The Success Myth.
But she slowly realised she was addicted to chasing external validation from others and that all the success in the world didn’t mean she would automatically bypass the issue that many business owners face—burnout.
While many think burnout comes from being snowed under by mountains of work, Emma found that her burnout actually came from being out of alignment with herself and her values.
In this episode, she talks about the misconceptions of burnout, the warning signs and how you can take small steps to reconnect with yourself to overcome the mental and physical symptoms that come along with it.
Here is her unfiltered advice below:
You can be successful and still get struck with burnout
Emma, I first met you back in 2018 when I was interviewing you for The Telegraph, and I remember we had so much in common it was weird.
We both went to the same university, both did the same degree in English literature, and both ended up working in the media.
I know. It’s crazy because that year so much happened, which I talk about in my book.
It’s like the year that I sort of pin a lot of my story on, so I love that I met you that year. It was fun.
And that was also the year you just brought out The Multi-Hyphen Method.
So at the time you were a blogger, author, speaker, podcast host, digital consultant, and it just seemed like you had this dream multi-hyphen career.
So what is it that led from there to your burnout episode last year?
Basically, 2018 was probably one of the best times of my career on paper, it was when the book came out, The Multi-Hyphen Method, which looking back I’m really proud of that book.
I was 28, and I was basically saying I don’t want to work the way everyone else was working. I quit my job and I basically made a lot of my side hustles my full-time job.
So I had multiple income streams and wanted to talk about being a multi-hyphenate person in the world, and it was a really exciting year, but from the outside it looked like everything was sorted.
Like you said, it was really shiny. I met the Queen that year. I got on the Forbes 30 under 30 list that year. The book was The Sunday Times bestseller that year. It was wild.
And also it was one of the most unhappiest years I’ve had, where I felt so out of alignment with who I am, and I felt really, really lost and really, really sad.
And I really wanted to write about that because we hear it a lot, and we hear people say, oh yeah, it all looked great on Instagram, but inside it was awful.
But I wanted to write a book and really go in on this subject because I felt like if I’m not going to do it, who’s going to do it? Because we’re kind of living a bit of a lie and I don’t think that’s helpful.
Finding your breaking point and realising you’re addicted to success
How did you stop living the lie? What was the kind of breaking point or moment where you said, actually this doesn’t feel right?
Well, I think being in your twenties as well, because I’m going to be 34 this year. So I think that’s quite a lot of growth and quite a lot happens in those years.
But I think what I write about in the book, and it’s not about me by the way, this book is very broad. I don’t think anyone wants to hear 80,000 words just on me complaining about this.
It’s based on 400 interviews I’ve done with people over the last seven years as well. But it was essentially an addiction to success. It was an addiction to that high I would get when other people were saying I was doing well.
It was the external validation that I think a lot of us can relate to someone saying, wow, look at what you’re doing. That must be amazing. It’s like that I kept chasing until I broke.
And in your question, when you mentioned burnout, essentially it got to the point where, I don’t know, I think there’s something about life where you no longer can choose, and something out there is like no more of this.
Go back to who you really are and why you started doing this in the first place.
Listen to your inner child and reconnect with what you love doing
So how did you go back to who you really are and separate that external validation you were getting to how you felt inside?
It sounds cheesy, but I write about this quite a lot actually in my earlier work about not losing that childhood self because essentially, we kind of all are that person inside.
On a really basic level, all the things I love now is what 11-year-old me loves.
I’m in an office full of books and most of those books are probably still Jacqueline Wilson children’s books.
I’m wearing a really bright jumper. I’m wearing big glasses. I used to wear glasses obviously at school and was a bit of a geek, and I’ve got posters on my wall that remind me of things I liked when I was younger.
I feel like that side really, if you lose that, it can get quite dark. I think adult life is really hard and so joy and colour and vibrancy and play and looking after a dog and watching films, these are all things that actually make a good life, not just the outward appearance of being really successful.
So yeah, I would say it was looking back and going, “Oh my God, when was the last time I saw a friend? When was the last time I remembered someone’s birthday? When was the last time I laughed?”
There was about two or three years where I was outwardly doing really well, but yeah, wasn’t happy at all.
Doing less will help you find yourself again
So you always had to strip everything away and kind of go back to your childhood roots and find the things that sparked joy for you.
What were some of the steps you took in that kind of quitting process?
So a lot of it was quitting and actually, this is also a sort of taboo I feel in our modern-day culture of always adding things on, always wanting more, always wanting bigger, better.
We can get so much at our fingertips now, but it was really an exercise of just less stuff, just less to do, less on my to-do list and making peace, I suppose, with getting to the end of the day and being like, “Oh, I didn’t do much today,” but actually I had done loads. I just hadn’t done a million things or burnt myself out.
There’s actually a phrase I talk about in the book that was coined by [journalist] Anna Codrea-Rado who wrote about productivity dysmorphia.
This idea that it’s like a dysmorphia, the idea we have with our own success, we’re all doing amazing stuff. We just don’t even take one second really to think about it.
Social media is fuelling your productivity dysmorphia
Do you think social media and this kind of age of information is fuelling that though? Because we are always looking for more, more, more online, aren’t we?
Yes, and it’s really distracting. And there’s like a French philosopher that said once about how we want what other people want.
We just go through life going, I think I want that actually because that person looks really happy with it. But what we’re not realising is that’s not our version of success.
For example, I don’t want to live in the countryside but for someone else that must be amazing. For me, I actually prefer being in quite a busy environment and going and getting coffee, that’s something that makes me happy.
And I think we’re in this strange time, and we have been for so long with Instagram where something visual can be very confusing when it looks so enticing, but we don’t actually sit with whether we really want it or whether we think we should.
It’s like all these things we are constantly seeing gives us this permanent fear of missing out all the time.
Burnout doesn’t always come from being chaotically busy—it can be down to being out of alignment with yourself
I’m curious to know how you went about reprioritising your time because obviously the multi-hyphen method is all about adding more strings to your bow and doing lots of different things.
So how did you start that process of stripping it back, and obviously what were the financial pressures on you as well?
Because it’s very well to say, take a step back, take three months, six months off. But a lot of people have bills to pay. So how did you work that balance?
Yeah, it’s funny because I wouldn’t really say that the multi-hyphen method was the problem because, for me, that was my saviour.
I had multiple income streams, so I could take four months off because I have passive income and I have businesses that don’t really need me to be on constantly.
It’s quite different if you are just a freelancer where it’s like your time is you. Whereas I’d sort of built things that could kind of move without me.
And I also had a rule with the multi-hyphen method that I think I wrote in the book where it’s one in one out. It’s a busy nightclub. It’s like you can’t come in. We have enough going on here.
So I was always really strict with that and I think this is the misconception actually is my burnout wasn’t from being busy.
I’m not a very busy person. I actually don’t work endlessly, and I didn’t before my burnout.
What it came from was being so out of alignment with what essentially makes me happy and what makes me a creative person. That’s what burnt me out.
And it’s actually, I think it’s been coined recently, it’s called existential burnout, where you’re basically just so far away from your values. Your values have gone out of the window and my values are make things that I like, write for a living.
That was my ultimate goal, to get paid to write, and I’m doing that and the fact that I felt like that wasn’t enough, and I had to do all these million other things to please other people, that’s what made me burn out.
It was the people pleasing more than anything.
So yeah, it’s a really good question about taking time out. I think it’s a really important discussion because I think this is going to be an epidemic. I think more, and more people are going to be burning out.
And so I don’t have the answers to a big, big question like that, but I think it’s leaders and companies and people need to be ready to treat each other as human beings and be like, you know what? If you’re going to burn out, we need to set up some sort of system where people can have more breaks.
There is no quick fix to burnout—take slow turtle steps and create space for yourself
And for people who are feeling really stuck in their careers and burnt out and unhappy, what is the fastest way, or what are your practical tips to becoming unstuck?
The fastest way is not going to be the best way. This is not an overnight thing.
I really write in my book how I am quite allergic to any quick fixes.
And I think that’s why we kind of get ourselves in these muddles as it is because we don’t take the time to kind of, over a long stretch of time, do really small things to help us.
So that’s what I would say really, is approaching anything wanting it to just be done is very stressful. I even think that about my novels I write, they’re such a slow process.
I’ve been working on the one I’m working on now for three years, but if I woke up one morning and was like, I just want it done, I would probably burn out again.
So I actually have a turtle on my desk that reminds me of turtle steps, like small steps. So I would say that would be my advice, maybe the quickest way actually is taking it slow in the long run.
Doing some really small things every day, whether that’s journaling in the morning, whether it’s saying no to a friend who is stressing you out, whether it’s, I don’t know, getting up half an hour earlier and having a cup of tea in silence.
The more space you create for yourself every day, even if it’s small, it can be really helpful.
I love that. Take turtle steps.
Reprioritise your day by focusing on the smaller things
And how did you go about reprioritising your day? Did you take that extra half an hour for a cup of tea? Did you change the times that you write your book?
What are some of the small steps that you took?
Well, during the burnout, I didn’t really have a choice. It was really scary and it was really awful. And I don’t know if anyone listening will have gone through it, but I don’t even know if burnout is the right word.
It’s sort of you are unable to function really in the same way. It’s really terrifying because when you are in that situation, you’re not sure if you’ll get back to normal and if you are that limited, your whole life has changed.
I actually had a lot of people reaching out when I wrote about it because I did write about it quite honestly at the time.
Once I’d come out of the worst of it, people who had long Covid were kind of reaching out to me and saying, this is really speaking to me because chronic fatigue and even people with ADHD or this sense of massive overwhelm from the world at the moment because it is really scary and there’s a lot going on.
That forced me essentially into it. I didn’t choose to have three months off, this was a point where I had to.
So I feel very, very lucky I could in an easy-ish way.
But what I learned essentially was, again, the small things are really important.
I took a daily walk, I called a friend instead of sending them a WhatsApp message, I went swimming, hadn’t been swimming since I was 10 years old, really. I got out first thing in the morning just for some fresh air.
I mean these are really, really simple things. And something I also wrote about in my previous book, Disconnected, which was more about how to get back in touch with yourself and taking time offline.
And I find it quite funny in a way that we are in this world where we have everything at our fingertips, and yet we are discussing with friends the best way to go for a walk and have a cup of tea and get some sun on our face.
It’s like we’re going back to basics.
Learn to rest your mind and body
Because you were in that really dark place, did you find it hard to even get out of bed and leave your house and go outside?
How hard was that to do?
Do you know what? It was funny because I feel like I know so much about this. I’ve even done a life coach training course over the last few years I’ve been doing that.
When I was in it, I knew what was happening, and I feel very, very privileged. Because I think some people would lie in bed for three days not being able to do anything and think, “Oh my god, what is wrong with me?”
Whereas I knew nothing was wrong with me. I actually think it’s very normal for human beings to be like, “Oh my god, I need a break.”
I think the fact that we’re in this culture where we are so against resting, and I know so many people in my life who can’t sit down for five minutes because they think they’re being lazy.
So the biggest challenge for me really was learning to rest, learning to rest again, and really resting, like lying in bed for a day.
When you’re that burnt out, you need it.
A book that will lead you back to your values
And you talked about going back to your values and the things that were really important to you again, how did you go through that process?
Were there any particular books that you read or podcasts that you listened to? How did you work out what your values are, and then what steps you needed to take after that?
One book I loved was Martha Beck’s The Way Of Integrity, which came out I think maybe last year or the year before. But it’s amazing on this about values.
It’s essentially a book about how to live in integrity, essentially. So show up as the person you are and be honest.
She talks a lot about how she used to lie quite a lot and I really resonate with that because the little white lies of if a friend says, “Do you want to come to this party?”
And you say, “Oh actually I’ve got a stomach ache.”
There’s none of that now it’s like, it’s like, “No, I don’t want to go. Sorry.”
And I think that’s getting older. It’s just being so honest in a nice way, in a kind way, but being honest. So that’s an amazing book if you want to get back to your values because there’s so much research around honesty and health.
If we live in an honest way, and we are telling the truth at all times, essentially, we will be healthier and happier.
Be honest with your clients—they will respect and support your decisions, even if it means not working with them anymore
Did you also have to have some awkward conversations with clients as you were stripping away some of those projects that weren’t making you happy?
I wouldn’t say they were awkward. I think people really respected it.
That was the most amazing thing of all of this is, when you set boundaries, and you say no, and you say, I’m really sorry. I don’t want to work together anymore because of X, Y, and Z, and it’s on me. It’s because of me. I’m making changes.
People are really understanding. And I think we underestimate how understanding people are.
When you say to someone, I don’t, not in a position to be able to do that, I’m really sorry. They’ll say, that’s fine most of the time.
Make sure you’re starting a side hustle for the right reasons
Do you think ‘side hustle’ has become a bit of a dirty word now? Do you think we’re side hustling ourselves into a mental crisis?
No, I love side hustles.
I think they’re amazing. I think they’re the reason personally why I have joy in my life. A side hustle, maybe the word has become a little bit icky. Maybe it’s side project. I’ve always enjoyed side project more than hustle.
But coming home after a day of being quite mentally bored and then doing a little passion project on the side has always been amazing for me. I think it’s really context, and it’s nuance.
It’s like, you wouldn’t say the gym is a dirty word just because someone’s forcing you to go to the gym, it’s like, “Oh, I don’t want to do that.” But if you love going to the gym, that’s a great thing.
So I think it’s sort of how you place it in your life, not really the thing itself, if that makes sense.
Yeah. It’s also in the language, isn’t it? Because side hustle invokes stress and pressure and being constantly on.
Whereas passion project, as you put it, is about doing something that you love and enjoying it and getting fulfilment and joy out in it.
And again, it goes back to the should thing. I write a lot about that in the book, about shoulds.
Are you feeling like you should have a side hustle, therefore probably not great if you feel like you want to have one that’s very different.
Identity crises are normal because we are constantly changing and evolving as people
Did you have a bit of a crisis of identity when you were going through this cleansing process? Because so much of it had been attached to your work and what you do and what success was all about.
Yeah, definitely. I think we go through identity changes all the time. And I haven’t had children but my friends, all of my friends practically are having kids now. They’re going through massive identity changes.
So I think this is just my version as someone who probably won’t have children and my career is a massive part of my life. I hope that I can write books until I’m really old.
So I think it’s kind of going through an identity change within that context. But again, I think it’s the most natural, normal thing in the world.
And when you really realise how many times we change in our life, I’m probably going to go through this again. So I’m really glad that I’ve been through it once because I can go through it again.
We are always iterating, and we’re always evolving, and we never stay the same. And once you realise that, I think you don’t really beat yourself up anymore. Because you’re like, oh, I’m going through a massive change, here we go again.
And with your identity, did you find that you were getting judgment for your decision to not have children?
Well because I wrote the novel about it, and I did quite a lot of interviews about it, and I’ve been quite honest about it. I think it was just great. I think people really understood.
And what was amazing actually about the child-free conversation is I knew that I would meet other child-free women. That was amazing. I love the community.
But I’ve actually felt closer to my friends with kids through it because we talk about things so openly, and we bridge that gap, and I can play a role in their life that is just slightly different.
And yeah, it’s been one of the most positive things I’ve done really.
So what are you working on at the moment, Emma? And if somebody said to you at a dinner party, what do you do? How would you define yourself?
Well I would say I’m a writer and I would probably leave it there because that does encompass all of the different strands. Because I am working on lots of different things. But that’s the easiest answer, I suppose.
And something that I’m working on at the moment, which I’m loving is my Substack newsletter. It’s absolutely revitalised me. It’s incredible.
And back to the childhood thing, it’s literally what I’ve always loved, but now in 2023. It’s essentially writing for fun, for other people. It’s why I started blogging in 2009. It’s why I used to write little typewriter letters when I was younger.
It’s just the same thing I’ve always loved doing but just now, which is in the form of a newsletter online, it’s called Substack. You basically pay £6 a month to receive all my writing.
And what was amazing during the burnout thing is I only wrote for my community on Substack. I wasn’t saying here’s my deepest, darkest story of burnout for everyone to read. I wanted it to be for my readers, for the people that would really get a lot from it.
So that’s what I’m excited about the internet at the moment is you can write for a community again, and it doesn’t have to just be everywhere online for everyone to read.
Slow organic growth will help to keep your business authentic
And how are you building up and nurturing that Substack community?
Well, I’ve had it for a year now, and it’s been growing superfast. It’s really, really exciting. And again, there’s a community on Substack where there are other writers so you kind of recommend each other, so it’s a very natural organic growth.
I’m not really interested in hacks or tips or growth or scamming people to sign up. I’m going the other way, which is slow growth, loving it, really enjoying it.
It’s interesting you talk about slow growth because in so many ways that’s like the opposite to business culture, which is always about fast returns and revenue.
So I love how you are almost turning that on its head and promoting slow growth and turtle steps.
Exactly. And what’s really funny about it, the irony in this, is I have a thriving business from only a handful of people really that pay me every month.
You don’t need a million people on Instagram to be making six figures. You really do need to cater for your people, and they’ll come and find you, and they’ll tell their friends.
And it really is about being authentic. And I know that word is overused, but if you really are authentic, your business will survive.
A lot of businesses, as we know, are going under, changing, because they’re just sort of going with the wind, and they don’t know who they are.
Changing your mindset to stop the constant quest for more
And what do you think individuals can do to try and change their mindset and stop this constant quest for more, more, more?
And this is hard by the way. This is a simple answer, but it’s actually super hard, is taking some time to really sit with where you’re at.
There are so many distractions now, and I know how that feels because I was there too in that you can distract yourself from anything. God knows however many Netflix, Amazon, Apple, however many there are now, I’m losing count.
And obviously so many ways to kind of consume ourselves out of thinking about where we’re at.
But really just taking an honest look, whether that’s journaling or a really honest conversation with a friend or if you are needing to talk to someone in more of a therapy space and just kind of look at things in the eye and take it from there.
You have all the answers inside you—and a life coach can help bring them to the surface
Do you have a therapist, Emma?
I don’t. I have a life coach though, who I adore. And it’s really amazing because it’s a space where you are just being listened to essentially.
You solve your own problems by the end of the call, but it’s just someone to sort of be there and ask you good questions.
And did you turn to a life coach after the burnout episode, or what sparked you to get one?
I actually got one in the pandemic in 2020 when I had a lot of time to think.
And I’ve got to say this book did come out of looking at the pandemic and looking at where we’re going after the pandemic, the Great Resignation, the fact that we had a lot of time to think.
A lot of people did have a pause. A lot of people obviously didn’t, but I just think we are completely different people now to who we were pre-pandemic.
So that was my sort of catalyst to get one.
And what are some of the questions that you ask your life coach?
Well, I don’t really ask her questions. It’s more of a conversation.
You bring something to the table and they kind of just listen. They kind of mirror back what you’re saying. They make you feel really heard and really understood. They kind of prompt you or ask you. They ask you the questions, and you figure them out.
So it’s amazing. And also it really is against advice culture, which is something I talk about in the book. I’m really against constantly asking other people for advice because I don’t think anyone has the answers to your life.
I think it can be really dangerous when people give advice out of the blue. And it’s something that I actually don’t do anymore ever really at events.
I’ll never just give advice because I don’t know the person well enough.
And actually it’s interesting that you’re saying that the conversation’s very reflective, and it’s often just you talking.
It’s almost like you already have the answers to your questions, they’re already inside you, but it’s just about trusting your gut.
Yes, yes. I think we do all have the answers inside us, all of us, which is why it’s so painful when we go a little bit wrong because we know.
I think we know deep down like, “Oh God, I’ve not listened again,” because I had so many warning signs for the burnout.
This was not out of the blue. This was little nudges that I ignored.
So I would say that’s another thing is if you’re getting a little nudge of like, oh, this isn’t right, this isn’t right, and you feel like you are really pushing kind of upstream, that is a sort of sign to kind of lessen and ease it up a bit and just try new things.
Listen to your body as it’ll show you the warning signs of burnout
What were some of those nudges? Was it that kind of not in your stomach, was it saying yes to projects where you should have said no?
What were the signs?
It was all of that, and it was very physical in my body, which is another thing I wrote about. It’s very physical and that’s another thing I don’t think a lot of us really pay attention to. It’s so in the mind.
And obviously I’m a writer, I can sit for hours and hours just with my own head. So learning the physical symptoms for everything, and now I can really fine tune them. Even down to getting an email from someone I already know and thinking, that feels a bit weird, don’t want to do that.
Or, if it’s a work thing you have to do because obviously, we have to do things sometimes, or at least for a paid job. Work is not fun all the time obviously, but it’s even being aware of it.
So just knowing like, oh, I feel a bit weird today is better than just kind of numbing it out and ignoring it.
Put your phone away and get yourself outside in nature
And you talked about all these distractions that we are constantly getting.
How do you turn off all that noise?
Do you have any particular rules in place where you, I don’t know, put your phone in a drawer for three hours and don’t look at emails, or what’s your method?
I used to try and do all of that stuff and I felt like the harder I was on myself, the harder it all was. As in, if I beat myself up for not putting my phone away or treating that as another to-do list, it was like another thing to do.
So being really gentle with yourself, being really nice to yourself, being like, okay, we were on our phone a lot today, let’s not do that tomorrow and just kind of being less intense with it really helped me.
But also post-burnout, what was really funny in a way is, I was less interested in my phone and more interested in the outside world.
The walk was so amazing, and I was looking at things, and I was like, it’s a sunny day, and I’m really enjoying this walk. I didn’t need the podcasts, I didn’t need my phone.
And so I think over time you can adjust to just find your phone not even that interesting.
It’s so interesting how the pandemic really changed the way we think about things.
I remember going out for a walk, like you said, and just really appreciating nature. Also getting a takeaway coffee was like a new high in the week.
Yeah, exactly. And that’s the message really of The Success Myth. If you get right to the end of the book, at the beginning I talk about what I thought success was.
By the end I’m talking about what success actually is, and it’s not really the big stuff.
And it sounds really cliché and people have been writing this for hundreds of years, but a really good day is made up of actually quite small things.
Stick to your values and success will come to you
So what does success now look and feel like to you?
So I guess this is quite a broad answer, and I’m still figuring it out. And I also think it’s still changing.
But for me, success is a day or a week or a month or a year where I feel like I’m not abandoning myself, and I’m not going against my own values essentially. And so it is about sticking to that integrity.
And of course we go wrong, and we make mistakes, and we trip up, and we get things wrong over and over again.
But I think it’s like if I get closer to that, then it’s success.
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