If you are an adult in America, there’s a good chance you’re experiencing some burnout—and not just at work. As one headline put it, “burnout is everywhere.” That part is all but undeniable. What’s less clear is why. Being too busy is an obvious culprit—Gallup lists an “unmanageable workload” and “unreasonable time pressure” as two of the primary causes of employee burnout—but if my personal experience is any indication, it’s not the only one. When it comes to downtime, it’s not just quantity, but quality that matters. Here’s how I know.
The final semester of my college career was a lot. I double-majored in two totally unrelated fields, minored in math, and I had changed majors in my junior year. So unlike a lot of my friends who’d managed to lighten their credit load in the home stretch, I was yet again taking more than 18 credits. I was also captain of the women’s tennis team, which had earned a bid in the NCAA Division III Women’s Tennis Championship tournament that year. That meant an extended season with late-night practices every weekday from ten to midnight. And to top it all off, I worked part-time at the school library. To this day, thinking about the demands of my day-to-day back then makes my stomach churn. At the time, I didn’t think; I just put my head down and did what I had to do. I survived.
That said, the semester took a toll, one that started showing up in small, funny ways as graduation day neared. Once toward the end of the semester, my advanced macroeconomics professor asked the seniors in the class how the job hunt was going. “I haven’t started applying for jobs yet,” I said flatly when he looked my way. “You haven’t?” he asked, raising his eyebrows theatrically, “You should really get going on that. In fact,” he paused, “it might be too late already.” In a rare show of chutzpah that only makes sense in light of the anxiety rattling in my bones, I pushed back: “So if I put off job hunting until the summer, every single job in the entire country will be taken?” I deadpanned, with a large helping of sarcasm. “All the jobs in America will be gone forever? What will next year’s graduates do?” He laughed nervously and changed the subject. It was awkward.
But the damage really became clear after I graduated and went home to my parents’ house to begin job hunting. I had nightmares about missed deadlines and failed exams every few nights for the entire summer. More worrisome, I slipped into a bout of extreme fatigue that lasted for over a month. I slept 10 to 12 hours a night and still struggled to keep my eyes open during the day, so much so that people around me took notice. On a road trip to Madison, Wisconsin, where I eventually found a job (not all of them were taken, as it turned out), my tendency to doze off during any car trip longer than five minutes became a running joke between my boyfriend and future mother-in-law. They still poke fun at me about it now—more than six years later.
At the time, I had no idea what was going on. In hindsight, it’s obvious: after four years of burning the candle at both ends, and a semester of burning the candle with a blowtorch, I was officially burnt out.
It would be easy to conclude from this that I was simply too busy in college. That the constant cycle of class, work, homework, practice, and more homework just didn’t leave enough time in the day for recuperation. There’s probably some truth to that. But the reality is that despite my busy schedule, I did have downtime—I just wasted it all on activities that were not actually rejuvenating.
This only became clear to me some five years later. I’d just graduated from a master’s program, finishing up two years that were as, if not more, jam-packed than undergrad. I spent the first year as a full-time student, part-time project assistant, and pregnant with my first child. I spent the second year as a full-time student and first-time mom. And yet, standing on the steps of the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison with my diploma in one hand and my one-year-old in the other, I didn’t feel the way I’d felt five years earlier. I felt tired, but in a good way—more like I’d finished a tough workout and less like I’d been stranded in the desert for a week without food or water.
What changed? At least in terms of my schedule, not a lot: classes, work, and then parenting made for a routine that began very early in the morning and ended very late. Homework, term papers, and my thesis filled in most but not all of the remaining free time. What was left made all the difference.
In college, I didn’t really think much about downtime. In fact, except for going out on weekends, I had a hard time recognizing that I had any because it came in the form of procrastination. On a typical day, I would move from one thing to the next on my list of Very Important Things To Do. At some point, I’d find myself struggling to accomplish a task and reach for something near at hand to distract me: scrolling through Facebook, texting, or watching TV. Sometimes I’d walk next door or downstairs to a friend’s room and sit on their futon while they did work. In other words, rather than choosing to relax, I would simply lapse into inactivity. As a result, most of my downtime got eaten up by the most readily available distraction.
The problem was that although these distractions did not require much energy, most of them did not actually rejuvenate or refuel me. Some drained me even more: scrolling through Facebook when you’ve already spent several hours on a laptop is not a revitalizing experience. If, in the words of Rebecca Corgan, “self-care is best defined by how refreshed you feel after,” I was not doing much self-care.
In grad school, with the benefit of three years in the “real world” under my belt, I took a different approach to utilizing my free time, one guided by a simple desire not to waste my leisure time on things I wouldn’t actually be glad to have done afterward. I got pickier about the campus events and social gatherings I attended. I scheduled in time for a couple of non-negotiable forms of self-care (for me, reading and exercise), even at the expense of work, school, and housework. When I couldn’t stop myself from procrastinating, I procrastinated smarter, using it as an opportunity to do something useful or rejuvenating. I kept a mental “self-care to-do list” at the back of my mind for these occasions. On it were things like walking, journaling, doodling, transcribing into my journal any quotes I’d underlined or highlighted while reading (my all-time favorite form of self-care), cooking or baking something simple but delicious—anything I felt would center and restore me was fair game.
Counterintuitively, learning to make better use of my downtime took some effort. I had to break the habit of passively slipping into free time and instead build a habit of mindfulness when it came to relaxing. But the cumulative effect of doing so was that I emerged from two of the most potentially stressful years of my life comparatively level-headed. And that’s saying something.