When I started my first business several years ago, I found myself working around the clock to grow my client base as quickly as possible. My evenings and weekends were no longer my own. And since I worked from a home office, it just became second nature to wake up, turn on my computer, have breakfast at my desk and just stay there until almost midnight.
My mind and body never had a chance to unwind, and as a result, I hit a viscous cycle of insomnia. This crippling lack of sleep told me it was time to scale back, and while I did not reach total burnout, I certainly came close.
Now when workloads and stress levels start to pile up, I look back on that time — and the lessons I learnt — on how best to stop those negative feelings. Based on my trial and error, here are nine tips for avoiding stress and burnout.
1. Begin a morning ritual.
So often we begin our day on the wrong foot, jumping out of bed after snoozing the alarm, eating breakfast on the go or at our desks, with no genuine concern for our wellbeing. You should instead try to get up with plenty of time to spare. Sit down and eat breakfast while catching up on the news or reading a good book, and give your body time to wake up slowly. If you have kids, make the time to have breakfast with them and chat about their day ahead. All of this will help you break the habit of beginning each day in a rush.
2. Watch your caffeine intake.
Caffeine can increase your body’s levels of cortisol, which is also known as the stress hormone. So if you’re already feeling stressed, and drinking a lot of coffee to remain alert, the two can elevate your levels of cortisol, leading to more stress and a range of other negative health effects. These can include mood swings, sleep problems, weight gain and heart palpitations. To avoid these problems, limit your caffeine intake to one or two cups of coffee a day, and only have caffeine before 2 PM.
3. Limit screen time.
Our bodies and brains weren’t built to stare at screens for hours on end. Recently, there has been a lot of research into the effect of LCD screens on melatonin production and its impact on sleep. To make matters worse, many of us have a habit of looking at the bright, back-lit screen of phones, tablets or laptops in bed, when we should be unwinding and getting ready for a good night’s sleep. So turn off all screens at least an hour before bed and give your body time to wind down and prepare for bed.
4. Write things down.
With work-related stress, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with your to-do list. But once you write down the actions that are troubling you, it’s easier to prioritise things. And suddenly things seem — and actually are — more manageable. Don’t keep old lists from previous weeks, which can be a depressing reminder of things not complete. Instead, start fresh each week with a clean page. I also find it helpful to keep a pen and paper next to the bed, so that if something is troubling me at night, I can write it down and just deal with it in the morning.
5. Read fiction.
At the end of a busy day, I find it very difficult to switch off my brain. I like to absorb myself in work, but this usually results in poor sleep. As a teen, I discovered the one way to deal with the insomnia was by reading fiction before bed. Allowing your mind to think creatively and wander off into another world is the best way to remove yourself from a work mindset.
6. Be flexible with your work.
A healthy work-life balance means different things to different people. If you’re a parent, it can mean the difference between enjoying quality time with your children each day and missing their bedtimes completely. Over the years I have worked hard to establish flexible working. While there are some things that can only be accomplished during office hours, such as meetings and phone calls, there are other things than can just as easily (and in my opinion, be better) done in the evenings, such as writing and presentations.
7. Make time to workout.
Exercise is a great stress reliever. It gets the endorphins pumping, which helps put you in a positive mental state. And if you can workout in the fresh air, that’s even better! Even a quick stroll in the evening can give you that mental and physical boost you need.
8. Set boundaries.
Being ambitious is great, but you should know your own personal limits. Be aware of your stress levels to avoid overextending yourself. I have always found it very hard to say “no” to things, but nowadays a warning bell sounds in my head when I know that it would be better not to take something on. Leave yourself with enough of a buffer to say “yes” to the things which really interest you and which you know you’ll enjoy doing.
9. Take stock of what you’ve accomplished.
Measure your productivity in terms of what you’ve accomplished on a daily basis. It will help you see the value of what you do and get a true sense of satisfaction from the number of tasks you’ve completed. If you’re looking for tips on how to be more productive, please check out the post, 6 productivity tips to help nail your to-do list.
However, be realistic and remember that work is never-ending. Try not to measure your productivity in terms of how much you’ve produced in a single day, as it’s not a true reflection of your value. There is always something to do, and it’s unrealistic to think we can get through everything in one day. That train of thought can lead to working excessively long hours, which is usually the main cause of burnout.