Building productivity without burning out: The SHAPE Framework

Feb 13, 2020

What is the SHAPE Framework?

Our minds work a bit like a processing system. They operate off of values, habits, and expectations, and from these, we create actions. Another way is to say we do things because we think something will happen after we do it, and the reason we believe something will happen is because we have sets of expectations (doing good things = getting good results) that guide us, and values that support that (doing good things = being a good person).

Burnout is caused when our actions are not in line with our values (we believe we want to make the world a better place, but all we are doing is shuffling numbers), which causes incongruence, which means we are using only beliefs (if I don't hustle and shuffle numbers, I won't make enough money and I'll die alone and unloved). 

The use of willpower to keep us going is perfectly fine, until that temporary boost of motivation turns into anxiety, and the anxiety turns into burnout. 

This is when we need a better system, or a better framework to work from. 

But here's the thing, we can only replace a belief with another belief and replace a system with another system, we can't just get rid of a belief entirely. So we have the SHAPE framework:


The SHAPE Framework is an acronym for Systems, Habits, Acceptance, Prioritization, and Empathy. It replaces the currently malfunctioning systems of Stories, Hopes, Avoidance, Perfection, and Ego. 


Systems not stories

Stories are narratives we picked up along our life. Maybe you saw someone say “a real entrepreneur figures stuff out on their own” or “a real entrepreneur puts their head down and hustles”, and what you come to interpret that to be is that asking for help means that you’re not good enough, instead of the idea that you’re resourceful or that resting is weakness, not the resting is giving your business more energy.

It’s incredible that when I’m feeling a bit down on myself or even just after some exposure, I can walk by a person and if they don’t immediately smile at me I’ll interpret it as being that they dislike me. These are all stories. Stories work from our observation of something tangible, applying a filter of interpretation around it, and then creating emotions from it. 

The solution to getting rid of stories is to identify what they are and questioning it to see if it's real. If we think someone dislikes us-- why do we think this? Is this true? Can we confirm it? 

We undergo stories all the time. We have stories about why we're better than other people, worse than other people, the same as other people, or different from other people. We have stories for why people do what they do even when we don't know them.

Motivation from stories look like: "People like me because they like my work, and I know that because they tell me they like my work". That's a story. It's not just a belief--it's a belief that's backed by observation because on some days, you feel great and people confirm that. 

However, some days, you'll wake up and you'll do great work, and someone will complain about it. Now, you suddenly have your beliefs shook. Maybe your work isn't that great. Maybe people don't like you as much as you think you do. You start to spiral and you lose productivity and focus for the rest of the day. 

That's a bad story. Even though it's served you for a number of days, it's not serving you today. 


A system is a little bit different. Systems are standards of operation. They do not change based on your mood. Maybe your system is schedule-based. You set yourself to create work every day between 8-10am, and you hit your standards no matter what. When you receive good feedback, you log it into your journal and you save it for a rainy day.

When you receive negative feedback, you take what you can change from it and you acknowledge that you are human and can make mistakes. But regardless of how you feel, you recognize that your job is just to put out work, every day. You keep your emotions out of the machinery. 


Habits not hopes


"Wait a second, John", you say, "what the hell is wrong with you? You're telling us to give up hope?"

Absolutely not. 

Hope is a good thing in a lot of situations. It helps motivate us during dark days where we don't believe in ourselves. Hope is about us saying "Things are bad, now, but they'll get better later."

But we don't know that for a fact. We don't know that things WILL get better if we keep doing what we're doing. And then when we encounter problems and things don't work out well, we feel terrible inside because our subconscious voice says "dude, what the heck, you told me to EXPECT GOOD THINGS and instead all I get is this hot garbage of an outcome."

After a few times, our motivation wanes because we KNOW we're lying to ourselves. We're lying by saying we know things will turn out well when we don't. Hope is about ignoring reality, which makes us less effective at what we do. 

By all means, have an optimistic outlook. Optimism is not quite the same thing as hope. Optimism is realizing that there is a range of possible outcomes, and you're preparing for the better end of the range while also understanding the pragmatic elements. 

instead of building hope, we should build habits.

Habits are based around immediate feedback. Instead of saying "I hope I'll lose weight", habits are "regardless of what I weigh today, I'm going to run 30 minutes every morning". It focuses on the EXPERIENCE OF THE PRESENT instead of the EXPECTATIONS OF THE FUTURE.

Focus on the growth of the immediate, tangible experiences. 



Acceptance not Avoidance

Emotional avoidance is what we do when we try not to feel our feelings. Stress eating is emotional avoidance. Procrastination is often emotional avoidance. And sometimes, overworking is a form of emotional avoidance. 

When you’re experiencing stress or negative emotions like depression or sadness, there’s a fear that if you sit and feel it it’ll take over or that it’ll overwhelm, so we go into avoidance.

Distractions like sitting in front of Netflix while scrolling through instagram (like you’re not even being lazy properly).

Emotional avoidance doesn't mean the emotions go away. If the source of the emotional experience (anxiety, fear, uncertainty, anger) is not dealt with, all the emotions will do is hide in the shadows and keep pushing your buttons while you get more and more emotionally exhausted. 

Eventually, that emotional exhaustion turn into burnout.

Acceptance is sitting and feeling it in full. Yes, it’ll feel overwhelming at first, but through journaling, mindfulness, and practicing gentle acceptance, the emotion experience can pass through and dissipate, leaving you space to deal with what created the emotional experience to begin with.


Prioritization not Perfection

Most of the time when I'm coaching someone through burnout, "perfectionism" is one of the top three traits the person will list as being their culprit. 

So many people (especially high-achieving executives, entrepreneurs, and even top students) work on trying to be perfect in not just one area, but in all areas. They want to achieve everything-- health, relationships, career, finance, social-- all at once. They end up looking like the circus act of someone spinning half a dozen plates on different sticks, and keep running back and forth trying to keep all the plates going. 

The problem isn't having high standards, it's the fear of being seen as having low standards. 

See, perfectionism is often a hidden form of fear--  fear of judgement. We're not afraid of doing mediocre work, we're afraid of being seen as mediocre. 

This is why most people will say "oh, what we need is more balance" when they experience burnout. They feel like by working too much, they're overdoing it, so they should run the other way and relax. But then they worry about not relaxing properly. They take classes and read books on how to relax. They try to get relaxation right. They try to be perfect in their relaxation. They try to add another plate to their collection.

It's not about the work. It's about being picky about how you work.

Prioritization means choosing on thing to say yes to, and learning to pause before saying yes to other things. It's about being picky what deserves your full attention. 


Empathy not ego

Studies have shown that self-compassion is one of the most powerful skills a person can practice. It can do everything from lowering your cortisol (stress hormone) to increasing your physical energy. Taking a moment to reflect on your experiences and accepting what you have encountered, without judgement, means to let go of ego.

Let me be clear-- ego is not a bad thing.

Ego is just your reflection of self. It is an expectation of how you see yourself, and it is actually a defence mechanism meant to protect you. 

But ego can be exhausting to upkeep. When we are in our ego, we are in a state of tense vigilance. This looks like us trying to justify our decisions when they are questioned, it looks like us trying to puff up our chest to prove ourselves to people whose opinion shouldn't matter. It looks like us getting angry when someone does what we want to do, better.

At the core, ego is about wanting to be loved, and the only way to release ego's grip on our emotional stress is to provide the reassurance for ourselves. 

Having empathy for ourselves is about knowing that whatever it is that we do-- even the negative things like procrastination-- is stemmed out of a desire for self-preservation. It is about letting go of the guilt or blame that comes with uncertainty, and understanding that those emotions don't actually provide much for us (certainly not as effective as other strategies).

Practicing empathy can be as simple as sitting and noticing when our inner-critic is getting loud, giving ourselves love through a simple breathing or mindfulness practice, and then forgiving whatever it is that our inner critic is blaming ourselves for so we can move on and get back up.



The SHAPE Framework is, like most other things, a practice and a concept. It is not meant to be written in stone, nor is it meant to be encompassing of all that we need to do. It is a tool for us to examine our behaviours and, hopefully, help us choose a state of productivity and healing. 


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