I’ve been pushing myself pretty hard lately. I’m ambitious, it comes with the territory. But I’m also pretty self-aware. I know I have limits.
Which has really led me to wonder about what exactly those limits are and what burnout might look like if it began to show.
Then came something pretty ironic. I sat down to work on this article the first time and slammed straight into a wall. I tried every angle and nothing worked.
Hello burnout? Or just an early warning sign that I needed to be more aware of those limits.
Early warning signs of burnout
Psychology Today describes burnout as:
Professionals who are burned out report problems with being attentive, and your level of burnout is significantly related to the number of cognitive failures (e.g., saying things you might regret; forgetting names; or missing important cues in your environment, like a stop sign while driving) you may have in a day.
And they list some of the following as warning signs for burnout:
- Chronic low energy and exhaustion
- Getting sick more frequently
- Not recharging or relaxing
- Cynicism is the norm
- Can’t let go of perfection
- (Be sure to check the article out for the whole list, but these are some of the highlights that stood out to me)
Pay attention to your mind and body, especially if you notice any of these warning signs showing up. You can catch burnout early, and make choices that will altogether change your course. Maybe even avoiding burnout in its entirety.
Be selectively productive
Turns out one burnout fix is pretty simple to follow. Take a danged break:
Taking time away from your art, or other creative obligations, might seem irresponsible. But in the long run, allowing yourself some breathing room can help avoid burnout, and ultimately make you more productive. (Scott Indrisek)
I just recently started working time and days off into my schedule proactively.
That’s the real danger when you love to write and mix that with a hyper ambitious attitude. You can easily forget to take time off.
I know, that sounds absurd, right? But writing is fun for me, and because it is, I don’t always stop to appreciate that it is still work (even on the best of days) and my body and mind needs time to rest and recover.
Thankfully though I started doing something recently that might work for you too. I’ve scheduled specific days off and force myself to do very little that’s directly related to writing.
Full disclaimer, I still write poetry on those days, I’ll still jot down an idea or two when they come and I’ll take a look at something that’s in the late stages of its revision process. But I’m strict on myself for just how much I’ll do.
Because of the pandemic, I have a lot of time on my hands to work my schedule around to the way I need. If this is you, I’ve found taking my days off at different stages of the week works best.
So, for me, I might take Wednesday off and then Sunday. That gives me a good burst of writing and work days grouped together with a pause between.
Bonus tip two:
Even if you have a regular job, which can actually help you push back the effects of burnout if you use it to your advantage, it’s still smart to schedule at least one day to rest from your writing. Just switch gears to research or reading or outright rest as you need.
The creative power of taking a walk
Another great way to avoid burnout and to restore creativity is one of my favorites. Taking a walk.
A Stanford study found that walking is a boost for creativity, “Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting.”
My evening walks are one of my great joys. I see the same things over and over but no two walking trips is ever the same. I carry different thoughts into each trip, and carry a fresh collection back. It’s like active meditation.
It’s good medicine for the soul and mind too, pushing away from the desk, turning off the electronics and getting my body moving.
Don’t waste your walking trip with your face glued to the phone. Put it on silent, stash it away or leave it behind altogether. This is an act of restoration and contemplation. So, let it do its work on you.
Bonus tip two:
When you get back, get something to write in or open a new document to type your thoughts in and so a mind dump.
Any ideas, great connections, things you saw or thoughts you had, dump them all on this document.
Don’t overthink, just write.
Come back to it at a later time and see what you find.
Using your limits like a chess player
It really comes down to being proactive. Knowing what your goals are, but also being self-aware and in-tune enough with yourself to know you honest limitations.
Once you have that established, just how far you know you can push yourself and when your mind and body are telling you to catch your breath, then you can be more purposeful in planning how to get things done. Without breaking yourself.
That’s called planning. That’s called being proactive.
Here’s what it looks like in practical terms:
- Knowing you’re good for two or three days of going at it hard but not any longer, catching your breath on the fourth and going back for two or three more days at a smart pace
- Knowing you’re good for an hour or hour and a half of solid writing, but also knowing working in a ten or fifteen minute pause makes that work a hell of a lot easier on you, so you work that in
- Knowing you do good work when fully rested, so, you go to bed at a smarter time and work with your real rhythms (maybe, if you can, even taking naps)
- Knowing you do your best work when you aren’t hungry, so you eat a healthy meal, or a snack when it’s best for your mind and body (I’m useless after a big meal, so, I do better on a snack and writing before I eat)
What’s any of this have to do with avoiding burnout and doing better and more sustainable work? Quite a bit.
Think about it. When you know these rhythms and realities about your life, you’re better equipped to plan your best and smartest — most productive — course of actions for the day. That’s strategic thinking at it’s best, isn’t it?
This kind of strategic thinking is like being a chess player. It’s not just about the move in front of you, but using that move to build two or three moves down the board too. It’s practical strategy.
Further, it’s tactical. It isn’t vague thinking, or loose planning for some time in the hazy far off future. It’s right now, working with your needs and challenges and knowing just how you’re going to face your toughest challenges right away. Even before they happen. Especially before they happen.
To sum it all up, the first solution to any challenge is to recognize the challenge you’re up against. So, go on, get that out of the way, and face your limits. Know them like a best friend, there’s no shame in having limits. We all do.
Then, know the early warning signs for burnout. Recognize what your mind and body are telling you. They’re looking to you for guidance on what to do next. Be a responsible leader for your whole being, take care of yourself.
Tackling burnout can be as simple as knowing when and how to hit pause, take breaks, catch your breath and being smart and intentional about days off. You can do these things strategically and still get a lot done.
Also, take walks, they’re not just good for you, but they actually boost your creativity!
And finally, fight burnout by being proactive. It’s as simple as planning your choices before you have to make them. Then following through, and repeating the process all over again.
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