When I hear the word “burnout” I’m immediately taken back to a moment in a cab, nine years ago. The taxi driver has turned around, and he repeats his question: “Ma´am, where are we going?” My mind is blank. What hotel am I staying at? Am I leaving work, or am I going to work? What city am I in? For a few seconds, I completely black out. I realize: this is not normal. I was young, in my first job post-graduation, and I wanted to prove myself – a bit too much. That was my wake-up call – I had to make changes to prevent myself from slipping into burnout.
Below is a list of small changes and tips I’ve found helpful. Even if you’re not feeling exhausted or overwhelmed at the moment, I urge you: choose one, and try to make it part of your life (pro tip: use the WOOP framework to help you).
1. Find your “keystone habit”
We can often see things more clearly in retrospect. Understanding how you have reacted to stress in the past can help you craft better tools for the future. Think about a time in your life when you were under significant stress. Visualize it: what did it feel like? What did you do? (try our simple stress reflection survey to help)
The positive activities you engaged in under stress, those are your “keystone habits” – activities that help you over tough times. Hold on to them. For me it’s getting my 8000 steps, having dinner with the family, and going Netflix-free to secure my sleep. If you find yourself answering you have no stress coping mechanisms at all – don’t worry, that’s common. What you do in the future is what counts.
2. Know your warning signs
Keep an eye out for the burnout warning signs:
- Exhaustion: Do you constantly feel drained at the end of the day? Is it difficult not only to drag yourself to work, but also drag yourself home?
- Cynicism: Do you find yourself saying “no” to ideas you’d normally welcome? Are you more easily irritated, negative, critical?
- Inefficacy: Are you doubting your own skills in situations you usually feel confident? Do you feel a lack of achievement or self-doubt atypical to you?
We all react differently to stress. Many of us have a personal “stress tell” – a physical sign that warns us our stress is running high. For me it’s going to bed at night and noticing my heart racing. For someone else it may be an upset stomach, headache, or shortness of breath. Knowing your stress tell makes it much easier to prevent burnout in time.
3. Slow down one activity every day
“Busy” is the word we often use to describe our life. Meetings, to do’s, events, chores – it all fills up the day and time passes quickly. It’s like being on a busy freeway, moving so fast you barely notice your surroundings. Once in a while it’s good to slow down, exit the freeway, and take a slower side road to admire the view.
Try this: Do one “slow activity” every day. For example: slow down your lunch and eat in peace, take a walk through a green area – no phone, or read a favorite book for 15 minutes every night. Make slow living a small part of your everyday.
4. Phone-free bedroom
One of my big sleep thieves used to be reading email in bed. I feel slightly embarrassed to admit it, but I’m far from alone: 73% of the workforce feel they’re expected to be always-on and 90% use their phone in the bathroom(!). Connectedness has its benefits, but it’s also adding to our stress.
Try this: For a week, make your bedroom a phone-free zone. Leave the phone outside to charge, and have it there waiting for you after a night well rested. It’ll feel uncomfortable for a few days, but I promise – after a week you won’t miss it.
5. Define success outside work
Small kids may be a hassle and a source of stress. But I’d argue that my kids have saved me from burnout. When I became pregnant, my sense of self changed. I was no longer just a professional, an overachiever, an entrepreneur. I was also a mother. That meant that I could be successful in life, without having to always be successful at work. That made me drop my fear of failure, and focus on what really matters.
Hintsa’s method differs from many others in its focus on “core”: who you are and what you value. This is a big topic to unbundle in a short text, but here’s a simple way to approach it. Define one thing that’s important to you outside work – be it family, a pet, a hobby – and then think of one thing that allows you to feel successful in that area. It can be as easy as a monthly date night, family dinners, or a weekly jog with a friend.
6. What gives you energy?
Quiet house. A cup of tea (or if it’s Friday: a glass of wine). A 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle. It may not be the coolest of hobbies, but that’s my ideal evening. What gives you energy? What helps you relax and unwind? Don’t copy someone else’s tip – be honest about what gives you energy. My husband is an extrovert (you guessed it: I’m not) and his ideal evening looks very different. It’s not always easy to navigate, but when you’re honest about what you need you’ll also have more energy to accommodate the needs of the people around you.
7. Use the power of ‘No’
Our world is full of demands on our time: work, family, friends, hobbies. There are always more things we can or should do. Even this blog post is filled with tips you “ought to do”.
So here’s a tip I’ve taken to heart: Learn to say no – that means you can say yes to what really matters. Try it now: say no to 6 out of 7 tips on this list, and yes to just one. Or create your own: your list of actions may look very different from mine. Then be razor-focused on fitting that one change into your life. The one step you take is much more impactful than the ten steps you only dream of taking.
There’s no silver bullet to prevent burnout, no one-size-fits-all to reduce stress. We all need to find our own ways to navigate work and life. But a few things hold true for all. One, if you are experiencing any of the burnout warning signs – reach out and seek help. You won’t regret it. And two, when you’re making changes, be patient. Keep the changes small, and do them consistently. It will pay off in the end, and you’ll be glad you stuck with it.