Every year time passes, the world turns, and we find ourselves looking at a familiar view of our life, albeit from a slightly different angle than the year before. Summer looks bright, fall looks cozy, winter feels relaxed; but then there’s always this time of year …
Winter has been going on for what feels like forever and spring is nowhere in sight. The monotony of our daily tasks become unbearable and we begin to experience a term commonly known as burn-out. Fortunately, there are strategies we can use to help us thrive.
What is it?
Burn-out is best described as a reaction to chronic stress. In the sporting world, we refer to chronic stress as a period of "over-reaching" and burn-out as a pre-cursor to "over-training." Of course, athletes can experience the same mental symptoms of burn-out as anyone else, but from a training perspective the body puts clear limits on when we’ve asked too much of it. The brain … less so.
The brain generates self-talk that convinces us to push through feelings of low physical energy, extreme emotional exhaustion, ongoing pessimism and declining productivity. In the same way that the body will eventually force us into a state of rest via injury or illness, the brain will force us into a state of rest via burn-out.
Why does it happen?
There are lots of reasons for chronic stress and burn-out and everyone experiences this differently. In our fast-paced society, it’s easy to pile too much onto your plate without realizing you’ve accepted responsibility for far more than you can handle. Once we’ve overloaded our plate at work our personal life begins to suffer. As we catch up on crossing things off the to-do list, we become further detached from the social network that keeps our sanity in place.
Family dinners move from the dining room to in front of the TV. Weekly exercise with our gym community gets pushed to the wayside. Even our support group at work can turn negative and nasty at this time of year when everyone is struggling and no one has saved enough of their sanity to offer a broader perspective. To put it back into training terms, burn-out happens when there isn’t an appropriate ratio of work to rest.
If I asked you to run 10 sets of 30-second sprints with as much rest in between as you needed, how hard would that be? Imagine that same workout with only 90 seconds of rest in between exertions. Now, same workout, but only 30 seconds of rest in between. The amount of work didn’t change, just the amount of rest in between.
The same concept applies to any stressor in life. We can perform optimally, even at a high intensity, when we have enough time to achieve complete recovery between "sets"; but as the rest time between stressors is reduced, so is the intensity we’re able to perform at. Exhaustion sets in, our self-talk gets negative, and before long we just want to quit.
However, did the work actually get harder? Or did the work stay the same and there was less rest in between? Once we understand the appropriate amount of rest needed between exertions, we can start to do something about our burn-out.
Problems vs. solutions
Is the problem really that it gets dark out earlier in the winter? Or is the problem that we forget to prioritize recreation time when the weather is bad? We can’t control the weather, but we can influence the way we prioritize our down-time if we bring awareness to the fact that there’s a problem.
Start by slowing down and asking yourself if it’s the actual amount of work that is overwhelming/exhausting or if it’s the lack of recovery time in between efforts. If it’s the work then re-evaluate your plan and find solutions to manage the problem. If it’s a lack of recovery in between then take baby steps to add more rest time into your day.
1. Start with sleep
It’s unrealistic to think you can catch up on all your missed sleep overnight. Instead, start by adding a few minutes at a time. According to a study by the University of California San Francisco Human Performance Center, just 36 minutes of extra sleep per night reduced day-time tension and fatigue in professional baseball players by over 30%!
2. Take your time
Projects rarely (if ever) go according to plan. As obstacles pop up deadlines are pushed back and our time for rest gets cut. Avoid this by predicting how much time you need to complete a specific task and then multiply that number by 1.3. Pre-planning 30 percent more time increases the quality of work that can be done without increasing stress.
3. Create space
Look around you right now, what do you see? Look again, but this time notice the vast amount of empty space. In the same way that a room looks cluttered and unorganized if too many things are in it, life feels cluttered and unorganized if we fill it with too many things. View the free time you have in your schedule as an opportunity to be present instead as time that needs to be filled with something more important.
4. Be patient
It’s impossible to undue a state of burn-out overnight. It took you several months to get to this state, it will take at least a couple of weeks to get yourself out. Your automatic thoughts will say, "I don’t have time for this!" But as the 10x NCAA Championship basketball coach, John Wooden, says "If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?"
5. Ask for help
If you’re really, truly stuck in a bad place the best thing to do is ask for help. In the same way that a box can be too heavy for one person to carry, intense emotions can also be too heavy to carry alone. Connect and communicate with the people around you to get back in control of your time. After all, the difference we make for others isn’t by how busy we can be. It’s by how important we’re made to feel.