It’s crunch time at work. You’ve been working nonstop on a big project that’s so far from finished that you feel overwhelmed. Everyone is expected to burn the midnight oil until the project is completed, and you’ve risen to the occasion, deferring sleep, regular meals, and any remnants of self-care to the sidelines. Your main source of nutrition is coffee, 5-hour energy shots, and whatever packaged junk is available for purchase at the vending machine. You haven’t slept more than three hours at a time in weeks, and your eyes have developed a beautiful trifecta of bloodshot whites, dark circles, and puffy bags under the eyes. On top of it all, your emotional fuse is not only short, it’s nonexistent—it doesn’t take much to get you to explode into either rage or tears, and sometimes both all at once.
Sound familiar? If so, you are most likely suffering from burnout. While burnout is not a medically diagnosable condition, most professionals concur that living with chronic burnout or stress has both short and long term negative consequences, from weight gain and forgetfulness to a higher risk of heart disease, car accidents, or substance abuse.
In the world we live in, it’s not hard to reach burnout. Everything happens faster, at a higher level, with more expectations fueling the speed and magnitude of the output. It’s not enough to meet your goals at work, you’ve got to exceed them (by more than a little) if you want to get that raise or promotion. Due to technology and smart phones, you’re never far from email—and someone is expecting a reply, pronto. You’re not just on the hook for getting your son to football practice each day, you’ve got to participate in the parent’s booster club pre-game tailgate parties, the post-game pizza parties, the all-team game-tape-watching Saturday breakfast, the parent-player team-building golf tournament…
On top of it all, we’ve become a culture that glorifies busy-ness. There’s a whole myth out there about playing big or going home, having it all, multi-tasking as a pathway to productivity, and general all-around over-the-top-ness that we are surrounded by, and it’s hard to succumb to the pace along with everybody else.
Sometimes, it’s not possible to offload the obligations that are on your plate. It’s true that your kids still need to be raised, you need your current job in order to provide adequately for your family, and your elderly mom continues to need your support. But it is possible to make little tweaks that can help you stay sane, healthy, and help you step away from the brink of burnout. Here’s how:
1. Learn to say no. Even if it means that some things will slip through the cracks for now. When my guy was going through a particularly stressful period at work, he explained it to me this way: “It’s like I have about twenty balls in the air right now, and the main choice I have is to decide which six of them I want to catch”. Look at all of your tasks, obligations, and responsibilities. Are there some that you’re willing to drop for the time being? Let them go—you can always pick them up again later. It’s okay to back out of a commitment from time to time. The world won’t end, and if it’s really that important, someone else will pick up the ball and run with it.
2. Make sleep a non-negotiable priority. While it’s normal to have times when you get so busy you just can’t seem to get to bed on time, when it becomes a long-term habit it’s likely that you’re actually making choices that prevent you from getting as much sleep as you could. I have a friend who went through a long period of stress and burnout with two ailing parents who both needed care. She was exhausted, sleep-deprived, and complained of not being able to get to sleep before 3 or 4 in the morning. As it turns out, however, part of the problem was that she would play games on her iPad as a way of tuning out and “relaxing”, which then served to keep her hooked and awake way past her bedtime.
Getting enough sleep is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. It helps regulate your metabolism, improves your brain function, reduces stress, and keeps your immune system functioning, among other things. Plus, it’s one of the most effective ways to refill your energetic gas tank that there is. Commit to yourself that you will get at least eight hours of sleep a night, and be vigilant about it.
3. Think small. Whether it’s exercise, nutrition, or self-care, the last thing you need to do when you’re feeling burned out is to add MORE onto your plate. Instead, think about small micro-changes you can make that are easy and sustainable. If the thought of cooking a healthy meal is overwhelming, try instead to eat one piece of fresh fruit with a meal. If you don’t have time for your regular aerobics class, you could simply get outside and walk to the end of the street and back. The point is to make it easy for yourself to give yourself what you need, and to ease up on your own expectations of yourself. When you’re burned out, even a small dose of self-care goes a long way.
4. Ask for help. If you’re like many people, you have a belief that all the tasks on your to-do list must be done by you. Spoiler alert: they don’t. Your kids can be taught to do their own laundry, make their own lunches, and contribute to the household chores. Groceries can be ordered online and delivered. A neighbor mom can pick up your son from practice. Look for places where you can ask for help—and then let go, and let others help you.
5. Learn one or two simple mindfulness techniques. Mindfulness does not have to mean spending an hour on the cushion meditating. During a busy, stressful day, even something as simple as pausing for thirty seconds to take several full, deep, long inhales and exhales can be restorative, and slow down the spinning mind monkeys or racing thoughts. Again, think small—a little pause in the shower to really feel the water pouring over you, a brief stop on your way to the mailbox to smell the freshly cut grass—these small moments of tuning in fully to the present moment can have great power to keep you centered.
Burnout can be an inevitable part of life, but it doesn’t have to overwhelm you. These simple strategies aren’t difficult to implement, and they do work. Say no more often. Get some sleep. Think small. Ask for help. And practice mini-moments of mindfulness. You’ll find yourself better able to deal with life’s chaos, and have the reserves to do it with less stress and more resilience.
Kristy Swanson is Chief Catalyst and Velvet Hammer over at Kristy Swanson Coaching, where she specializes in helping solopreneurs, career women, and aspiring leaders to lead themselves, their careers, and their lives with courage and authenticity. You can find her on Facebook and on Twitter, and if you’re in Seattle you can find her lurking around great coffee shops.