Whether it’s side hustle culture, a high pressure job that makes it difficult for you to boundaries or the pressure to perform for other people on social media, you may feel you’re at risk of burnout.
It doesn’t help that burnout as a lifestyle is romanticised by entrepreneurial Instagram memes, co-working spaces and the obsession with optimising every single part of our lives from beauty to wellness.
Instead, your leisure may also not feel very much like leisure, and your social life may not feel very social. Moments that used to be spent staring into space can be spent on apocalyptic newsfeeds. Maintaining friendships on social media may feel like a second job as you tag, curate, like, without the benefits of face-to-face conversation.
The joy that comes from binge-watching television can become a nightmare if it eats into your sleep, and leaves you feeling like a zombie the day after.
You may ask yourself: what isn’t exhausting?
No wonder this article on Millennial Burnout by Anne Helen Peterson struck a painful chord with many of my peers. But burnout is serious and it’s a word that’s come up so many times this year in conversations with friends.
Signs of burnout
- You may find that you are experiencing physical symptoms, such as falling ill more than usual, or experiencing pain, like stomach aches or cramps
- You may find yourself exhausted, feeling as if you have no spare time, and dreading your schedule for the day before you’ve even got out of bed
- You may find you’re more irritable and anxious, and that you have obsessive thoughts about toxic people and situations
- You may find that the time you spend with your loved ones unsatisfying, because you’re too exhausted or irritable to enjoy it
- You may feel exhausted or overwhelmed by seemingly small tasks like paying bills, sending emails or grocery shopping
If your body is telling you to slow down, pause, be compassionate to yourself.
Keep calm and don’t carry on.
So much of our lives, online and offline, are geared towards productivity and showing that we’re busy in a 24/7 culture. It’s also important for you to familiarise yourself with how feeling close to burnout feels like for you. So what can you do to protect yourself?
Review your current situation and life priorities
Sometimes the best decisions you can make are the hardest, and that can sometimes come down to making different choices, such as changing job, taking time out for yourself or saying no to people that drain your energy. Look at what is happening in your current situation that is causing you to feel burned out:
- Are you saying yes to too many social events?
- Are you in a toxic work environment with a disproportionate workload?
- Are you juggling too many projects such as a full-time job, a side hustle, creative hobbies and a busy social life?
So go back to basics:
- Of the things that you do in your life, what do you find most engaging and meaningful?
- If you were to look back over the past few years, what made you feel like you were growing?
- Who are the people in your life that nurture you? And who in your life drains you?
It’s better to answer these questions based off actual experience, rather than assumptions.
Make changes based on your priorities to avoid work burnout
If it’s a toxic workplace that’s draining your energy, explore what options are available to you:
- Can you work fewer days?
- Can you work from home one day a week?
- Can you share the workload, or communicate the need for extra resource?
- If the situation is not salvageable, how much do you need to save before you can feel you can quit (e.g. save six months of your monthly salary)?
- Can you update your CV and start applying for new jobs?
Also be honest about how much you can change yourself and how much this is down to your circumstances, such a long exhausting commutes. Knowing what to cut out of your life is more important than knowing what to add to it.
Find ways of doing less. Clear out your week of all but essential activities for a week.
If you have packed weekends and weeknights, cancel your plans and spend the time doing something nice for yourself like having a bath, going for a walk in nature or just lying in bed.
Do not work beyond your contracted hours, no matter how tempting, and always take a lunch break.
Resist putting off ‘rest’ only when you are on holiday. Rest is not a ‘luxury’, like flying to the other side of world on an expensive retreat. It should be part of your daily routine.
Better yet, find time to do nothing.
Stare into space.
Give up the false belief that being productive will make you happy
Does a dog set itself targets for how many times it should catch a ball and return to it to its owner?
Does it then spend the rest of the day beating itself up, howling: “OH! If only I spent 5 more hours catching the ball I would be a much better dog!”
No. It moves onto the next thing, takes a nap or snuggles up to a loved one.
We can learn a lot from dogs (or cats if you prefer).
It’s okay to just be. Savouring an experience (standing outside of an experience to appreciate it) and practicing gratitude are scientifically proven to improve your well-being.
But gratitude and savouring do not include sitting in front of a laptop for more hours working or cultivating a brand on social media.
Do things because you find them engaging and rewarding.
Do things because you find them challenging and you enjoy the feeling of learning or growing.
But don’t do things because they are more productive.
This takes a really long time to un-learn, and it is much harder to do than you think. A “productive” day isn’t necessarily a good day. An “unproductive” day isn’t necessarily a bad one. Spending a day following your curiosity, getting diverted, relaxing, socialising, having conversations can all be valuable.
Tune out from panicky digital noise
You may find that whenever you take a break, your default is to do something online that makes you less calm, such as scrolling through Twitter or Instagram.
While you can dismiss this as ‘mindless scrolling’, you are exposing yourself to a lot of imagery and words very quickly. It is difficult for your brain to switch between different tasks, so you may find yourself more drained and exhausted.
Because algorithms are designed to be engaging as possible, that means that whatever captures your attention will spark strong emotion: whether it is positive or negative.
So you may find that you feel more flustered, when what you’re actually seeking is to feel more calm.
So tune out from noisy digital spaces and find ones that sustain your attention. Better yet, spend more time staring into space and daydreaming.
Wellness can often feel like this hugely individualised thing, where you have to go it alone and rely on your willpower. But:
- Speak to your GP
- Look at therapy
- Confide in loved ones
You don’t have to deal with this alone.
Look after your health
Make time for your health and nourishing your body with what it needs to flourish:
- Exercise 75 minutes a week
- Eat 5 portions of fruit and veg a day
- Get 8 hours of sleep a night
As well as the impact on your mood, you may find that you have more energy.
You may be screaming: but I don’t have time.
I wish I could tell you there is an easy way of doing this, but some things can’t be optimised or made more efficient with a pill or a 5 minute hack. Maintaining your health requires intentional choices, repeated actions and time.
It also involves resisting what culture says you should be wanting or doing: working harder, drinking expensive cocktails, buying more stuff, binge-watching, having a ‘perfect’ body, fetishising health as an ‘identity’ etc.
When you tune out that bullshit, the good news is that there are many ways that you can cover your health basics. Here are some examples:
- If you have time to prepare your meals, learn a handful of recipes and batch cook them
- If you buy most of your lunches out, make choices that are rich in fruit and veg instead of feeling guilty over treating yourself to a chocolate bar
- If you love socialising, go to the gym with a friend or go to classes together to keep you accountable
- You can also do lots of free things like running in a public park or doing free exercise videos online
- If you struggle to sleep, start your wind down routine an hour before bed
I know that this can feel overwhelming already. But try not to see this as (in that most infantilising term for Millennials) ‘adulting’. See it as caring for yourself. It is not ‘saintly’ to eat a piece of broccoli, it is a physical pleasure.
Looking after your health by exercising, eating well and sleeping also isn’t a ‘lifestyle’. It’s a basic human need.
Schedule nice things in your life
Make time for nice things in your life, whatever that looks like for you:
- Have a bath
- Go on a walk
- Do yoga
- Listen to music
- Get a massage
Set digital boundaries
The biggest betrayal of digital devices is that they’ve made it easier than ever for you to lose time, instead of saving it.
Boundaries that used to exist between work/play have dissolved, and the onus is now on the individual to put them in place. That’s a huge burden, especially as many of our most used tools have been deliberately designed to be habit-forming. So here are a few tips:
- Turn off all work-related notifications over the weekend and weekdays.
- Do not have Slack or work email on your phone as standard
- Curate your social media feed so it’s less about competing with others and more about what nurtures you
- Only tolerate apps on your device that you find useful, nurturing or spark joy
Decluttering your digital devices can bring you more peace of mind as decluttering your wardrobe or home
Be brave enough to pause
In our always-on culture, not doing can be much more difficult than always doing something.
Resisting burnout culture isn’t just about treating yourself to scented candles and meditation retreats, it’s about un-learning toxic ideals that have been drilled into you from a young age.
It is about interrogating what you think will make you happy and prioritising your values and health.
It is also about action and listening more to your body that the little voice in your head that says: ‘Work harder! Work faster!’
If you are at risk of experiencing work burnout, get to know your symptoms and be brave enough to pause. And whenever in doubt, do nothing.