UnBurnout Basics Part 4: I for Imagine

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Our imaginations are tapped throughout our day-to-day for a variety of reasons.

It might be visualizing a much more satisfying version of ourselves saying what we WANTED to say to that person.

OR dreaming of a healthy and prepared-by-someone-else gourmet dinner waiting on the table when we arrive home.
OR thinking about how the team will respond to pitching the new project tomorrow.

In a nutshell, our imaginations can both perpetuate OR reduce stress.

For example, in the last example we might imagine the team responding with validation for our hard work and complimentary nods for our innovation

OR we can imagine them shredding every slide and word and pouncing on any potential unexplained detail.

Our ability to imagine allows us to consider and plan for the future. As children with less inhibited imaginations, we easily played out stories, characters, escapades and adventures in our truest hero or heroine state.

I remember sitting as a little girl in the cab of the parked combine in the big white barn at our family farm. My younger sister faithfully by my side in the shotgun seat directing our perfectly imagined animal rescues and space travel and bank robberies wielding the imagined power of this John Deere tank at our youthful no-holds-barred whim and fancy.

For some reason imagination is not as readily associated with adulting – when in fact, our imaginations are just as powerful and provide impetus for creativity and innovation in our everyday grown-up lives and responsibilities.

Creativity decreases as we get older and according to neuroscientist Paul King our thought habits over time that “work” for us result in:

  • increased effectiveness to navigate difficulty;
  • adaptation to social norms and accepted ways of thinking;
  • and ultimately staying with what works (in our thinking) rather than the unknown creative.

As we consider how to recover our imagination potential to decrease stress, check in with yourself to ensure that you aren’t blocking your own imagination recovery with traps like:
-Moving, living, working and thinking too fast (like King’s first reason re: “effectiveness”). Our clamor for efficiency and doing more with less is part of the problem.
Meditation and mindfulness are steadily growing trends for good reason!

-Having no reserve i.e. not one drop of mental energy left to put towards imaginative or creative thought.

As we consider UN-Burnout strategies to increase resilience, Imagination offers an incredible and easily accessible resource, once we give ourselves permission to use it.

For example, a first step towards resilience-building may include reframing how we see our work or situation. We can use imagination to reflect over a day or week and to proactively identify one small interaction we appreciated or enjoyed, even if it was sharing a pleasant lunch conversation with a colleague.

We can also capitalize our imaginations to bring to mind other aspects of life for which we are grateful, even if aspects of job stress are threatening our overall well-being.

Another way to use our imagination for growth and health is to envision a new way, habit, option, approach – we can see ourselves differently in the future implementing one small strategy at a time as we endeavor to beat burnout, build healthier relationships and recover balance.

Gaining clarity of vision also requires imagination. Deliberate and focused imagination requires slowing down. Mindfulness and meditation are helpful practices for this. Numerous articles encourage leaders to promote imagination and the closely related innovation and creativity.

As you consider further how to recover more imagination for stress busting, a study illustrated that imagining in the first person (me, myself, I) versus the third person (he, she, they) was more effective with first person imaginers outperforming the control group on “solving transfer problems, retaining important material and retaining unimportant material” (Leopold, Mayer & Dutke, 2019).

Be sure to check out the other posts in this UNBURNOUT series including Sleep and Serve More, Be You (Authentically), and Acknowledge.


Leopold, C., Mayer, R., & Dutke, S. (2019). The power of imagination and perspective in learning from science text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(5), Jul 2019, 793-808. American Psychological Association.

Maslach, C., Jackson, S.E., & Leiter, M.P. (1996). Maslach Burnout Inventory (3rd ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Alma, H. and Smaling, A. (2006). The meaning of empathy and imagination in health care and health studies. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 1:4, 195-211. DOI: 10.1080/17482620600789438 Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17482620600789438

Kiley, K., Sehgal, A., Neth, S., Dolata, J., Pike, E., Spilsbury, J. & Albert, J. (2018). The effectiveness of guided imagery in treating compassion fatigue and anxiety of mental health workers. Social Work Research, 42(1), 33-43. Oxford University Press.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2016). Relaxation techniques for health. Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/stress/relaxation.htm

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