A week ago, I was talking with a team who works together closely and interviews lots of different experts on different things. They asked me to join and spend some time on the topic of beating burnout and how to overcome or offset that feeling of deep, deep, deep down fatigue.
As we all got settled into the conversation, I started by asking them a couple questions, and I’m going to frame those for you today. How long does it take you, on average, to fall asleep? Research says it should take around 15 minutes or so. If you’re falling asleep under five minutes, it’s typically an indicator that you have some type of sleep deprivation, maybe a sleep disorder, maybe intense fatigue or jet lag.
We all have those times where we feel like I fell asleep as soon as I crawled into bed, But if it’s over 30 minutes, that’s usually an indicator, on an average cycle, that your brain is still super active. You may even experience insomnia or waking up in the middle of the night and having trouble going back to sleep.
You see, fatigue comes in many forms and certainly we can feel it in our body, and sleep is one indicator, but it’s not the only indicator. Another example of where burnout can show up and be more evident to us is in our daily tasks.
So the question here is do you have trouble starting a new task? This is something from scratch, either opening that blank email or about to start a project, even going to load a dishwasher that is completely empty. How does your brain adapt to it? Are you able to start that easily, or does even the thought of stretching into that task seem overwhelming, regardless of what the task is?
Now let’s switch. I’m really curious when was the last time you had a true day off? It could be a lovely holiday or a vacation, but I mean a day off, not a day where you weren’t working in a professional or academic capacity or doing chores or appointments, or even going to an event like a wedding, etc.
Not working doesn’t equal rest, and my question here is when was the last time you had a day, (or a series of days, if you had a vacation) where you felt rested during it and after it. When I was traveling, when my kids were younger, I always would joke and say I need a vacation from my vacation – because anyone traveling with little kids knows that that’s a trip, not a holiday. But ask yourself, even if that was a day where you were just at home, you didn’t go anywhere, did you feel rested?
Switching again, when was the last time that you had a full belly laugh, not just a giggle or a chuckle at something that was funny?
When I explained this to the group, one of the women said “Yes, my stomach hurt like I had just been exercising and I was a little tired afterwards.” Oh, those are the best types of laughs. I’ll tell you why as we go on, but those are important to explore: How long does it take you to fall asleep? Do you have trouble starting a new task from scratch? When was the last time you truly had a day where you felt rested, regardless of what you were doing, and when was the last time you experienced a full belly laugh?
I’ll explain more as we go along, but let me start first by offering what I mean by burnout. Burnout is a psychological response to continuous, intensive demands or stressors. Now these could be related to your work, your occupation, they could be mental, they could even be physical demands or stressors, but it becomes this response because it is repetitive or continuous.
That’s the key to burnout versus a lot of other ways that we can define it. The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that burnout is a customized blend of situations, circumstances, and feelings that impact you in a way that takes a while for you to recover. I say it that way on purpose, because it’s not ours to defend, it’s not ours to define in some common practice. It’s something that we experience deeply.
I once heard in a movie a character say “I’m the kind of tired that a long weekend can’t cure.” And that’s the sensation inside, even if you come back from a holiday and you’re like “I didn’t get enough.” Those are personal indicators to you.
So if we go back to scientific explanations, it’s really comprised of three parts. It is emotional exhaustion, meaning that feeling that’s just in our head. It is also physical fatigue, that bone weary, tiredness, and it’s also cognitive weariness. That’s part of why I ask about a task. I can find that showing up when I walk into a room, as I did earlier this weekend, and “Was like what am I doing here? I knew I was coming in here for a purpose.”
And usually when all three of those connect emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, and cognitive weariness that’s more of the indicators of burnout than temporary situations or circumstances. Now, that continuous part of what I said with burnout can also lead to depressive-like symptoms, increased anxiety and other elements where it’s hard to put the finger on what it is causing versus what is symptomatic.
But here’s what burnout is not. It is not poor habits, it is not a lacking of willpower, it is not something that you can just buck up and suck up, and it is not quickly remedied. Burnout is something of a slow simmer we find ourselves sliding into and it also takes time to get out of that slide. And that is very challenging because as we experience the true symptoms of it, usually the cure is the opposite of what seems to be available to us.
Research has shown that it could take months to regulate your energy, your cognitive abilities, and your emotional landscape after extended periods of stress. That’s more common if somebody is going through grief or an illness. We almost go into that, expecting, of course it’s going to take them time to recover, but stress and this busy buzz that’s always around us in our digital days seems to be more of like “let’s get over that already,” which is why in this episode I want to look at the scientific explanation.
Burnout is a very real condition, probably because we haven’t been responding with care. So, from the science books, I’m going to talk about the neurophysiological, that is, the combination of the brain and our biology. I’m going to start with our sympathetic nervous system, which is almost mislabeled.
If you come to a screeching halt and narrowly miss getting into a car or a bike accident, your heart’s pounding, you’re breathing really shallow, you’re hyperalert. That is our sympathetic nervous system. It literally is there to keep us alive. Our parasympathetic nervous system is what more regulates that.
But when we are spending more time in the sympathetic nervous system and we’re always kind of in that hyper state and that could be from deadlines, to being stuck in traffic our brain and body just go there and get stuck there a little bit, and then what happens as a result is our endocrine system kicks in. Now, that’s a network of glands and organs in our body and it makes hormones, and hormones become a response to whatever is happening in the brain.
The brain gives orders and ingredients for what should spread through the rest of our body and that barely is going to come from our amygdala. That’s the center in our brain. In fact, it’s the smallest part of our brain, but it has a big job. It’s a major processing center for our emotions. And if we are telling ourselves, hey, this is stressful, I’m under stress, I’m busy, I’m tired, that becomes the soundtrack that the body responds to and says send in the hormones for each of those things.
So how can we leverage these insights from science and psychology to offset or overcome the feeling of deep, deep fatigue? I’m going to offer three thoughts on this. The first one is: First, do no harm. One of the best ways you can do that is to claim it and name it. Say it out loud: I am feeling burned out, I have feelings of burnout, I am deeply tired. That is ownership, because it’s an internalized effect, and when it is spoken and it could be to a doctor, a friend, a partner, or even yourself when it is said out loud, when it is claimed, it matters.
I’m gonna go back to the belly laugh for a moment. You see, laughter is part of those hormones. Laughter physically increases our brain’s production of endorphins. Endorphins are the feel-good chemical that relieve pain, yes, but also reduce stress. So when we have laughter, we’re increasing our intake of oxygen-rich air, but we’re also improving our blood flow and our circulation, which then benefits our brain health. So when we are deeply, deeply tired, there’s something to the fact that we crave humor from the comedians, watch YouTube clips or kitten videos.
When you’re in a place, first, do no harm lean towards laughter. The other thing we can do while we’re here is to give ourselves grace by giving ourselves space. Go and put on an out-of-office if you’re somebody who deals with a lot of emails and just say hey, I am heads down on a few things, I’ll be able to respond in a few days. That is neutral and it normalizes the fact that you are not immediately available.
You can also ask for extensions on things that are already there or give an estimated time of completion. “Just want to let you know I received your email. I’ll be able to respond by Wednesday. If you need it in a different timeframe, let me know. “
So first, do no harm, say it out loud, laugh when you can and then put up an out-of-office sign on your life.
Number two idea to try on is to have a protocol plan. About six months ago I was going through a really tough time with a family member, and I was talking to my business coach and he said we need to plan for your red day, your yellow day and your green day, and what that meant was very personalized to me. But he said if you’re having a red day, there’s only two things you need to do, and this was for me. He said you need to eat, you need to take a shower, because those are the boomerang things. If I can at least do those, I know I can crawl upwards on it.
A yellow day had different protocols for what was available to me. A green day was like okay, I feel like I can start and see and, to be clear, our days can change while we’re in them. We could be chugging along on a green day and all of a sudden have a red afternoon.
The importance here is what happens when you feel yourself in the red zone. For me, I know I need hydration and calories, because it’s the first thing I forego. The second thing let’s say it’s a yellow day is I allow myself to have what I call (one of my good friends has labeled) B minus work. The perfectionist might automatically be rankling at this. This is where I’m like average is good enough. Above average? I’m not even sure that’s available. So where can I do average efforts? That could just be ordering a pizza for a meal, and it could be elements of other things, but you know what that is.
To take care, pay attention to two things. The first is sunlight. Sunlight induces chemical reactions in our body. So, even if you’re not up for exercise or anything, sit near a window, Get yourself a wake up alarm that simulates the sun. Do something where you have access to natural light, because it does help with those hormones, especially including melatonin. It’s very important that it comes first through our eyes.
The second is to really look at touch. When you’re in a protocol plan, when you’re having red and yellow days, your body is craving comfort. So for me, calories and water are absolutely the baseline. I need to make sure I am sustaining that. But look at what touch means to you and what you respond to. It could be having a weighted blanket. It could be doing a cold blast at the end of your shower to your face to wake you up. It could be petting an animal. It’s all about serotonin and endorphins to help you feel comforted at a time when your protocol says you are requiring more than the average day.
And the third and final tip here is clear the decks. That expression is really around slowing down, Move all non-essential things off, wherever possible. Spend time alone. Now, that is different than if you’re lonely. That might require a different outreach. But if you are overwhelmed because of demands and ask and caretaking for others, really just looking after yourself, even if it’s for an hour, clear the decks.
Also minimize the things that decelerate our hormonal responses, and by that I mean usually social media, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. They are natural depressants because it feeds into the fatigue. So if you’re going to clear the deck, you also need to open the windows in your mind, into your habits. So clearing the decks also means getting really clear on.
Saying no is hard. Having a way to say no quickly allows you to clear the decks, and right after I had this conversation with the working group, I got an email from the author, Ryan Holiday, with his newsletter that had a link to a post called “This Is Your Reminder To Say No.” I love that. It was well timed, and in that article, he said this “Life is about trade-offs and this is your life, and saying no is your power. By seizing it, you become powerful, and that power is something we need more than ever.”
For now, the power in less, in fewer, and in the in-between spaces. The best way to beat or slow burnout is to simply step out of the race.
So for today, as a reminder: First, do no harm; set your protocols as a second option; and third, clear the decks when you need it. It matters that you matter,
For today, my wish is for you to forget the entire concept of fewer things better and simply embrace the idea of fewer. Do less, my friends, and I hope you get back more of you in return.