It seems like everywhere I turn, people are feeling burned out by work. Maybe it’s the long, vacation-less stretch that comes between summer and Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s the pre-end-of-year pressures. Maybe it’s just the ever-increasing demands on the American worker. (And yes, maybe it’s the crazy pace that goes with working at a startup like Fairygodboss.)
Burnout is a terrible drain, and I feel very concerned for anyone experiencing it. It can completely erode your passion for work, and also for enjoying life outside of work. It can reduce your productivity and success. And, in famous examples, it can lead to catastrophic mistakes. I always remember the lesson of Erin Callan, who was CFO of Lehman Brothers. Callan worked so incredibly hard that she was unable to detect or anticipate the impending implosion of her firm.
If you’re feeling burned out, the most critical thing you need to do is be proactive of taking care of you. No one else is going to do it for you, and (trust me, as of a mom of two) you are no good to anyone if you are not functioning well. It’s like the oxygen masks on the plane: the crew instructs adults to put on their masks before helping their children because it does no one any good if all the adults are passed out.
If you’re experiencing or exhibiting even the earliest signs of burnout, the No. 1 priority on your to-do list should be to address it. Here are a few ways to cope: :
1. Read “Essentialism.”
A very wise colleague recently recommended this book to me. The concept of “Essentialism” is that we can all benefit from doing a lot less. By trying to do way too much, we are overextending ourselves and, as a result, doing a poor job. Greg McKeown, who wrote “Essentialism,” advises all readers to say NO more often and to push back so that we can make room to do things well. He also suggests prioritizing taking breaks, taking walks, and meditating; when we allow ourselves time to step away from our work, we are actually improving our ability to perform.
I recently heard a speaker talk about how back when we were a manufacturing economy, working more hours meant more productivity. But now that our economy is based on knowledge and ideas, that relationship no longer holds. Working harder does not mean you will have better ideas; often, it actually means your ideas will be less effective or creative.
2. Download some music that you love, and go take a walk.
Fun fact I recently learned: the music we listened to in our late teens is the music that resonates with us most deeply for our entire lives. Since I’m 43 now, I’ve recently been revisiting albums from my high school and college days and just loving it. (See: Dave Matthews, Counting Crows, and Indigo Girls.)
I’ve thrown this music on my iPhone and gone for long walks, and it carries me far, far away. What music will you choose?
3. Take a personal day that is really personal.
Fifty-two percent of American workers don’t take all their vacation days. I myself have been guilty of it — I’ve personally used less than half of my days in the past. But those vacation days are for you!
So consider this idea: Take a personal day, and instead of using it for doctors appointments or apartment maintenance, go to a museum. Go see a movie by yourself. Go get a massage. Treat the day as a gift to yourself. A couple I know even occasionally meets up for midday weekday dates and goes to the movies or to a Broadway matinee.
I know what you’re thinking: What if my boss finds out?!?!?! Tell them! You are absolutely entitled to your vacation days, and it is a shame that there tends to be a stigma against taking time for yourself.
4. Indulge a guilty pleasure.
This weekend, I accidentally discovered “Nine Perfect Strangers,” the new book by Liane Moriarty, and I cannot put it down! Sometimes, there is nothing more indulgent than lying on the couch and enjoying a delicious page turner.
5. Take a nap.
Back in the day, I used to think sleep was for the weak. I used to think that to be a star performer, you should sleep no more than six hours a night. But now, I think shuteye is the nectar of the gods. And one of my favorite ways of indulging these days is by taking a weekend nap. In fact, every weekend I block out two hours in the afternoon, plop my kids in front of a movie, and quietly escape to the bedroom to get some rest. Catching up on sleep I’ve missed from the previous week helps me to feel rejuvenated.
I have a chronic inability to sit still. And yet, I am a huge proponent of meditation. Our culture has evolved to the point where we are always doing something. Recently, I ended up in a doctor’s waiting room for over an hour without any wifi, and I was going crazy. But cultivating our ability to do nothing is the best medicine for this chronic overstimulation. Meditation is just that. There are great apps like Headspace to help guide you through. You can start slow — meditating for just 10 minutes! — and build a practice from there.
7. Plan a vacation!
Going on vacation is FABULOUS. But you know what is even better? Anticipating a vacation. When you’ve got a great vacation coming, you can enjoy looking forward to it for months. When you’re feeling burned out, knowing your vacation is on the books can give you fuel. And it’s also really fun to spend time exploring and researching to plan the vacation. So set a date, and get to work fantasizing and planning.
Of course, everyone is different — and so are the demands of everyone’s job — so these strategies may not be exactly the ones that are right for you. But hopefully, they are some good thought starters. And please remember: Your No. 1 job in the world is not the one where you get your paycheck. It’s taking care of you — so make sure you are prioritizing accordingly.