Let’s be honest — it happens to the best of us. Whilst most of us are quick to dismiss burnout as a clinical-grade condition, the truth is we are all constantly flirting with it, walking that fine line between feeling totally knackered and feeling alive.
What often starts innocently as ‘just a couple of hours’ longer one evening, can quickly snowball into an all-encompassing ‘all-for-work’ lifestyle, leaving you totally depleted, emotionally drained and mentally exhausted. One thing I’ve noticed is that whenever it happens, it never feels like I’ve been pushing that hard, until one day I rise up from an awful night’s sleep, catch myself feeling deeply on edge, or life suddenly looses meaning somewhat.
So how do we get there?
The simple math behind burnout
Your inner battery levels are a function of the effort you exert and the energy you acquire, energy encompassing the physical, mental and emotional realms, but really simply it’s energy going out versus energy going in.
The reason you’re exhausted is simple: your energy expenditure > energy acquisition. Yes, we’ve all got that fuel reserve we can temporarily tap into when the time calls for it, but if you never stop to replenish, this becomes a steep downward-sloping curve with a limit of zero. As you trend towards this natural limit, your body will start sending you signals — first come the fatigue, irritability and mood swings, next enter brain fog and inability to focus, and finally the largely uninspiring feeling of detachment and an overall loss of interest in pretty much everything.
So you’ve burnt yourself out a little… What now?
Because I’ve danced this dance a few times now — one fiery Tango back in 2015 and a handful of short-lived Cha Chas since then — I’m quick to know when my cue to stop is and I’ve got my fighting gear at the ready. Clearly, burnout is a complex matter and each case is deeply individual, however I have found these three simple steps go a long way in calling time on that dreaded feeling of burnout.
It all begins with acknowledgement. There is a reason you’re feeling this way and, contrary to what your frustration might have you believe, this isn’t your body letting you down, or the Universe playing pranks on you; this is your body hitting the emergency brakes. This self-awareness is key, because you can’t solve a problem you don’t think, or know, you have. If you’re having a hard time tuning in, here’s a few questions to consider: Do you feel exhausted, more often than not? Are you easily irritable? Do you find it difficult to concentrate and stay consistently productive? Are you relying on food, alcohol, or drugs, as a means of dealing with stress? Do you even know how to relax anymore? The truth may be difficult to hear, but it’s worth having that conversation with yourself today.
Next in line — take the pressure off. Rest, recover and — most of all — sleep. Do it like your life depends on it. Few things are as fundamental to our existence, good health and performance as rest and recovery, and yet we’re so quick to brush those off as life’s greatest boredoms and something for tomorrow’s to-do list. The notion of sleep debt is real and according to Dr Matthew Walker, British neuroscientist and sleep scientist, it’s one we can never repay; the compound rate is just too high. So don’t wait for tomorrow, or the weekend; take the pressure off whichever way you can right now and catch an early night tonight. (If you’re interested in reading more about Walker’s research on sleep, his book “Why we sleep: The new science of sleep and dreams” is a good place to start.)
Lastly, find time to be still, daily. This might sound airy fairy to some — sadly I used to think that too — but this stuff really does work. Finding just ten minutes a day to slow the heck down and disconnect from the whirlwind of life goes a long way in calming your nervous system down and giving your head that much needed space. Ten minutes is all you need, but — frankly — start with two; meditate, stretch, or just sit there and breathe — whatever resonates, stick with it; before you know it you’ll be consciously craving it.
It’s a balancing act
My wish for the world is that we didn’t have to deal with the hard reality of burnout and that we didn’t have to push against our bodies’ will. There’s no question that this is, and will continue to be, a tough balancing act, requiring us to learn to tame the over-achiever within us, whilst at the same time learning to use it to our advantage.
At the very least, I hope we can learn to walk that fine line with more awareness and do the right thing when the time comes.