The Only Way to Actually Avoid Burnout
“More, bigger, faster.”
This, the ethos of the market economies since the Industrial Revolution, is grounded in the mythical and misguided assumption that our resources are infinite.
That we have unlimited time and energy to pour into our work, and that our output (productivity) is directly correlated with our input.
This is wrong on both counts.
As we all well know, time is finite, and many people feel theirs is running out, that they’re investing as many hours as they can while also trying to have some semblance of a life outside work.
Energy is finite, too, both physical and mental. We can only stay on task for so long before our focus wanes and enthusiasm flags, especially when the demand for performance is great.
This is why, according to research conducted by Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University, the best high-level performers in various disciplines ranging from music to chess typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes.
“To maximize gains from long-term practice,” Dr. Ericsson concluded, “individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”
It’s also why short naps have been shown to increase the vigilance and reaction times of night shift air traffic controllers, and why extending sleep to 10 hours per night can markedly increase shooting accuracy in college basketball players.
Despite all of this, making time for downtime is at odds with many people’s work ethic, which views it as weakness or wasted time. In most arenas, rewards still accrue to those who push themselves the hardest, but that doesn’t mean they’re always the most productive.
It’s also worth noting that how well you renew yourself matters more for performance than how long. That is, the more rapidly and deeply you can learn to rest your mind and body, the more restored you can feel in less time.
What you do to relax is a big part of this. According to a study of over 18,000 people from 134 countries, the most restful activities are as follows (in no particular order):
- Being in a natural environment
- Being alone
- Taking a nap
- Listening to music
- Socializing with friends and family
- Doing nothing in particular
Conspicuously absent from the list are many people’s go-tos of television — which may have limited restorative power in moderation, but can also produce feelings of guilt and inadequacy — and social media, which for many causes feelings of isolation, unhappiness, and jealousy.
So, if you want to get just as good at relaxing as you are at working, experiment with different activities and routines and record how rejuvenated you feel after each, and you’ll be able to home in on what works best for you.