You can be forgiven for feeling a little less than productive this time of year. With the nice weather—and maybe a vacation—on the horizon, you may not feel a huge desire to get things done. That’s normal. What’s not? Feeling chronically tired, cynical, and that whatever you’re doing isn’t making a difference. Those are classic symptoms of burnout.
For women, this can happen at work—which is probably not surprising—but at home too, if you spend long hours caring for small people or elderly people. Burnout can have profound physical and emotional consequences, keeping you from sleeping, or even feeling like life is meaningful.
So, how do busy women stave it off?
From my research studying women's time diaries and writing my book, I Know How She Does It, I've gathered some insights on how the busiest women keep it together.
They know much can be changed.
The most profound weapon against burnout is mental strength. Burnout means feeling powerless, but strong women know that few choices are permanent. If you hate your job, you can find another one, or you can figure out a way to build up savings to finance a sabbatical. If you wanted to be a stay-at-home mom but then realize it isn’t for you, you can go back to work and find a wonderful child care arrangement. If you’re caring for elderly relatives, there may be other people who can help share the load. Maybe you can’t change everything tomorrow, but in six to twelve months, daily life could look different. Other people can think what they’ll think; you are still in charge of you.
They become energy detectives.
Even if you don’t need to change everything, if you pay close attention to how you spend your time, you’ll discover that some activities add to your energy levels, while others subtract. Burnout happens when the numbers in the negative column become overwhelming. So instead, figure out how you can change the arithmetic. How can you spend less time on the things that drain you? Maybe you can train someone else to take on a project you’ve never liked. Maybe you can stop picking up the toys every night (because they’ll just come out again the next morning).
They take care of themselves.
Managing energy isn’t just about getting rid of the negatives. You also want to fill the well. For most people, getting adequate sleep and exercise is the easiest way to feel able to conquer the world. When I studied 1,001 days in the lives of successful women with big jobs and kids at home, I found that on average they slept 7.8 hours per day. About 90 percent exercised during the time they tracked for me, with an average of almost three and a half hours per week. Taking care of themselves was how they were able to take care of everyone else.
Getting enough sleep is easier said than done if you’re caring for small children, but it’s still doable. Give yourself a bedtime. Ask friends or neighbors to take the baby for an hour during the day so you can nap. As for work, don’t be a martyr. No one will notice if you leave your desk for twenty minutes to take a quick walk outside.
They invest in relationships.
People are a good use of time. I recently had nine hundred people keep track of their time for a day, and then asked them questions about time perception. I found that people who spent more time with family and friends felt like they had more time—and they felt better about their time—than people who used their free time for TV and social media. Try asking a colleague to go to lunch or coffee with you. If you’re home with small kids, do post-nap afternoon playdates. That’s when the day starts feeling long, but it will feel more doable if you’re chatting with a fellow parent whose company you enjoy (cocktails optional).
They make time for meaning.
If part of burnout is feeling like life is meaningless, then staving it off requires engineering meaning into life. One simple way to feel accomplished is to take up a hobby. Instead of watching TV before bed, spend the hour painting, knitting, or even finishing a crossword puzzle. A few completed scrapbook pages will make you feel like you’ve done something for the day. Of course, meaning can be more profound, too. If you feel like nothing you do at work matters, sign up to volunteer at a food bank on the weekend. Or teach faith classes for teenagers at your house of worship. Over time, you may be able to create more meaning in your daily life, too. Raise your hand to help with planning a work event you think is worthwhile (such as a women’s networking lunch), or ask to be put on a project that sounds exciting. Eventually, you may be able to turn the job you have into the job you really want.