Exhaustion, feelings of cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy are all symptoms of burnout, which the World Health Organization1 calls an “organizational phenomenon.” While burnout is preventable, we’re all at risk of experiencing it.
One of the surprising ways to avoid burnout is to add structure to your day and focus on deliberately transitioning from one activity to the next so you don’t carry your work into your personal life and your personal life into your work.
With so many of us working from home, working where we sleep, working long hours at essential jobs, or parenting school-aged children all day, this may seem like an impossible task.
However, it is possible to prioritize your physical and mental health needs during this time, while minimizing your stress and maximizing your breaks.
Add Structure to Your Day
Even if every day looks different for you, it’s important to build structure into your day so you can actively move from task to task without getting overwhelmed or overworked.
Multitasking is inevitable at times, but you want to be as proactive as possible in scheduling out blocks of time so you can prioritize important activities like exercising, spending time with your spouse, or attending group therapy.
For those who are unemployed, not working, or parenting 24/7, scheduling tasks into your day can help give you motivation and purpose, even if the task is as simple as stretching your legs, journaling, or calling a friend.
According to David Rabin, MD, PhD, psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and co-founder of Apollo Neuro, burnout suppresses our nervous system, meaning our ability to be productive at work, to create, to sleep well, to reproduce, and to build meaningful relationships.
To prevent burnout, Dr. Rabin recommends adding the following tasks to your day and explains how they can benefit you:
- Start your day with a productive task. This could include making your bed, doing a breathing exercise, or meditating. Our bodies love routine, particularly routine that enriches our lives, he explains, and the more we create structure in our lives, the more space we create to focus and recover.
- Create a designated work space. Even if you live in a small space, creating a separate work zone that you can go to and walk away from everyday helps in supporting a better life balance, Dr. Rabin says. With this space, you can train your mind to shift in and out of work mode.
- Take lunch breaks. Working from home physically and mentally blurs the line between personal and professional lives, he explains, so setting up a time to eat lunch and step away from your desk (and your work) is important.
- Turn off your screen. At the end of the day, close your laptop, turn the phone on do-not-disturb, and formally bring the work day to a close, he says. Turning off your screen ahead of your bedtime can also help in improving your sleep and minimizing stress.
Another smart idea is to build “transition time” into your day, especially since many of us are now working from home and feel like we can’t “turn it off,” says Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS, a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, and wellness expert in New York City. “Do something for a few minutes before you start working and again when you are done (as if it was like a commute) to help transition and prepare your brain for the next task, whether that is to make dinner or spend time with the family.”
Pay Attention to Your Emotions
No matter how busy your day gets, try to be cognizant of your emotions as you feel them and find active ways to address them so those feelings don’t build up.
You might go for a short walk, do yoga, call your therapist, or simply sit by yourself and decompress. We need breathers throughout our day in order to re-center ourselves in the present.
How to Practice Mindful Breathwork
Dr. Rabin recommends mindful breathwork, which can be used at any point throughout the day and can be done in just a few minutes. Here are three ways to practice it:
- Purse your lips, but without making a sound.
- Breathe in through your mouth and out through your mouth.
- Feel the air moving in and out of your whole body.
“Notice that by moving your lips very slightly and gently, you can change the speed and amount of air moving into your mouth and lungs, says Dr. Rabin. “Try to exhale at least a little bit longer than you inhale.”
For all of us, structure is critical, but so is flexibility. If you don’t make time for breaks, you could easily run out of time and never get them. Not only can this turn into a repeated pattern, but it can put you at a higher risk of experiencing burnout. This is, especially, true for parents.
“Finding balance between work and parenting takes thought and strategy. It’s important for parents to remember to put the emotional oxygen mask on themselves first before tending to the needs of their children,” says Aimee Martinez, PsyD, Director of Clinical Relations at Wright Institute Los Angeles (WILA).
Planned breaks help parents keep consistency, give them space to look forward to, as well as model to their children that having boundaries around time and rest are important.
For parents, or anyone, struggling to make time for themselves, Dr. Martinez recommends looking at your weekly personal and work schedule in coordination with those in your household and scheduling deliberate breaks. If you can’t find thirty minutes or an hour, take more smaller breaks.
“Try to pick specific times of the day and stick to them,” Dr. Martinez says. “This time is for you.”
Even if you don’t have 30 minutes or an hour, you can find a few minutes to take breaks even while you’re doing something else. “We call this micropractices—like breathing while you are washing your hands,” says Dr. Goldman. “These small breaks add up and really have a big impact.”
Address Mental Health Risks
“When we’re already overwhelmed and exhausted, our brain opposes change because change is new and different, so thinking about changing our old, less healthy routines or putting effort into a recovery technique is legitimately really hard,” says Dr. Rabin, but recovery is needed to help us deal with and recover from stress.
While self-medicating with caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, or another substance may be preferred, Dr. Rabin suggests that exercise, nutrition, breathwork, and healthy living allow more empowerment and control in a much more free and sustainable way because we achieve them with our own hard work.
Just know that even by building a routine that includes mental health breaks, you can still experience high levels of stress and burnout.
Reach out to a mental health professional if you’re feeling symptoms of burnout and they can help you figure out the best treatment methods.