Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout When You’re Working Hard

Stressed woman

“Your body is precious. It is your vehicle for awakening. Treat it with care.” ~Buddha

On any given day you can find me perched on the edge of my chair, staring at a computer screen. My setup is most definitely ergonomically incorrect, and my posture would make any yoga teacher cringe.

I type and click my mouse and do my work. I occasionally look up and out my windows to a lucky view of ferns, palms, and a few unidentified trees rising up over a blue-green pool. A southern California sky caps the scene.

My brain buzzes with ideas, answers, and turns of words. I’m in intellectual and creative nirvana—and if not that, at least I’m productive. Next thing I know it’s evening and I’m standing up to stretch for the first time in hours.

This was my story for years. I was a good obeyer of the modern-day Protestant work ethic, which is something like: Work hard, and harder, and under few circumstances is letting up appropriate or deserved. Keep going.

And oh, I did. I achieved to my heart’s delight.

What this story is missing is the gaps in-between. The gaps that represented truths I carefully subtracted from the sum. It’s the story about burnout, about getting fried up, that nobody wants to hear but most of us experience.

Before, I would plow through the day with a list of things to do and a yen to achieve all boxes ticked by evening.

I would shove aside feelings of fatigue and crankiness, and explain away my yo-yo cycle of cranking up the caffeine to combat my foggy head and laying off it to quell the shakes and sleepless nights.

When it got bad and I’d hit my walls, which I always did, I would end up a lump on the couch watching whatever would hold my attention in my dazed, cast off state. I’d sleep in, do yoga, drink green juice by the gallon, and sit beneath the sunshine in an effort to refill my energy tank.

And that’s what I was doing: refilling the tank so I could jump back in the car, slam my foot down on the accelerator, and get to where I was going. And so, the cycle continued.

Then, somewhere between teaching hundreds of yoga students, putting in years of dedicated meditation practice, and reading countless books on health, it dawned on me: I was neglecting my body.

Sure, I was regularly exercising, doing my share of breathing exercises, and eating better than the majority of the world’s population.

But I was like a crazed binge addict, denying my body and its needs and desires until I released a deluge of attention on it with the intention of appeasing it enough to make it behave properly and to my liking.

This was my cycle.

There’s a concept in yoga called ahimsa. It’s loosely the notion of non-harming, and, for the most part, I understood it to be applied to people and things around me.

Be kind and apply courtesy and compassion, I would tell students, to all you come across. This is ahimsa, and the starting ground for a true practice of yoga.

Then one day, it dawned on me that I wasn’t applying ahimsa to my own self, particularly my body.

To put it another way, if I treated a friend the way I treated my body, we wouldn’t be friends very long. They’d have shot me the finger and stomped away long ago. So, I decided right then and there to change that relationship. How would I treat my body if it were a person dear to me?

I’d feed it with pleasure, loving care, and compassion. I’d tend to it regularly as you would something precious, reconnecting not just when it felt depleted or because I wanted something from it. I’d do things with and for my body just because it was fun.

The results of treating myself this way are cumulative. And I’ve come to fall in love with my body, its rhythms and quirks, and I do believe my body has come to love me, too.

I still work hard and spend long hours at the computer. I still love the rush of a fully ticked to-do list, and I get a little wonky if I feel like my rate of achievement isn’t up to par. But now, I integrate consideration of my body into my entire day.

What I’ve discovered is that there are ways to reconnect that are silly easy to do. This isn’t about luxuriating in bubbles while dictating next quarter’s marketing strategy (though that’s nice to do). This is about taking simple, mindful actions throughout the day to reconnect with your body.

Here are a few suggestions how:

1. Set a timer.

It’s easy to lose track of time and skip the bathroom break or forgo lunch and power through. We all do it. One way to gently remind yourself to regularly reconnect is to set a timer on your phone or computer to go off every hour. Mindful Clock is an app for the computer and offers gentle chimes and bells. Or try Insight Timer for the phone.

2. Stand up and move.

When the bell rings, stop what you’re doing and stand up. Even if you’re on the phone, stand up. It shifts your mindset and returns normal flow between the top and bottom half of your body. Breathe deeply. Raise your arms over your head. Do a few neck rolls. Reconnect and send loving attention to your body.

3. Feed the senses.

After you’ve moved your body a bit, move your focus to your senses. Reconnecting with your senses is like organic, non-GMO, cold-pressed juice for the body and soul. It provides nourishment beyond pixels and ambient noise, giving pleasure and fulfillment of a different order.

Try this:

Look up and find three things that you find beautiful. Observe them; enjoy them. Take them in—their color, texture, light, and shadow. Be witness to the grandiosity of simple light as it illuminates your landscape.

Or, close your eyes and feel what is touching you. Reach out and touch something right in front of you—the keyboard, desk, your shirt, or your own hand. Notice the texture and the way it makes your fingertips feel, the tingle of connection. Feel the sensation seep into your skin and deep into your system.

When you reconnect with the body and engage with the senses, notice how your body responds with a sigh. Tension wanes, you breathe deeper and relax. That’s the sign that it’s at ease. That’s your body saying thank you.

A body at ease is a happy body and that’s a body well tended to, cared for, and loved. That’s a body that will care for you, too, and more graciously give what you need.

Over time, with this attention and care, burnouts and breakdowns have waned. I hear what my body is telling me because I’m listening, as a good friend would. And like a good friend, I care when it tells me please, stand up and feed the senses; I’m feeling lonely over here.

Excuse me; it’s time for me to stretch…

Photo by Ed Yourdon

About Heather Rees

Heather Rees is a career change coach and strategic ally for women who want to do work that is meaningful to them. She is also the creator of the newly released Soul Revival: a Return to Your Sensesan exploration of the senses to spark creativity and reconnect with the soul. Read more here, or connect on Facebook and Twitter.

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