Being productive is difficult under the best of times, but it becomes even more difficult during periods of professional or personal burnout. Burnout is described as a condition of physical and mental exhaustion related to overwork or overwhelming circumstances. It can cause physical symptoms like headaches and fatigue as well as mental symptoms like loss of motivation and even depression.
Luckily, there are some techniques people can use to help trick their brain into still being productive even when you’re feeling burnt out. Keep reading to learn more about ways you can continue to be productive even if you’re feeling flustered and drained.
Keep a Written Record
When we become overwhelmed with unfinished tasks, this alone can result in burnout eventually. The mental energy necessary to both perform daily tasks and hold a standing list of things that need doing or attending to is like trying to make coffee and juggle at the same time.
Even though we don’t always realize it, trying to hold all of the information you need to remember from day to day can cause an excess of mental and emotional stress. Over time, this stress can lead to a state of burnout due to decision fatigue. Decision fatigue is a state of reduced willpower that occurs as the result of having too many options to choose from and being unable to prioritise rational action.
(Source: New York Times)
Store Information for Less Mental Burnout
To combat burnout and to still get things done while you’re recovering, a major step you can take is to get errant thoughts out of your head and in a place where they can be analysed and acted on. This involves keeping a written record of your thoughts. Psychological science has proven that when people write down their thoughts, it is the equivalent of removing those thoughts. (Source: Association for Psychological Science)
The biggest thing that you can do to maintain your productivity even when you’re overwhelmed with a giant pile of mental tasks is to get your thoughts organized. After seeing all of your to-do tasks and responsibilities laid out, it’s a lot easier to see a path forward in getting some things done.
Here are a few ways that you can transfer your thoughts to paper to keep them from weighing down your brain in a state of burnout:
- Do a brain dump. Write down everything that comes to your mind. A brain dump shows you all the information in your head you need to organize. If you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed by burnout, breaking a brain dump into 10-15 minute intervals can make it less taxing. Don’t worry about your thoughts being scattered on the page—organization comes later.
- Get a planner and use it. Once you’ve laid out all of your thoughts on the page, putting them into a planner can help you get a higher perspective on what you’re trying to get accomplished. A planner can help you organize your potential tasks and goals into a structured system that allows you to tackle them more easily with actionable steps and a schedule.
- Learn to identify action steps. You might have the goal “put in a garden” but the concept of putting in a garden is so nebulous that if you don’t get a better handle on the idea than that, you’ll never do it. Instead, identify the steps necessary to build a garden—buy seeds, till the ground, install a fence, buy fertilizer—and use those steps to gain productive ground.
- Write down your routine. To see what is and isn’t working for you, write down your average routine from daylight to dark. Burnout is usually the result of a poor working or home environment, and looking at your self-care efforts (or lack thereof) can point you to the reasons why you may be getting over-stressed.
- Outline your projects. One major obstacle that stands in the way of you accomplishing larger or more complex tasks is that it can be more difficult to maintain a sense of progress over time. Setting up paperwork for your personal projects lets you hold yourself accountable for keeping them in forward motion. Deadlines on projects with milestones can also help in this regard.
Racing thoughts about what you need to do and a head full of to-do tasks can cause you to feel like you’re sinking in a hurry. But just going through the process of writing down and organising your thoughts in a written record can make everything you need to tackle feel that much more manageable.
Find Accountability From Others During Burnout
If you’re suffering from burnout, lack of motivation related to it can be a serious obstacle for productivity. Seeking accountability for your productivity through others helps you stay productive even when you’re not feeling any sense of internal accomplishment for anything you’re doing.
Since burnout is usually a temporary state that can be relieved through rest and self-care, having others check in on you can help you keep from backsliding on responsibilities while you struggle to get back to baseline with your mental health and work performance.
These are a few other reasons why seeking accountability through others can help you stay productive even if you’re feeling burned out:
- Accountability increases performance. The most primal part of the human brain feels rewarded when our tasks are recognized by others. If you’re feeling in a mental slump, having someone else act as your cheerleader can temporarily increase your motivation to produce work to show them. This is one of the reasons why writers will often spar against each other to produce work.
- Accountability minimizes loneliness. A state of burnout can bring with it a sense of despondency and loss of will. Relating your productivity struggles and your struggles with burnout to a trusted friend, family member, or coworker can help you feel less isolated. This in turn can improve your mental outlook and increase your productivity naturally.
It may seem painful or embarrassing to admit that you’ve reached a point of burnout to another person. But just acknowledging that you’re struggling can often be the first step towards moving into healthier productivity.
Use Reward Systems to Bolster Productivity
Maintaining productivity in a state of burnout can be hard, especially if you’ve fallen into a state of neglecting self-care, but using a reward system to keep your productivity up can address both problems at once.
Identifying rewards that will make you happy and attaching them to your to-do list can encourage your brain to seek out completed tasks. It’s also important that you identify things in your life that you value for their ability to make you happy, whether you reward yourself with a Netflix binge, an ice cream sundae, or just a nice long bath.
A state of burnout or adrenal fatigue can lead to decreased motivation and dopamine levels, which in turn can make a person feel even more depressed and unproductive. (Source: Brain Facts) Receiving a reward for a task reintroduces regular doses of dopamine to the brain and can improve a person’s entire outlook.
Here are some tips you can follow for using reward systems to bolster productivity:
- Give yourself a gold star. There’s a reason gold stars are used to denote a good job in educational systems the country over. Used in combination with your planner, placing a gold star next to major tasks you’ve managed to accomplish can act as a sharp visual cue that drives satisfaction up. It can also show you a visual record of what you’ve gotten completed.
- Think about what you really want. The types of rewards that work for one person may not be appealing to another, so figuring out the best rewards for your lifestyle involves looking at what you enjoy and how you can incorporate more of it into your daily life.
- Work towards larger rewards. Having small rewards attached to productive tasks can help drive daily productivity, but using larger rewards can help you stay on task for more complicated projects that may involve days, weeks, or even months of sustained productivity to achieve.
It may take some time to come up with a reward system that clicks with your other productivity systems, but using rewards can help you persevere through a patch of burnout without feeling drained of all happiness in the process. Keep in mind that rewards aren’t self-indulgent. Instead, they’re a way for people to show themselves love and respect for a job well done.
Take Care of Your Body to Fight Burnout
Neglect of your bodily needs can be one of the factors directly relating to burnout. On the flip side of that, burnout can also cause people to begin neglecting themselves as they get run down and worn out.
To combat this tendency, people experiencing burnout have to pay more attention to what they need physically as well as emotionally and mentally. Lack of self-care during burnout only prolongs the problem and prevents a return to full health.
Look at the following areas to see if you can make improvements that will have a positive effect on your productivity:
- Look at your sleep hygiene. If you’ve been pulling late nights or even all-nights working, chances are that’s a big part of where your burnout is originating from. Instead, commit yourself to at least 7-8 hours of good sleep and start tracking how often you accomplish it. If you’re sleep-deprived, even 9-10 hours can help reduce your sleep debt and make you feel better.
- Check your diet. When we get overworked and over-scheduled, our good eating habits are usually one of the first things to go. This can include everything from comfort eating to combat work-related stress to skipping meals entirely. Start tracking your diet and you’ll likely be astonished at some of the poor eating choices you’re gravitating towards in burnout.
- Get some exercise. It might seem hard to make the time for exercise if you’re running on fumes and you already feel pushed past the point of productivity, but you’d be amazed at how much better you’ll feel after you get up and moving. Exercise introduces additional endorphins to the brain to guard against depression and lack of motivation.
- Practice mental and emotional self-care. Along with addressing your physical health needs, taking stock of your mental and emotional state during burnout is important. Even small tasks like maintaining your hygiene or making your bed every day can help positively reinforce your mental outlook.
- Get up and stretch. Working long hours without rest leaves you prone to burnout and can also lead to an increased risk of sedentary medical conditions like deep vein thrombosis. Be sure even if you’re doing an extended work session that you take the time at least once or twice an hour to get up and stretch or move around.
- Avoid negative media. Whether or not we realize it, taking in negative media such as screaming news pundits or emotionally draining content can have a cumulative negative effect on our mental health. To combat this, focus on taking in positive media such as affirmations or media which bring up feelings of happy nostalgia.
Going the extra mile to take care of your body when you’re burned out and exhausted can seem like one task too many, but stick it out. The increased energy and improved mood you can experience as the result of good diet, consistent exercise, and sleep can go a long way towards curing your burnout.
Take on Fewer Tasks to Be a Productive Burnout
Taking on less work seems impossible when you already feel stretched to capacity with things that need to be done, but streamlining the number of tasks to be completed can sometimes be the only way to move forward when your productivity is hobbled by burnout. Reducing your workload gives your schedule some flexibility and provides time for you to practice rest and self-care.
Here are some ways you can whittle down your tasks so that you can reclaim your productivity:
- Delegate what you can. Delegating tasks to others who are capable of doing them can free up a lot of your time. Taking on too many tasks because you don’t trust others to do them is a classic symptom of perfectionism and can indicate a controlling personality. If this is you, accept it, and work on letting go of things that don’t absolutely have to be done by you.
- Eliminate unnecessary tasks. Many of the tasks we feel like we need to do are not real priorities for us at all. Instead, these are priorities that we feel pressured with by others. Take a hard look at the list of things you’re trying to do and really assess whether they deserve to be there. You’d be surprised at how many tasks you can live with taking off your to-do list for good.
- Identify your most important tasks. The concept of Most Important Tasks (MITs) is popular across many productivity methods, and with good reason. Accomplishing a few highly prioritized tasks each day can lend a better sense of satisfaction and productivity than accomplishing half a dozen petty tasks that don’t move any of your larger projects forward.
Abandoning some tasks or passing them on can feel like failure if you’re in a state of burnout, but reducing your workload is key to moving out of that mental state and into a more healthy place.
Find Your Personal Rhythm
Staying productive while you’re exhausted is difficult under the best of circumstances, but it can be made even harder if you’re working against your natural rhythm. Trying to power through work during a period when you’re naturally tired or forcing yourself to rest when you’re energetic doesn’t take advantage of the ebb and flow of your energy.
Find Your Productive Times
Every person has a circadian rhythm, which is the natural biological process that governs the sleep-wake cycle. All people have a slightly different circadian rhythm, and some people have a circadian rhythm that is skewed more towards evening hours rather than the day-time.
People who are natural night owls and are forced into day-time work may suffer from chronic burnout, while people who are naturally energetic during the day will find the graveyard shift exhausting. If you find that you are more productive during certain times of the day, try to arrange your schedule to take advantage of these periods for increased general productivity.
Review Your Daily Productivity
Figuring out your personal rhythm involves getting a sense of your productivity. This can be done by making notes on what needs to be accomplished and then marking off what needs to get done. Once a week, it’s a good idea to look at how productive you were each day and look for clues as to what might have triggered a day of productivity or a day of lackluster results.
It’s a good idea when you’re having a bad day productivity-wise to make a few notes on your mental and emotional state. This shows you areas of your life that are negatively impacting your productivity so that you can address them directly.
Find Your Motivational Obstacles
Everybody has tasks they want to accomplish that they can’t get on the bandwagon for no matter how hard they try. Whether it’s getting into a daily exercise routine or quitting a coffee habit, our daily routines are so hardwired into us that changing it up can be a daunting task.
When reviewing your productivity during burnout, look at those things which you’re struggling with and see if you can’t identify problem areas. For example, if you have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning to go jog, steps like going to sleep in your jogging outfit and placing your jogging shoes right beside your bed can help reinforce your commitment to the task.
Try Getting Up Early and Going to Bed Early
Even though being an early bird may not come naturally to everyone, the hours just before dawn can be some of the most productive in the day if daily interruptions have been one of the stressors contributing to your burnout. Tackling personal projects before dawn when the rest of the household is asleep can give you some much-needed peace and quiet to increase productivity.
Getting up early can give you the time to accomplish additional tasks that increase self-care and productivity at the same time, such as going to the gym or writing in a journal. However, if you decide to start a habit of getting up early, it’s important to give yourself an earlier bedtime to compensate. Otherwise, the additional sleep deprivation will do nothing positive for your burnout or productivity.
Know When You Need a Break
Sometimes the only answer to a severe case of burnout is a real break, and there’s nothing wrong with taking a mental health day (or even a mental health week) if you feel like your responsibilities are piling up beyond your ability to reasonably address. Sometimes all it takes is a few days of total rest to reset you to a place where you feel capable of tackling your to-do list again.
Don’t be ashamed to give your body and mind the rest they deserve when you’re pushed to the edge of burnout. It only serves to increase your productivity, not damage it.
Quit Comparing Your Productivity to Others
One trap that people who are suffering from burnout often fall into is comparing their failing productivity with those of their friends, family, and colleagues. This does nothing to improve the productivity or outlook of the person who is burned out. It can even make burnout worse by reinforcing depression or a cynical worldview.
It’s important to recognize social comparison as a negative, counter-productive behavior if you’re trying to correct your productivity in burnout. Coveting the productivity or success of others on social media not only does nothing to improve your own. It also has no tangible impact on your life. Because so much of our identity is wrapped up in our social media image, it can be easy to be overly invested.
Instead, it’s important for people who are looking to improve their productivity to focus on themselves when dealing with a period of burnout. Comparing yourself to others will not only make you miserable, it’ll make it that much harder to get a handle on your productivity issues.
Find Life Hacks to Make Daily Tasks Easier
When your productivity is suffering from a period of burnout, even just getting through normal daily tasks is overwhelming. This makes it difficult to take on additional goals or tasks to make progress on larger projects.
Using life hacks can make your daily life easier while also giving you more energy to tackle other things. Follow these life hacks to put some ease back into your daily routine:
- Prep meals ahead: If you prep healthy meals ahead for the week, you achieve two goals—you save time cooking each day, and you can also ensure you’re getting a balanced diet at the same time. One major obstacle for people when it comes to eating healthy is trying to cook or decide on what to eat on the spot, leaving them vulnerable to impulse. Meal prep simplifies things.
- Streamline choices like your wardrobe. Simplifying your wardrobe reduces the number of choices you have to make each day, leaving you enough energy to make more important choices related to your work or goals. Focus on keeping wardrobe staples in relatively neutral colors while discarding any clothing or accessories that are rarely used.
- Get to a zero inbox. Even if you never read the hundreds of spam emails cluttering your digital mailbox, the sight and thought of them each time you go to your email to address actual correspondence will add unnecessary anxiety to your day. Removing all of those old spam emails, unsubscribing from newsletters, and keeping your inbox down will reduce stress.
- Declutter your home. The visual clutter associated with a cluttered home can add even more background stress for you to deal with if you’re already burned out and over-extended. Removing as many excessive belongings as possible and clearing the surfaces in your home can instantly make you feel more peaceful. (Source: Bustle)
- Take advantage of work/home boundaries. If you don’t already have a policy of shutting down workplace communications after a certain time once you’ve returned home, you should lay down the law. Being constantly “on-call” for work while you’re at home can negatively affect your productivity in domestic tasks and can ultimately lead to burnout.
Paring down your daily activities can be hard when you feel like your schedule is stuffed to the brim, but working ahead and prepping your daily tasks can leave you with some precious extra time for self-care activities like sitting down with a book or drinking a cup of tea.
Productivity During Burnout is Difficult
It can be tough maintaining your productivity through a period of burnout, even though most professionals fall into this condition at one point or another during their careers. However, following the tips outlined above can go a long way towards helping you maintain productivity even when you’re feeling stressed out.
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