The secret to avoiding burnout? Indulge a little

This May, burnout was officially recognised by the World Health Organisation. Whilst my colleagues and I thought “It’s about time!”, it was a step in affirming that you’re neither weak nor alone if you’ve burnt out or are teetering on the brink. But, most of us believe burning out is acceptable and expect to experience it repeatedly. In short, there’s no other way out.

Here’s the problem with this fallacy:

1. Burning out is not a badge of honour

We all know about the machismo of little sleep, where people compete on the number of hours they’ve slogged and compare how they’ve barely slept. It’s as though chronic, overwhelming stress is a status symbol— if you haven’t burnt out, you aren’t working hard enough. That’s no way to live.

2. Learned helplessness

We find new ways of coping as we emerge from the ashes of burnout— but these may not be healthy. Then there is the awful recovery period, to the familiar soundtrack of depression, anxiety and self-doubt. Repeat this on loop, and imagine how you’ll dread the next round of burning out. Put simply, we learn to become helpless and hopeless.

What if I— a psychologist for Type A perfectionists— told you there’s another way out?

Specifically, a way that my friend and two-time Olympian Peter Shmock, and I christen “The Jedi Way To Performance”. Coming from two very different life paths and disciplines, Peter and I are convinced that there’s an easier way to accelerate our performance, increase wellbeing and of course, avoid burning out. And the secret starts with learning to indulge ourselves a little regularly.

Understandably, that statement is befuddling, going against everything you’ve learned.

I remember a client saying that he wouldn’t reward himself until he achieved his five-year plan— and he really did the hard slog. He was merely the adolescent version of many of my older clients, and luckily for him, he hadn’t burnt out yet. You see, they believe we do not deserve rewards until we reach our version of The Holy Grail. Except that, rewarding ourselves can actually inspire us to work harder and smarter. Rewards aren’t necessarily that Prada handbag or a slice of chocolate cake every day. It’s simply some form of being good to yourself, that will flood your brain with dopamine, firing off the reward neurocircuitry. That Feel Good Factor means you’re even more recharged when you return to your work.

Another protest Peter and I encounter is how where we believe we’ll go soft and lazy. He recounts how he believed that “Hard is good, more is better”, until he realised he wasn’t making much progress nor enjoying his sport anymore. And once he’d gotten over his fears that resting meant he was lazy, he realised that by listening to his body, resting energised his Olympic goals. That was his Road To Damascus epiphany moment– we are too narrow-minded in terms of our idea of discipline. Indeed, I often share with my clients that indulging a little isn’t going to suddenly make you lazy or unproductive— you took time to build up your discipline and work ethic. It will not disappear overnight. Instead, you need to reward it, rather than to fuel an apocalyptic mindset.

Often, we believe that the fancy holiday will solve our problems, and then find ourselves more anxious despite being in figurative Paradise. Or, we count on some retreat to make us better, but when we return to real life, we’re clueless as to how to integrate these benefits into real life, feeling helpless as we slide back to square one. Meaning, these holidays and retreats become escapes or feed the story “I’ll never be in-control of my wellbeing and productivity”.

Because the truth is, if you do not know how to recharge your batteries regularly, then you run on empty. Most of us are aghast when we wake up and realise that our phones did not charge overnight, and are now operating on ‘low battery mode’. Except, we don’t apply that respect to recharging ourselves.

The idea of indulging a little applies to any discipline; Peter and I have used it personally and with our clients from work performance to learning a new skill to intermittent fasting and working out.

Here’s some ways you can do it:

1. Eat that chocolate

I decided a long time ago that I’d rather eat some quality chocolate and go for that run, therefore enjoying both physical benefits and gustatory pleasures, than to beat myself up for not running and then binge-eat as a punishment. Whether it’s to satisfy hormonal cravings or a congenital sweet tooth, if that tiny bit of dessert helps you to stick to your intermittent fasting or work out, do it. And if you’re worried that you have an addictive personality, you have a lot more willpower than you realise.

2. Napping

There’s a logic behind the siesta— that power nap can be ever-so-rejuvenating. It creates a time boundary between different tasks or chapters in a day, that can help you start something feeling inspired and more energised.

3. Having a proper day off

As an entrepreneur, even if I technically took days off, I’d still be brainstorming or worrying about business or writing. Eventually, I realised that wasn’t really a day off, because I was in the wrong headspace. In that vein, whether it’s a staycation at home or a short trip somewhere, commit to it properly.

4. Take that walk

Some of us love being physical. As Peter quips, “You realise that if you’re gonna inhabit your body for the next many decades, you’d better learn how to develop a great relationship with it, and to enjoy your body”. This means, allowing yourself that run or walk if you want to. In the words of one of my clients, “I started noticing all these things in my neighbourhood, that I ignored because I live in my head or on my couch. Now I have more places to explore and enjoy my life a lot more”. How’s that for a win-win.

5. Breathe

When anxious, many of us hold our breath or breathe wrongly. We suck in our bellies when we inhale, causing our chests to constrict and then we hyperventilate. This is why some of my clients tell me that meditation makes them feel worse; imagine subjecting your body to that through an hour-long meditation. Instead, I often prescribe a simple three-breath meditation, because when we breathe correctly, we learn to regulate our fear centre in our brain and spring our parasympathetic nervous system into action, grounding us. Taking a few seconds for some much-needed deep breathing can feel like an indulgence to a wound-up body. As I tell my clients, if you have time to visit the bathroom, you have time to do three breaths.

Spend a little time to buy back more time

When she finally gave himself the permission to run, my client realised the world wasn’t going to end. Instead, her businesses benefited from that time out. It’s really about spending a little time to buy back more time and sanity. As Peter reflects, we measure how well our self-care is working by the results— are we more in-control of our heads and our lives, and are we sleeping better and feeling more rejuvenated?

I used to feel guilty about the number of naps I take and how much free time I have to pursue my interests. It defied how I was brought up, even though I enjoy my life. Except that today, I know that these are the fruits of my labour, from the foundations I’ve built and also because I’ve made self-care into a discipline.

Here’s the deal, whether or not you feel bad for your little indulgences, the time will pass by anyway.

Let’s make that time count fully, by choosing to recharge your batteries and reinspire yourself.