Marie Kondo your workday: Avoid burnout and make time for yourself
For most of the world, it’s been just two years since we all shifted to working from home. For some, it was a blessing. For others like me, it’s been a curse. I no longer have a physical boundary between work and home, making it hard to separate the two. Well, technically now I do since I’m back in the office. But for some reason, that physical boundary has become a mere suggestion, as I carry my work back home to work more hours. It doesn’t help that I have a standing desk and a beautiful 32-inch monitor waiting for me. I’ve really decked out my home office over the years, for better or for worse.
A few weeks ago, as an act of desperation in the midst of a mental breakdown, I googled “Am I a workaholic?” Duh. My symptoms were obvious: prioritizing work over my well being socially, mentally, and physically; not taking time to sleep or decompress or engage in any hobbies. It was eat, sleep, breathe work for a while there. After triple-checking various quizzes (I’m thorough and cite multiple sources), I came across a handful of studies that found working long hours doesn’t necessarily equal workaholism. Apparently it's all about being able to stop thinking about work when you're done working for the day, and people who can compartmentalize are significantly less likely to suffer adverse health effects than those who think about work outside of work.
So, what’s the solution? And how do you stop burnout in its tracks?
First things first: Identify what burnout feels like. It’s easy to dismiss the word as just a hot button topic instead of a serious problem. Burnout is a high-stress ailment that leaves you not only physically exhausted – it wreaks havoc on your mental and emotional wellbeing too. It’s a more intense version of fatigue, which makes it hard for victims to cope with stress or even everyday responsibilities.
In hindsight, I was so dismissive of the word burnout that I didn’t even realize I was experiencing a textbook case of it. People feeling burnout generally dread getting out of bed every morning. It’s like being drained of all your resources, leaving you pessimistic and deflated. Even worse, burnout won't just go away on its own and can lead to further psychological and physical illness.
On the bright side, there’s simple tips to fix burnout, or even catch it before the dreadful side effects kick in. According to Healthline, there are 12 stages to burn out. The first few stages are more difficult to catch, especially for Type A personalities and perfectionists:
Excessive drive and ambition, which often happens to people who start new jobs or passion projects.
Pushing yourself to work even harder. Boundaries are tough.
Neglecting self-care including sleep, exercise, and eating fresh homemade meals instead of surviving on Diet Coke and takeout (looking at myself here).
Blaming everything and everyone else instead of acknowledging that you’re doing too much.
Not making time for non work-related needs. This includes withdrawing from social events or seeing them as more of an obligation than a joy.
The rest of the list is a bit more obvious, so let’s focus on how to combat these first few. Reader, I fully expect you to roll your eyes at the following advice, but take it from a fellow burnout: These methods are repeated to us over and over again because they work. So, once you notice these signs of burnout, research proves the following can nip it in the bud:
Saying no is so hard. But it’s necessary when you’re drowning in work when someone else could take on the task. Even better, delegate these tasks to others – it's positive for both parties involved!
Knowing and accepting when to let go of perfectionism
From a fellow perfectionist to another, this has been the hardest for me to grapple with in my career. Sometimes perfection isn’t required; Sometimes it’s enough to be good enough. We do our best and then carry on.
Basic principles of self care, including:
Exercise. Not to lose weight, but to give you the mental and physical boost to get through your day. If you’re short on time, mini-workouts of all kinds will suffice. Even parking further away from your office, or taking the stairs can help you get in those steps.
Eating right. According to Positive Psychology, omega-3 fatty acids (think walnuts, salmon, flaxseed) incorporated into a healthy diet can be a natural antidepressant. Many studies have shown eating healthy improves mood and overall well being. Too busy to think about what you’re going to cook? I personally love plant-based meal delivery kits and use them to cook dinners 3 times a week. Recipes range from 30- to 40-minute prep and cook times. If you’re even more short on time, I also recommend looking into local pre-made meal delivery services for nourishing soups and smoothies.
Getting some sleep. I know, it’s so hard to shut your work brain off and go to bed. But sometimes the most obvious solution is the best solution.
Compartmentalization, AKA “Marie Kondo-ing your workday”
My mantra lately has become, “work smarter, not harder.” I think it’s best to shift that thinking into, “work smart, and hard,” because hard work is cathartic for my personality. Here’s the million-dollar question: Are you just working long hours, or are you immersing yourself in work thoughts even after you’ve logged off? And, are those thoughts even beneficial or are you stuck in a constant feedback loop, spinning on a mental hamster wheel?
According to RescueTime, you can work fewer hours than your friends and coworkers and still be facing the negative consequences of workaholism. This is because for many workaholics, responsibilities, tasks, and workday stressors take up the majority of their thoughts. RescueTime also cited a study which found people who identified as unable to disconnect from work reported more sleep problems, emotional and physical exhaustion, and depression regardless of whether they were working 40 or 80 hours a week.
Another study found employees who work more than 40 hours a week, but didn’t think about work after hours, reported fewer complaints and health risks than employees who showed signs of workaholism.
Depending on your level of pessimism (and if it's higher than usual, refer back to the aforementioned burnout symptoms), this can be good or bad news. The bad news: Burning yourself out isn’t going to work in the long run. The good news: You don’t have to feel guilty for being more efficient with your time!
Here’s a few ways to be more productive during your (now designated and defined) work hours:
Make an optimized to-do list
Before you head home for the day, make a list of 5-8 goals to accomplish the next day. Separate your personal errands from work tasks, and keep that list short. Set realistic expectations for what you can accomplish in a day, and focus on one day at a time.Similarly to setting SMART goals, make your to-do-list realistic, specific, and simple. Break your project down into smaller tasks instead of one big task, and then celebrate your wins when you cross them off.
Focus on one task at a time
Ever heard of mono-tasking? Move over, multitasking – you’re distracting and inefficient. Instead, mono-tasking allows you to focus on one task at a time, which ironically allows you to get tasks done quicker through mind muscle memory. Here’s how to do it: Move your cell phone out of sight. Turn off any unnecessary notifications. Set a timer in 15-minute increments so you can dedicate a specific amount of time to focusing on one task. And when all else fails, get up and move your body.
Forgive yourself and keep on going
To help alleviate the stress-inducing pressure, accept that sometimes you’re going to get distracted or have a rough day. Perfection is impossible, and mistakes are what makes us human. Instead of dwelling on what went wrong after work, focus your energy into cooking yourself a nutritious dinner or spending quality time with your loved ones.
How to stop thinking about work
If productivity and compartmentalization aren’t enough to keep your work brain at bay, here are some methods and ideas to help steer your thoughts in a different direction:
Netflix, movies, tv streaming
Cuddle up with your pets or loved ones and put on a good show. You’ve earned it!
Exercise and meditation
Move your body in a way that makes you feel good and have fun. I’ve found this 5-minute yoga flow to be just the thing to get my brain more focused on the present.
Create a meditation or exercise goal to keep your eye on the prize. For example, maybe you want to shorten your mile run time, or be able to chaturanga like the instagram yogis.
Pursue other hobbies or passions outside of work
Work that you love to do tends to feel less like work. Following our passions gives us a greater sense of purpose and meaning. Unsure what you’re passionate about? Check out your local community college or art center to find some continued education courses – you might find a topic you never thought would interest you, like glassblowing or woodworking.
Believe me when I say I truly thought I would be the last person on earth preaching a work/life balance, but experiencing burnout first-hand has shifted my priorities. Stay aware of early signs of burnout and catch them before it's too late, and remember to make time for yourself outside of work. At the end of the day, it’s not your late nights at the office that you’ll be remembered by. It’ll be the joy and passion you bring to help make the world a better place.