“We moved. We quit as part of the Great Resignation. We broke up, came out, got married, ended friendships, and had babies….Even after making these big changes…we still weren’t happy.”
This line from Refinery29’s recent article “We Changed Our Cities, Our Relationships, Our Jobs, Our Lives. It Wasn’t Enough” grapples with our expectations versus the reality of dealing with burnout. Because burnout is a big problem, we think it requires a big solution. We need to leave that job, move to another state and drastically change our lives if we want to rid ourselves of feeling burnout.
While burnout can and often be a product of our environment, it’s also a part of how we’re feeling. And even if we change what’s around us, we’re not necessarily changing ourselves; when we change the big things, sometimes our small, everyday habits stay the same.
Yet the small habits are key to how we can try to fight burnout on a daily basis.
“Rest” doesn’t always equate to going on a long vacation. Rather, rest is something you need to do every day to help you stay productive and counter burnout,” write Ben Laker, Vijay Pereira, Ashish Malik, and Marcello Mariani in a Harvard Business Review article titled “What First-Time Managers Can Do to Address Burnout.” “Intentionally build moments into your routine to replenish your energy, zone out, and experience calm. Think of these gaps as “recovery time” — blank spaces in your schedule that will allow you to re-enter work feeling fresh and motivated.”
So how can you build these “moments” into your life in small ways, without making big dramatic changes, and still get the restful effects?
1. Take actual breaks.
I’m guilty of finishing a work task and going straight to my phone. While I’m on there, I think I’m getting a break — but really, I’m often going into personal overdrive. I catch up on texts I’ve missed, news alerts and articles and my social media feeds. When my break is up and I get back to work, I don’t actually feel rested. That’s because I’m not taking an actual, relaxing break.
The best breaks are ones where you can take a few minutes to compose yourself and just be. That might be taking a short walk; it can even be going to get a glass of whatever or a coffee. Your breaks need to be something that serve you, not keep your mind in overdrive. They don’t need to be long, either – even a few, actually quiet and mindful minutes can be more restful than a 20-minute phone break.
2. Start setting small boundaries with yourself.
Boundaries are hard to set, especially if you’ve been used to letting them go when it comes to work. It’s unrealistic to say you’ll start logging off at 5 p.m. when you’re always used to working until 8 p.m. So start small and keep it realistic. Can you stop answering emails after 5 p.m., even if you’re still online? Can you start a new end-of-day ritual, where you know you have to stop working when it’s time to call a friend or family member? Can you start blocking 10-minute breaks in your calendar, or even a 30-minute lunch?
We often overlook small boundaries and avoid setting them because we feel they’re not worth it. Every moment and minute is valuable. If you can give yourself some time back, even a few minutes, set the boundary.
3. Divide your work into zones.
Maybe this one comes from the fact that I’ve been watching The Home Edit, a home organization show that advises people to use “zones” to categorize objects in their homes and contain them within specific spaces. For example, if you're working from home, you’d want a “work zone” — a space of your house where all of your working equipment and supplies live.
The same applies to the work we do. We spend an estimated 50% of our day on work coordination, according to a recent study by Asana. This means we spent half of our time following up, communicating with our team on updates and searching for information. If we can “zone” our time — meaning we block off periods for specific types of tasks and work — we can minimize the time we spend switching from task to task or breaking our focus to answer messages. This doesn’t mean you need to go off the grid for hours to get work done. It may be starting with something like the Pomodoro method, where you take 25 minutes at a time to focus on one specific task, then take a short break.
4. Check in with yourself and your team.
Burnout affects your emotions. It can make you irritable, angry or even depressed at work. That’s why it’s important to have regular check-ins with yourself and your team, ones where you can be honest about how you’re feeling. It’s not about toxic positivity and trying to focus on the good; instead, it’s about acknowledging the bad or negative emotions you’re feeling.
It can be taboo to talk about what we’re actually feeling at work, and some people might not be comfortable sharing what they’re authentically feeling. That’s okay. Set an example by asking open-ended questions like, “What disappointed you at work this week?” but also — per Laker, Pereira, Malik, and Mariani’s suggestion, ask positive-oriented ones, like, “What made you feel inspired this week?”
Take time — even if it’s a minute in the middle of the workday — to reflect or write down how you’re feeling, too. Even if you’re not taking action on that feeling, acknowledging it can help you stop building up and repressing the negative feelings you’re experiencing at work.
The thought of building new habits — even small ones — can be stressful and anxiety-inducing. But the goal here is to create small moments of rest, ones that give you respite when everything else feels big and scary. And hopefully, over time, those small moments add up and give you the breaks you really need to not just be productive — but to live a whole, burnout-free life.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.