My new client Julie’s voice quivered as she described how she had been feeling the past few months.
“I’ve been doing all of this work to grow my business…working at night and on the weekends. I have been doing all of the things you are ‘supposed’ to do and then some. I’ve put myself out there, I’ve been positive but nothing is working.”
She took a deep breath and then her voice got lower as she confessed to me: “I’m so tired that I just feel numb. I used to feel so passionate about my work, and now I just don’t care. I would quit but I have no idea what I would do. I cried the other day when I sat down at my computer. I just feel hopeless.”
Julie is a smart, talented and driven entrepreneur. She contacted me because she hit a rough patch and was really starting to doubt whether or not she had the mental toughness to be in business for herself.
Julie believed her problem was that her hard work wasn’t working. But as I listened to her story, I had a hunch that the real problem was that she was working too hard.
Julie had all of the signs of burnout, or “emotional overtraining”.
The antidote for emotional overtraining is the same as for physical overtraining: she had to rest.
Those who study the science behind strength training have known for a long time that rest is the “secret sauce” of getting physically stronger.
Periodic rest breaks from work also allow you to develop greater levels of “mental strength” — like clarity, focus and problem solving.
Body builders know that when they complete a strength training session, their muscles will be temporarily weaker. Their bodies require rest before they can train again.
During the rest period, their bodies undergo a process called “supercompensation”, where they will actually get stronger than their initial baseline.
Training too hard without enough rest results in symptoms of physical overtraining. These symptoms include:
- Increased fatigue
- Listlessness or loss of motivation
- Random body aches and pains
- Emotional lability (moodiness, irritability, anger, or volatility)
- Poor sleep quality or insomnia
The symptoms of burnout, or emotional overtraining, are almost identical. Julie had all of these symptoms, except the body aches and pains.
The fastest way to recover from burnout is to scale back your schedule and rest. Trying to “push through” results in your symptoms getting worse rather than better.
However, resting is super-scary when you feel like you are barely keeping up at work.
Julie was extremely skeptical when I suggested that she needed to rest in order to get back on track with her business. If she had had any energy left, I think she would have yelled “Hell NO!” into the phone when I told her this. But because she was so worn down, she went along with my plan.
Here are three ways I suggested Julie incorporate rest into her week:
Sleep is the first component of helping your body rest and recover. When you are recovering from burnout, you need to sleep more than normal. For adults 26-64, the recommended guidelines are 7-9 hours of sleep per night, but a 2013 Gallup Poll found that many adults get less sleep than 6 hours of sleep per night.
Julie was only sleeping 6.5 hours when we started working together, but found she needed WAY more sleep than she expected to get out of the worst part of the burnout.
For 4 weeks, she slept 8 hours during the week and 9-10 hours on the weekends. After that, she found she needed at least 7 hours during the week and 8-9 hours on the weekend.
I warn my clients that it can take 2-3 times longer than they think for their bodies to recover from the prolonged fatigue associated with burnout, and I find 3-4 weeks is the minimum length of time it takes for their fatigue to improve. (This time period can be extended if the burnout has been prolonged.)
2. Downtime (“Awake Rest”)
My suggestion that she create more space for downtime or “awake rest” took Julie by surprise. When I tell my clients they need to rest more, they often think I’m talking just about sleep.
In addition to sleep, we also need times where our brains can relax while we are awake. Some people can relax by watching TV, but I personally find most TV shows too overstimulating when my brain is fatigued.
Downtime should be something that is relatively low-key, like reading a book or working on some type of creative project. A creative project is particularly good at helping to quiet the left side (verbal) side of the brain that tends to go into overdrive when we have been working too much.
3. Take rest breaks at work
When your physical reserves are low, your brain and your body need rest breaks they can count on. This includes taking short breaks at mid-morning and mid-afternoon as well as actually taking a lunch break. (I can’t tell you how many of my clients say they skip lunch or eat at their desk!)
Julie found that her habit of trying to squeeze in “just one more thing” wasn’t working for her anymore because her mental focus dropped quickly when she was tired. She noticed she became less efficient if she tried to work past her scheduled rest break time.
I recommend a 15 min break at mid morning, at least a 30 minute break at lunch and another 15 minute break in the afternoon.
Rest is the essential component of recovering from physical stress as well as the emotional stress that can lead to burnout. Incorporating these 3 rest strategies — sleep, downtime, and rest breaks at work — can help you recover from burnout and avoid a relapse.