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Art of Manliness Podcast #62: Play It Away with Charlie Hoehn

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In today’s episode I talk to Charlie Hoehn [4], author of Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety [5]. Charlie and I talk about his mental and emotional burnout from work and how rediscovering the joys of play helped him recover. I’m sure many of you listening will relate to Charlie’s story. I know I did. Putting into practice what Charlie advocates has definitely helped me.

playitaway [5]

Show Highlights:

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of Art of Manliness podcast. Are you feeling burned out? Like, you just feel like your job and life is just sucked just the joy out of your life? You are not alone if you feel like that because there is a lot of people that feel like that today. With our smartphones and computers there is this expectation that we are supposed to be on 24/7 with our jobs and there is this pressure to just make more money to get more status and we think that will make us happy but what ends up happening is we end up miserable. Well, our guest today has written a book about his experience of workaholic induced burn out. His name is Charlie Hoehn, he is the writer of Play It Away: A Workaholics Cure for Anxiety. We talk about Charlie’s experience with burnout and the anxiety that it caused him. We will talk about what he did to alleviate this and we will talk about what he found that really did the trick, that helped him overcome his burn out and you will be surprised because it’s good old fashioned play. All right, Charlie, welcome to the show.

Charlie Hoehn: Thank you, Brett, it’s nice to be here.

Brett McKay: So your book is Play It Away: A Workaholics Cure for Anxiety or burn out. Let’s talk about what led to this book because it’s an interesting story, and I know that a lot of guys who are listening to this podcast will probably relate to your story so how does this book come about?

Charlie Hoehn: The reason this book originally came about actually because I was working on another book on how to get a job that you actually legitimately want after college, not some dead end corporate job that you get through Craigslist because you are just trying to get a paycheck but how to actually set a solid foundation for your career and a section of that book that I was working on was about quitting and dealing with burnout and getting your work life balance back and overcoming crazy amounts of stress or anxiety, from working in like a startup type of scenario and when I showed the book to a number of my friends, they were like this section is great but it doesn’t belong in the book, you are just trying to teach people how to get the job that they want and that was my favorite material. So, I decided to make it into a book because I posted on my blog an essay called “How I cured my anxiety” And it ended up being one of the most popular things I ever wrote and so there was a lot of demand for the topic, and yeah, it was just basically over a thousand people said they wanted to read a book on overcoming anxiety. So, I decided to just turn it into your book.

Brett McKay: Tell us about your personal anxiety problem. You hit rock bottom at a point.

Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, and when I say anxiety, I don’t mean the mildly social anxious or the slight panic you get if you miss a deadline, I mean debilitating anxiety where you are having panic attacks and you feel that you are on the verge of breaking down and you never feel–you feel you are never going to be happy again. When my rock bottom was just I felt constantly dread all the time, I had difficulty breathing, I had difficulty sleeping, I couldn’t relax, it was physically impossible and I felt like I was trapped in my own personal health all the time. I remember having a conversation with my girlfriend and she was basically you aren’t the guy I met, what is wrong and I told her that I just felt dead inside all the time and I didn’t know how to fix it and it just wouldn’t go away. I didn’t have thoughts like suicide but I remember thinking many times I just want this to be over. It’s such a bad feeling and to constantly feel like you are in flight or fight mode and constantly terrified of something, even though you know it’s irrational people just tell you Oh! it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t matter, it’s like you are mentally and physically and emotionally broke and I was not sure what was causing it. It was really bad. So I started having panic attacks and stuff and I had seen a doctor and I asked a doctor to check me out and she gave me benzos which is a type of pills which apparently has the same withdrawal affects as hernioid, getting off of heroin and so I never took those pills because the side effects were far worse than the symptoms that they could mask basically, it could cause even worse anxiety and insomnia and all this stuff, so I went on this journey to try to cure my anxiety basically. I tired everything. And nothing really seemed to work for more than a few days, and when I say everything, it’s just like anything that you said that you try to alleviate your stress or depression or anxiety, I tried.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so like meditation.

Charlie Hoehn: Meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, therapy, doing these therapy books, I did extended fasts, I did super clean diets, I did high intensity workouts, I did prayer, I did volunteering, I even took a six-week course specifically for men wanting to overcome anxiety, I did isolation chambers or floatation things, like everything, and supplements and drugs and all this stuff, the stuff only seemed to work for a short period of time or alleviate my symptoms for a short period of things or it would make things worse and finally once a couple of key pieces fell into place and I was back to normal within a couple of weeks and I didn’t even notice my anxiety was gone and I legitimately just have no fear that those feelings will return and if they do, I know how to get rid of them.

Brett McKay: Awesome.

Charlie Hoehn: That’s what that book is about.

Brett McKay: Okay, we are going to talk a little bit about that you found. Before that, let’s talk about burn out in general because when I read your book and as you talked about that, I have experienced that same sort of thing as well, just that feeling of dead inside, you are just so overworked. It happened to me when I was in law school and after law school. Honestly I am still kind of recovering from it and it has been like 4 or 5 years.

Charlie Hoehn: Yeah.

Brett McKay: I think know this isn’t rare, it seems like lot of people are experiencing this sort of burn out. I don’t think my dad really had burnout, I remember him being burned out growing up, he seemed to have enjoyed his job and go to work and he would come home and grandpa same way but there is like, lot of, I don’t know what, is about modern work that makes people more susceptible to burn out.

Charlie Hoehn: I think there are a lot of things. I think the main one, the most obvious one we don’t escape work as easily anymore, there is no set hours, it’s just round the clock and I know so many people who lay in bed checking their cell phones up until late hours and not only is that preventing your brain from relaxing and just kind of shutting down and it’s also physically waking you back up. It’s just keeping you on the whole time and it’s reducing your quality of sleep and what happens when you sleep is your brain actually clears itself out, it kind of resets. It’s not hat it stops working and just relaxing the whole time, while you are sleeping it’s like the house cleaning for your body and your mind and so I think people are not only just constantly connected and constantly on now, and they feel this even greater sense of pressure to succeed because now everybody’s stuff out is out in the open on Facebook which is a highlight real, you get up and you check Facebook and you are like, Oh! my God, Everybody’s life is awesome, but nobody is broadcasting the anxiety, and the panic attacks and the depression and the sense of hopelessness that lot of people feel and it’s part of human condition and we don’t broadcast that stuff because we are ashamed of it and embraced and self-conscious but we all go through it on some level no matter how great our lives appear. No matter how great we want other people to think our lives are.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Charlie Hoehn: So, I think that’s one part of the equation, that’s a huge part that people tend to overlook because it seems so normal now but for me personally I know I was sitting still all day drinking 4-5 cups of coffee a day and just constantly checking my emails, so I was being sedentary interacting with human beings exclusively through a screen, so it’s a glorified aquarium, you are constantly looking at this piece of lit-up glass, that doesn’t resemble anything that happens in nature and I was indoors in temperature control rooms all day, just not moving, it’s horrible to do to your body, first of all but it inevitably leads to you just feeling awful. It’s not like I am the weird one who is doing this, it’s like everyone around me was doing it in Silicon Valley because everyone is programmer and I got to a point where I was taking brain pills these Nootropics which were–this was kind of the height of my workaholism, was I was taking these drugs, so I could stay awake for days and keep working.

Brett McKay: Was this Provigil?

Charlie Hoehn: Yeah.

Brett McKay: It’s very common, I hear amongst kind of like Silicon Valley folks they are taking Provigil to get that edge.

Charlie Hoehn: And the thing is the stakes are legitimate, out there, not in my particular case a few years ago, for these tech startups, some of them have hundreds or millions of dollars on the line and people complain about athletes taking steroids to get bulkier to they can get a few more home runs and land multi-million dollar contracts. There are little scrawny programmers running around effectively doing the same thing to their brain so that they can program faster and get more work done and it’s destroying their mental health and a lot of them don’t realize it because everyone around them is doing it, it’s quiet, you can’t even tell that they are doing it. Pretty crazy.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s funny you mentioned how a lot of this aquarium in front of a computer and a lot of us are in our email all day and what’s interesting you talk about we are very sedentary, but when you work and email you experience flight or fight reaction but you can’t do anything to release that, you just sit there and you are stressed out and what’s weird too, it’s sort of a disconnect but you are like, it’s just email, it’s like this mental –I am not being chased by Mastodon, why do I feel like this? And so you kind of get down on yourself, come on, get it together.

Charlie Hoehn: Right. Tough it out, like work through it. Yeah, it feels ridiculous to be hyper-stressed by digital information and work and stuff in the grand scheme of things means nothing compared to how you feel in your health but we take it all very very seriously.

Brett McKay: Yeah, maybe some insight into this. Some guys are listening to this and they kind of fancy themselves as high achievers, are there any signs or symptoms of pre burnout or burnout that they should be on the look out for and they have to be like, okay, I need to take a step back and reevaluate what I am doing here.

Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, for sure. The main one is the your inability to not to take your work seriously or I am probably getting my words confused there with a double negative but there is some great quote, I forget who said it but it’s just like, the signs of appending mental breakdown are a person’s inability to laugh at themselves or they take their work super super seriously, let me see, I had a checklist actually in the book like all the things that indicated that if you are on course for a breakdown that I legitimately wished someone had held the mirror up to me but at the same time I don’t know if I would have acknowledged it because it’s like I was so unhealthy in terms of my work routine but I was just like, at the same time I was getting congratulated because I was super productive and I was in all these cool different positions doing all this cool stuff. So here is the checklist?

Brett McKay: Okay.

Charlie Hoehn: Do you feel guilty or really anxious when you are not working, when you are taking time off and not doing anything, do you have to check your cell phone? Do you feel guilty when you are not working? Have you stopped playing with your friends? Like having guilt free play with your friends. Do all of your daily activities revolve around you building a more successful career? Everything you do during the day is it career oriented. Are you sleeping less than 8 hours per night, that’s a big one,. Are you consuming stimulants multiple times per day to hide your exhaustion? I was drinking a lot of coffee, lot of people do energy drinks and again it’s –if your body is freaking out within an hour or two every time you are taking these stimulants, it’s telling you you need to take something and slow down. So, a worthy experiment is just to go a week without those stimulants, just replace it with water and see how your body responds. If you are just constantly feeling strung out, just take away the stimulant. Are you sitting still and staring at screens for most of your waking hours? Do you interact with people primarily through screens? Are you indoors all day long depriving yourself for fresh air and sunlight and do you depend on alcohol and drugs to cope with social situations outside of work? So those are the big red flags of like, are you on the path to potential burnout?

Brett McKay: I am kind of in bad shape then.

Charlie Hoehn: A lot of people are. I think it’s like not an uncommon thing at all and that’s the thing, there are so few people who are just like, no, it’s a workaholic culture, it’s kind of crazy, we ought to stop and reassess because America is like one of the least happy countries on the planet.

Brett McKay: Yeah and what’s funny is it sort of creeps into your life and before you know it’s too late, you don’t see it and then you are like Oh! my gosh, okay, so you tired all these things like meditation and yoga, and you finally discovered that play was one of the keys, how did you discover that and what is it about play that’s so good for us even as adults, because we often think of play that’s what kids do.

Charlie Hoehn: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Tell us about play.

Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, I had that breakthrough when I just happened to stumble up on a book called Play by Stewart Brown. I was at my friend’s house and I just came across this book and I was like, that’s an interesting title and started reading it and I read it in one sitting and my reaction to the book was Oh! My God, I am such an idiot, like I felt awful for years and the answer is so obvious why and it’s because I am constantly preventing myself from playing, I am constantly mentally blocking myself from having guilt free fun. I remember being on–I was setup on a blind date, and I was setup with this really beautiful awesome girl and later on she told me – and I am – normally I am pretty relaxed and carefree guy who is like easy to laugh but at that stage of my life she told me when she met me, you were super intense and serious. I was like, man, that’s such a drag to hear.

I was always feeling guilty about having fun. I always felt guilty when I wasn’t working because at that time I was starting to make a lot more money, I had a few major successes under my belt and I felt like my work was really important. My career was really important and I quit my job of working for Tim Ferriss because a bunch of stuff external stuff outside of work just went awry and I had to quit because emotionally I couldn’t do it and I felt like I really just let everyone down, I was like, man, I not only burned a bridge, with my mentor and my hero, I potentially threw away everything I worked for and I needed to become a successful CEO or millionaire or somebody who changed the world in order for everyone to accept that I was okay again. And so in my head, I got to get back – I got to get back, like, I got to work my way through this and I was just never playing and the thing was when I started reincorporating play back into my life, the activities that I voluntarily turned to while I was growing up stuff like, playing catch and playing home run, and creating arts or building thing with my hands or making music, developing skills. Stuff that I did for fun, just for fun, no other outcome, everything changed because I started viewing my world instead of a prison which is how it felt when I was super anxious, I started viewing my world as a playground and everyone around me as potential playmates and every moment as an opportunity to have fun rather than I need to get back to work so I can make money and be successful. It became about how can I have fun and so my work actually changed back to what it was when I first started out which was it’s a game that I would willingly play. I was able to get into these great positions of working with Tim Ferriss and Tucker Max and Ramit Sethi because to me my career was just a game that I was setting up for myself, it was opportunities that I was creating for myself.

After I got out of college I spent a few months just applying to jobs that I didn’t want, at companies I didn’t want to work for because that’s what everyone else was doing and that’s what I thought you had to, I though you had to get a job you hated in order to pay the bills and it didn’t work. No one would even respond to me, everyone would ignore me, so I was just like, I am just going to work for people I like and propose cool projects that will be fun and if I get paid cool, if I don’t worst case scenario I have something interesting to talk about, I have something in my portfolio and a fun project, so I approached it as a game and I was able to do all this cool stuff that I actually wanted to do but when it switched over to being about money and success and feeling guilty for not doing enough and needing more and more and more, then everything got messed up.

Brett McKay: yeah.

Charlie Hoehn: So Play changed everything. It’s not only the physical act of getting out and running around and having fun it was just a way that I viewed the world. It was a way that I viewed my work and it changed my life and what I didn’t realize is when I was super anxious and just nervous like weird creepy energy to me that other people would detect and they would reflect it back to me. Have you ever seen like a person walking their dog and this guy will walk by them and the dog will be just like freak out, it’s because the person walking by had some sketchy weird energy that the dog detected. Humans do that but I think they do that on a subconscious, much more subtle level. What I realize is when I started playing, when I started viewing the world as a place where I could have fun again and every moment has an opportunity to have fun, I started playing with everybody, I started joking around with waitresses and cashiers, and my friends, we started pulling pranks on each other and just joking around and relaxing, and it changed my world because everyone around me started playing back with me and all of a sudden surrounded by people who were having fun again, it changed everything.

Brett McKay: As you were telling me that story about how you rediscovered Play, it reminds me that before I read your book, you know this stuff, you know that if you take things too serious and you just focus on money you are going to miserable.

Charlie Hoehn: Right.

Brett McKay: But like you forget it for some reason and it reminds me there has been books and movies about this same theme, right because this baseball player who got into baseball because he loved the game and he became just like crabby prima donna player who is just concerned about money like he sucks.

Charlie Hoehn: Did you read the New Yorker article “Why I quit major league Baseball?

Brett McKay: No, I haven’t read that.

Charlie Hoehn: Oh! it’s so good, you got to look it up, it’s about this exact thing, it’s like this guy who just loved the game growing up and he became great at it because he had so much fun doing it and he quit because it became about the business and it became about money and it just ruined the spirit of the game for him and I think the people who are like the most successful at what they do, at what I found, when I was doing research for the book, it was like the most successful and influential entrepreneurs and artists, all of them, almost of them view work in life as a game, they played for a living, and Mark Twain has this great quote about how like when we talk about the great workers of the world we are not talking about the great workers, we are talking about the great players of the world. I put together this slide show on the best quotes on why we should play for a living but yeah, it’s just like if you can retain that original spirit of why you got into the game in the first place and not be so focused on the money, that’s why Steve Jobs and Larry Page they took an annual story of a dollar a year, it was symbolic of why they were in the game in the first place, they weren’t there to sell out or get money they were there to do something that was their game.

Brett McKay: It awesome. I am sure there are guys who are listening to this, and they are like, this sounds great, I want to do this but I don’t have time to play. But it sounds like you incorporated play just sort of naturally and even to your work, what do you tell guys? What advice you have to offer to incorporate play into their life?

Charlie Hoehn: There are few things, so one is you should look at play as a productivity hack. You can make the same argument about how I don’t have enough time to get a full night sleep because I got to get back to work. Okay, do that a couple of weeks and see how well you are working. And it’s the same with play, if you take time off to have fun and to play and do stuff that you actually enjoy you are actually going to work better, you are going to have a more full and rich life and you are going to be more creative and you are going to be more passionate about what you are doing. You are going to bring more energy into your work and your work is going to improve and the CEO of Burton, the snowboarding company, he actually has in a contract. This is a guy who is 100 millionaire. He has in his contract that he has to be on the slopes 100 days of the year, he devotes a third of the year to playing because I can’t do my job unless I am having fun. This is consistent with what I found with other high achieving top performing entrepreneurs and artists is they play hard, they play really hard.

One of the stories I included in the book is about my friend, Erin. She was a graphic designer and she was working on a client’s website and my friend Ann and I called her up and we were like, hey, you want to hang out? She goes, no, I missed a deadline earlier today, I am working on a client’s website and it’s not coming together and I have at least six more hours of work in front of me, and we could just hear the stress and desperation in her voice and so we went up to her apartment and she was just a like a mess. She was super stressed and we looked at the site, it wasn’t coming together at all and she was like, yeah, I am just going to stay up all night until this is done. We were like, why don’t you take the night off and so we kidnapped her and we took her mini golfing, and initially she was really stressed on her ride over, she was like, Oh! my God, I can’t believe I am doing this, I am going to be in so much trouble blah blah blah and then by like the fourth hole she was relaxed and she was laughing and we had a great time and we joked around and messed around the whole time. She went back home when we dropped her off that night, she got a full night’s rest and the next morning she woke up and she texted us later that day and she was like, I got the client’s site done in an hour and a half and it was good and that the thing, we insist, we constantly push ourselves to keep going, keep going, get it done

Brett McKay: Grind it out.

Charlie Hoehn: Grind it out, work through it and you actually need time off because when you take that time off to relax your brain it’s the same effect as sleep, you are not thinking about this thing constantly, you are just having fun and you are relaxing and when you return to your laptop, when you return to your workstation you actually have a lightness and happiness and joy to you that you previously did not have, so it’s play I believe strongly is a productivity hack, it’s essential to doing great work.

Brett McKay: So you think of play as an investment that pays off huge dividends.

Charlie Hoehn: Yeah. Even though you are technically wasting time you are actually gaining time back.

Brett McKay: That’s awesome, besides play is there anything else that – I mean what else – you talked about other things that did work for you to help alleviate the anxiety. Is there anything that sticks out to you in particular?

Charlie Hoehn: It’s people who are really struggling with anxiety I would say the first thing they ought to consider is optimizing their bedroom for quality sleep. The key thing there, there are couple of things, one is set a time to go to bed at the same time every night. You have to get into routine if you want to eliminate your anxiety. Every anxious person I have met has either been in denial about how little sleep they are getting or they are going to bed at random hours and part of the reason for that is what we were talking about earlier is like looking at screens past 9 p.m. wakes you back up. So, if you can make the commitment to not look at your screen an hour before you get in bed and just be done with it. Like plug your cell phone charger in a different room in your bed, so you can’t even be tempted to go look at it, that’s super important and make your room as dark as possible, get it around 68 degrees, cover up every light source including alarm clocks and smoke detector lights, like everything, make it as dark as possible, make sleep a huge priority because that will dramatically reduce your anxiety along with play. Obviously, play and sleep I think are the two biggest areas that people should focus on if they really want to reduce their anxiety.

Another thing that I would do during the day is I would take a 20- minute nap after lunch, I would just lay on the back often on the floor and I would close my eyes and set an alarm in my phone for 20 minutes, right after lunch and just focus on breathing just breathe, in and out, in and out, I wouldn’t try and fall asleep but I often would I always wake up feeling so much better. Naps are amazing, kids take them. Other cultures take it, and naps are proven to reduce your risk of heart disease and all these other things. Naps are great for reducing anxiety. There are number of other things I think a lot of anxious people don’t realize, there are certain nutrients in their body that get rapidly depleted when they are constantly stressed for a long period of time because for whatever reason, the brain consumes those resources much faster if you are hyper stressed all the time and something I found that really helped me a lot within a week or two was when I started supplementing with 2-4 servings of omega-3 fatty acids, so cod liver oil, and I found that I was also deficient in vitamin B12. So those are areas that anxious people are commonly deficient in is I think it’s like methylcobalamin which is vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids and two others are potassium and magnesium, which can be – all these things can be obtained through food but for vitamin B12 and vitamin B in general your gut might not be properly absorbing those things even vitamin B is in animal products, so meat, eggs and you might not be absorbing that, so if that’s the case it helps to eat a few spoonfuls of sour curd, so you can get healthy bacteria back into your gut to help properly absorb that stuff.

So, I think those are just a couple of quick areas that people can – if you start taking omega-3 which isn’t going to hurt you, I am not a healthcare professional by the way, so don’t hold be accountable, this is just based on a ton of research I have done on this stuff and also from personal experience and reading about personal experiences of others, if you start supplementing with omega-3 every day for a month it can really dramatically reduce – that and vitamin B can really calm your brain down,. There is a bunch of other stuff that I talked about in my book that helps but the two key areas I would say that anybody can focus on more are play, like actually having guilt free fun with your friends while moving around outdoors. Rather than viewing exercise as some evil chore like topping on a treadmill and being miserable for half a hour, you can just run around outside, play Frisbee with your friends, same thing except you are having fun and social and improving your sleep, so going to bed at same time, don’t look at screens late at night and take 20 minute naps.

Brett McKay: Awesome, get more of what America’s deprived of, sleep and play.

Charlie Hoehn: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Well, Charlie, this has been a great conversation of your book, definitely inspired me, so I am going to encourage my listeners and check it out, it’s an awesome read. So thank you so much for your time.

Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, thank you.

Brett McKay: Our guest today was Charlie Hoehn, he is the author of Play It Away: A Workaholics Cure for Anxiety and you can find that on amazon.com and be sure to visit his website at charliehoehn.com. Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com and if you don’t know already, we have published a new book, it’s called Heading Out on Your Own: 31 Life Skills in 31 Days. It’s a book that’s geared toward young men who are about to leave the nest and head out on their own and we cover just skills they are going to need to know to be well adjusted functioning adults like how to get a job, how to ace an interview, how to make a budget, how to iron and take care of your clothes, it’s a very comprehensive in depth book. You can find that on amazon.com, so check it out today, Heading Out on Your Own. And, until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.