7 Science-Backed Ways to Fight Burnout
How often do you drop the word “busy” into conversation? For years, we’ve been told about the downside of leading a chaotic lifestyle so often that busy has become demonised. The New York Times dubbed the “busy trap” a form of modern-day hysteria, while Psychology Today declared the associated stress hormone, cortisol, “public enemy number one.”
But here’s the thing: Studies suggest that keeping a fast pace might not be as bad as we’d once thought. In fact, it could actually be good for you. (Yes, really!) Researchers at the University of Chicago found that people who lead busy lifestyles are happier than those who are idle. Why? We’re hardwired to crave purpose, and a full schedule makes us feel needed.
In essence, you don’t need to feel guilty about your fast-paced lifestyle—you just need to know how to manage it. When left unchecked, an addiction to being busy can lead to burnout. To keep you out of the red zone, we went in search of the best science-backed methods to manage your schedule. Try these stress hacks to prevent burnout for good.
If you find yourself telling friends how busy your day has been or that you can’t make dinner because you’re just too busy, pause. While the B-word might be commonplace, research suggests the words you use can literally change your brain.
Neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman found that a single negative word can stimulate the fear center of the brain, sending stress hormones into overdrive. Translation: Simply using the word busy could make you feel time-poor, erratic, and stressed.
Try it now: Eliminate busy from your language. It’ll force you to reframe the way you talk about your routine.
Stress and resilience expert Paula Davis-Laack says the key to avoiding burnout is to change the way you manage your day. Rather than focusing on time, pay attention to your energy.
“Time is a fixed commodity, and there will always be only 24 hours in a day,” she explains, so people who try to allocate their hours can often feel rushed or anxious if they don’t make deadline. Focusing on energy, however, forces you to address the most important tasks of the day.
Try it now: Write down three key tasks you want to achieve today. Ask yourself, If I only completed the items on this list, would I feel satisfied? Then channel your attention on only one task at a time.
“A temporary shift in attention from one task to another—stopping to answer an email or take a phone call, for instance—increases the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25%,” explain Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy in a Harvard Business Review article. “It’s far more efficient to fully focus for 90 to 120 minutes, take a true break, and then fully focus on the next activity.”
Striving to complete every task to perfection isn’t just a time-drainer, it’s also mentally depleting. People who try to make perfect decisions can feel overwhelmed by choice and misallocate their energy to tasks that don’t require attention.
Try this now: “Make your decisions irreversible,” says Davis-Laack. Research suggests if you’re given the option to change your mind later, you’ll probably be less satisfied with the decision.
When you’re in a constantly busy state, it’s hard to sustain your energy. “Most people realise that they tend to perform best when they’re feeling positive energy,” explains Schwartz and McCarthy. “What they find surprising is that they’re not able to perform well or to lead effectively when they’re feeling any other way.”
The key, they argue, is short bursts of “intermittent recovery,” or what Davis-Laack calls a recovery ritual. “Your recovery ritual doesn’t have to be long—five or 10 minutes is enough. It just has to be something you will do with regularity,” she explains. It’ll cue your mind to rest and encourage you to manage your energy so you’re not in a constant state of urgency.
Try this now: “Research has shown that if you add ‘if… then’ statements to your goals, the likelihood of achieving that goal skyrockets,” she says. For example, phrase your recovery ritual to If it’s 10 a.m., I’m going to listen to two songs on my iPod. “That becomes a habit, which puts your brain on autopilot”—in a good way.
The word busy is so entrenched in our lexicon that its meaning has changed. “It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint,” declared New York Times writer Tim Krieder.
And according to Davis-Laack, that cultural change could put you on a fast track to exhaustion. “I think the consistent pressure to stay busy and look busy for the sake of being busy, rather than intentionally taking on purposeful activities is a driver of burnout,” she tells MyDomaine.
Try this now: If you’re a manager, focus on productivity. Reward team members for hitting goals instead of putting in extra hours. It’ll show you value results, not a busy façade.
“I cannot emphasise enough how much mental clutter keeps you tethered to being too busy,” she says. In order to cleanse your mind, Davis-Laack says you need to understand your thinking style. Those who tend to have pessimistic thoughts struggle to react to stressful situations and move on from them.
Try this now: Try to reframe negative thoughts. First, search for evidence: What evidence is there to support the pessimistic thought? Then consider the impact: How is it affecting your life? Finally, approach it from the perspective of a friend: What would a close friend tell you to do? Work through this three-step process next time a negative thought occurs.
The problem with constantly checking our phones is that it becomes hard to stop—mobilephones can be addictive. A study published in The Journal of Behavioral Addictions found that some phone users show the same symptoms of drug addicts. While tasks like checking your email are important, others, like scrolling through your Instagram feed, can lead a false sense of busyness.
Try this now: Charge your phone outside of your bedroom, or, if you use the alarm, keep it away from arm’s reach. Limiting screen time at the end of the day improves sleep and brain function, helping avoid exhaustion and burnout.