Trying to keep on top of work as well as all the other activities needed to maintain a happy life can at times be a juggle; a trick that can feel endless and relentless. Sometimes it gets the better of you — getting out of bed becomes a major effort, work you used to enjoy is just another thing you have to do, and even you don’t like being around you. Burnout can creep up on you.
I know; I’ve been there.
I can easily fall into a hamster wheel mindset when I’m on the brink of burn-out or feel the dark edges of depression creeping into the periphery of my life. I tend to think I should just work harder and keep my head down so I can power through to the other side. The thing is that rarely, if ever, happens. Even when taking time for yourself seems counter-intuitive — work is stacking up, or worse, the bills are — it’s an absolute necessity to do so if you want to stay healthy in mind and body.
Over the years I’ve adopted a few small daily habits to fend off burnout and protect my health and wellbeing. These work for me, and according to various studies and reports, they may well work for you too.
Gratitude now and tomorrow
It can be easy to get caught up in all the things we have to do and forget to stop and smell the roses — or acknowledge the roses that will bloom tomorrow. Moving ahead, improving productivity and working towards your goals need your focus. However, it’s also important to acknowledge what you’ve achieved already and give thanks for all the things in your life that have helped you be where you are today and where you will be tomorrow.
Keeping a gratitude journal has been found to help people sleep better and longer, as well as feel happier. The regular practice of gratitude works in a couple of different ways. It helps to moderate our sympathetic nervous system — the one responsible for activating our anxiety responses. Secondly, it strengthens our focus on positive thoughts and memories.
I practice this twice a day, but just five minutes once a day is enough to provide results. Part of my morning routine includes writing a page in a small notebook of the things I am thankful for. It often includes my quiet early morning starts, the work I have ahead of me, the relationships I have with my family, and recent events that have made me smile — both large and small. It’s a mix of past, current and immediate future events that I’m grateful for.
In the evening, before I turn in for the night, I list three things I am grateful for that happened that day and three things I am thankful for in the future. The future gratitude items are intentional and help me stay focused on the good in my life that I know will materialise tomorrow.
Studies have shown that daily gratitude practice can result in fewer anxieties and feeling in control of our lives.
I’ve been routinely doing this for more than six months now and I notice that when I skip a day or two, I seem to be more susceptible to dips in mood and energy levels. Try it for a week or two and see how you feel.
10 minutes to exercise your body and relax your mind
You’ve probably heard of the benefits that exercise and meditation have on our physical and mental health. Increasing our heart rate for just ten minutes a day can boost endorphins and serotonin, while at the same time reduce stress-related hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine.
Combining exercise with meditation can boost the effectiveness of your ten-minute workout. Doing both together can reduce depression symptoms by as much as 40%. It’s not that hard to do either, it just takes a little practice.
Exercise increases the production of new cells in the hippocampus area of your brain. It is thought that the practice of meditation while exercising helps to keep these new cells alive, with the side effect of making the exercise you’re doing more enjoyable. This is great news in terms of the link between depression and a smaller hippocampus, increasing its size could have lasting effects on reducing depressive episodes.
There is no need to get fancy with your exercise; a brisk walk can be as beneficial as a ten-minute yoga session or run. Choose something you enjoy as you’ll be more likely to stick with it.
Personally, I hate running and most forms of exercise. I do love walking and surfing. In the summer months, I head out to the beach at least once a week and find that it’s virtually impossible not to be mindful and completely focussed on catching and riding those waves. In the winter months, surfing is not really an option for me (it’s just too damn cold in those Atlantic waters) so I make a point of taking a lunchtime break that includes a 10-minute walk. Giving yourself a rest is great for preventing stress, improving motivation and willpower.
While I’m walking, I let go of the thoughts about what I am working on or will be working on that afternoon. Instead, I check in with myself, focus on the sound of my steps, my breath, the feel of my feet on the path, and the breeze on my skin. I purposefully listen for the birds, the rustle of leaves, and try to be present with every step I take. Sometimes, my mind will turn to worries or things I really need to do, but I do my best to let them go and return my focus to my breath, my steps, and my surroundings. Guaranteed, I return to my desk and the afternoon ahead in a happier and calmer frame of mind.
If you’re struggling with the idea, take a look at the Ted talk below with Andy Puddicombe, the founder of Headspace, or maybe, check out their instructions for walking meditations.
A conversation with someone — even someone you don’t know can prevent burnout.
We’re social creatures. We thrive on connection and feeling as though we are part of a community or group. Social interaction, or rather a lack of it, can result in feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression. It can also lead to burnout.
Having a conversation with someone — about almost anything — can fend off depressive feelings and boost our wellbeing. While there’s nothing wrong with going for days without speaking to someone, per se, a lack of close, supportive relationships makes us more susceptible to burnout and depression. Relationships require interaction and regular tending through conversation, the sharing of ideas, thoughts and feelings.
For me, having a daily conversation with someone isn’t always possible. I work at home and the nature of my work requires a certain level of solitude. Ironically, most of my close friends live quite far away, so the only people I’m guaranteed to see daily are my partner and two boys. Of course, I speak with them each day, but it’s a pretty small social sphere.
The good news is that conversations that ward off burnout and depression don’t have to be with people you know. A face to face conversation with a stranger can be just as good as a heart to heart with a close friend or relative. Sometimes better. Having a conversation with someone on your commute, that you don’t already know, can leave you happier than you might expect, according to a study by the University of Chicago.
Conversing with strangers will often disabuse you of the idea that other people don’t, or won’t, like you. Talking to strangers can pull you out of a bad mood, create surprising and lasting connections in your life, and make you feel connected to the other people in the world.
As a slightly introverted person, I have to push myself to do this. However, I am pleasantly surprised each time I do make the effort. To date, no-one has spat in my face, been rude back, or left me feeling worse than I did before I tried to strike up a brief conversation.
I don’t meet people on my short commute to work (a walk from bedroom to dining room cupboard — I’d be alarmed if I did!) but I do have to head out at least once a day for my lunchtime walk or to drop my boys to school/collect them at the end of their day. It’s these times that I try to make the effort to strike up a conversation with someone. It could be the unsuspecting builders putting up a house at the top of the hill, the lady in the shop, or one of the Mum’s or Dad’s in the playground that smiles at me when I do the school run. Formalities such as exchanging names never happen on the first interaction and nearly every time I am left with a smile to take home with me.
All of these little daily practices take less than half an hour combined, but they add up to a lot over a week. Even more, over a month. They can dramatically improve your physical and mental wellbeing, ward off burnout, and help you enjoy life more, for longer and longer stretches. It might not sound like much, but daily gratitude, 10 minutes of simultaneous exercise and meditation, and conversations – sometimes with strangers – has helped me to maintain a positive outlook, mental balance, and ward off the depression and burnout that used to periodically plague me. Give it a try to see if it can help you too.