Burnout is an all-too-common ailment of the modern workplace. With our go-go-go culture and our habit of overworking, it’s not surprising that we succumb to the exhaustion and disengagement of burnout too regularly.
But before burnout hits us, there’s something we can do.
Adjusting how we approach our workdays, and how we find balance between work and everything else in our lives can help us stave off burnout before it’s too late.
1. Only put one thing on your to-do list
Copywriter and content strategist Gigi Griffis used to work too much, as many of us do. She worked on weekends, in the evenings, and even got up early to get things done. She filled up her schedule with clients, and wrote books in her spare time. When she wasn’t working, she was attending networking and social events.
But when Griffis picked up a mystery illness while on a work trip, her body forced her to slow down:
The more I pushed myself, the more I tried to go-go-go, the more my body said—louder and louder—NO.
Griffis was overworked and heading for burnout. It took a mystery illness to physically force her to slow down before she finally started adjusting her work style to be more sustainable.
It’s taken years for my gut to agree with what my brain already knew: our worth is not tied to our work ethic. My output is not my value. Winning the Who’s Busiest Competition means precisely nothing.
Though her illness forced her to stop overworking, Griffis had to learn how to be okay with a slower pace, and it took time. One of Griffis’s strategies for a more balanced working life is to only put one thing on her to-do list every day. She calls it “The Only Thing You Have to Do Today.”
Most days she does more than one thing, but her to-do list only ever includes one thing she must get done. And Griffis finds this approach freeing, since it ensures she’s productive every day without burning herself out:
And so if I’m suffering from mystery symptoms or if I wake filled with anxiety or if the day is just gorgeous and sunny and worth spending in the park, I have given myself a very doable and specific end point … And it’s that end point that enables me to walk away from the rest of it without the guilt trip, the stressy buildup in my gut.
Once that one thing on her to-do list is done, Griffis can decide if she feels like working more or not. And if she doesn’t, she doesn’t need to feel guilty about that, either.
For many of us, this seems like a radical approach—and it did for Griffis, too. But she now feels that working less has actually made her more productive, since she no longer wastes energy on busywork or stress over whether she’s working enough.
2. Hit pause
A more temporary but drastic approach is to just hit pause when everything’s getting too much. Griffis incorporates a regular pause into her new, slower schedule. She calls it “No Technology Fridays”:
The practice is this: setting aside my Fridays for no-screen activities. No internet. No phone conversations. The only “tech” I can use is my Kindle—and only for reading, nothing else.
This is a regular, once-per-week pause on the internet, technology, and work. It gives Griffis time and space to explore the world outside her phone and her computer, and helps her find balance.
On those days, I usually try to plan something out of the house. I go hiking or cycling, to the park, or thrift store shopping, or to a food festival or a jazz concert. I step fully into the real, physical present moment and re-set. I give myself space to breathe.
You can use Inbox Pause to hold back your email during a No Tech Friday (or if email is the one thing that’s overwhelming you—just put it on pause any day and get on with your important work).
Writer Alexandra Franzen uses inbox pause to help her focus on writing work when emails are trying to steal her attention:
All of your emails get safely stored away, out of sight, and nothing will flow into your inbox until you hit “unpause.” A godsend.
But sometimes you need to pause more than just your inbox. Franzen has also found it useful to sometimes “pause the world” to get on with work without any distractions.
A few months ago, during a sickening heatwave, I checked myself into a hotel for 2 nights to escape the 108 degree temperatures. I chose a hotel that was cheap, close by (just 20 minutes from my apartment), and most importantly, one that had air conditioning. I turned off my phone for several hours, dove into my projects, and basked in the glory of the frigid A/C. It was an incredibly productive getaway.
Not all of us can pause the world when we need to concentrate. But when you’re up against a big deadline or crunching on an important project, and everything else is fighting for your attention, pausing your other responsibilities and shutting out the world can do wonders for your productivity.
Sometimes, in order to get things done, we have to pause the world — and get away from it all — even if “away” is just a few miles from home.
3. Get a hobby
If you’re facing burnout because you’re constantly trying to achieve more and more, a hobby could be exactly what you need. Etsy product designer, Jessica Harllee, found her inner “Achiever” thrived on being productive, to the point that it wasn’t healthy:
On days when I get a lot done, my Achiever is satisfied. I feel invincible. But a lot of the time, how much I achieve in a day is out of my control. And when I don’t achieve however much I tell myself I need to achieve, I feel horrible.
The problem with measuring your value based on how much you get done each day, says Harllee, is that you have to start over every single day:
Achievers are known for how much they get done. They’re motivated by crossing things off their to-do lists. The thing that makes us Achievers who we are is also our biggest source of pain: every day starts at zero, and then we judge ourselves based on the number of things we accomplish that day. No matter how productive we were the day before, in the morning the leaderboard resets to zero.
When trying to constantly achieve more led to burnout for Harllee, she started to re-evaluate what was necessary to keep her inner Achiever happy.
What’s the opposite of being on a computer all day long? For me, it was making something with my hands.
Taking up non-computer hobbies like embroidery, weaving, and cooking helped Harllee find balance in her life and keep her inner Achiever happy without burning herself out.
Developing an interest outside of my profession proved to be more than just an outlet for whatever I was going through at work. It also “counted” as achieving something. Instead of only considering things achievements if they resulted in professional development, I realized that I was getting the same sense of satisfaction from making something just for fun, trying out something new, and even failing. I didn’t need to fill my time with design work to make my inner Achiever happy; I needed a hobby.
Harllee found that taking up hobbies outside work also improved her work output. She was able to give her mind a break from “solving the same kinds of problems over and over” and instead challenge herself to think in new ways. She also learned to stop measuring her worth based solely on how many things she got done at work each day:
I also learned to stop judging myself solely based on how much I achieved at work. What I make at work is only one measure of the things that I’ve accomplished in a day, and only one measure of myself as a person.
Harllee managed to find a balance that helped her enjoy her work more—ironically, by doing it less. Taking up completely unrelated hobbies enabled her to refresh her mind and relax, letting her approach her work with more clarity and enjoyment every day.
Burnout is a real threat to most of us, and our culture of overworking only increases the risk. Before it’s too late, start cutting down your to-do list, hitting pause one day a week, and try picking up an unrelated hobby.
While these approaches might seem difficult in the short-term, your future self will thank you when you’re enjoying your work for years to come.