It’s that time of the year again with exams, application deadlines and if you’re in your last year, a sweet “what I am going to do with my life?” crisis. Chances are you are familiar with the concept of burnout. But fear not, we are here to give you an ultimate guideline to understand where it is coming from and how to cope with it!
As the new academic year kicked in, the workload started to pile up and the deadlines started to approach – another burnout period is building up. At this point, burnout is far from being a foreign concept to us; it is “a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped” due to constant mental, physical and emotional stress.
You constantly feel tired, irritable, get headaches and ironically get less things done even if you stress more about work and feel like it is the only thing that you are doing. Perhaps the most irritating part is that sometimes you can feel exhausted without even doing anything productive. A total lose-lose situation as your to-do list is still full and you didn’t even get to rest. What a waste of time and energy!
The obvious factor: Stress
Stress has a bad reputation, and while feeling it constantly is unhealthy, when you understand how it works and become able to control it, it can come in handy. Think about the amount of information your brain manages to absorb the day before an exam or the amount of work you manage to get done the day before the deadline. It’s pretty impressive, isn’t it? It’s because stress can improve our mental and physical performance due to the adrenaline it brings. The same happens during intense situations, such as when you’re being chased by a dog. But we can’t pretend like we have an exam every day and there’s a dog running after us all the time; besides not being realistic, our bodies can’t handle living in a “crisis mode” all the time either.
You can’t be stressing about the exam you’re going to have in two weeks, the mess of your apartment, meeting new people this weekend and the deadline of a presentation all at the same time and expect to be productive or in a healthy state. Unless you want the perfect recipe for a breakdown and then be even more stressed out because you just spent half an hour crying on the kitchen floor instead of working on your infinite to-do list. Pick and worry about one thing at a time instead of overwhelming yourself with dozens of problems all at once – that will never do you any good.
Let’s take student-athletes as an example. They are known to multitask and perform well both in sports and school. Usually, people link this to the fact that they are more disciplined and are hard-workers by default. Now, this is obviously a factor to consider, but another important one that is harder to see is that their busy schedule and way of life don’t allow them to think and do different things at the same time. A professional swimmer can’t stress about the exam they’re going to have next week while racing for milliseconds. Likewise, that same swimmer can’t be competing while trying to catch up on weeks of school load that they missed. So, they deeply focus on one thing at a time. And while focusing on that specific task, the brain takes a break from the other stressors like this season’s performance.
The lesson to take from this example is that we are not burnt out because we don’t have enough time, but because we don’t let ourselves take a break from some responsibilities and waste that time draining ourselves. While a swimmer can’t do a PowerPoint during sports practice, you can check your emails, do the same PowerPoint presentation, chat with your friends on WhatsApp, and try to listen to your professor all at the same time from your computer in the classroom. But while trying to do everything at the same time seems productive, that’s not always the reality.
Is multitasking really the solution to getting things done?
On the contrary of stress, multitasking has a good reputation. “One that can multitask, can get things done and perform well in multiple areas of life”, we think. The pandemic and remote tools it brought to our lives are making multitasking more and more mainstream and the distinction between study/work and rest more and more difficult.
You could be having online meetings back to back while preparing your meal in the middle and sending out emails when the meeting gets boring all from your living room at any given time of the day. While it sounds like a dream, it can also feel like an endless day. It’s because with this new set up, we lost the built-in breaks we didn’t even know we needed. The commuting time you just spent listening to music for example. Perhaps now you feel guilty for spending an hour doing nothing because you could be doing something more productive, and even if you don’t end up doing it, that guilt and that next task are still running in the back of your head preventing you from actually resting. So you end up spending your weekend in front of your desk achieving very little of what you have planned and still feel exhausted. Sounds familiar?
Sparing yourself a couple hours for doing deep work on a specific task like studying, or working on one project without social media or unrelated work interruptions will allow you to get things done without feeling overwhelmed by all the other things we could possibly be stressing about.
So maybe, the magic is not about multitasking all the time and living in a constant “crisis mode”, but to do one task well at a time and to allow ourselves to take mental breaks.
Think of your brain as your computer and what happens when you have sixteen tabs open, two Excel files running, a Zoom meeting happening somewhere as well as an update on one of your apps popping up. While desperate times require desperate measures, let those moments be the exception and allow yourself to close the unnecessary tabs. You can always re-open them when you actually need to use them.
Best ways to rest our brains
First things first, scrolling through your social media isn’t the break you think you need. Studies show that spending your break scrolling on your socials has the same effect as not taking a break at all.
Another solution is exercising. It may sound contradictory to exhaust yourself physically in order to rest mentally, but it’s been proven that exercise boosts your mood and energy while helping you stabilize your emotions. And honestly, I would be surprised if you were able to think about the meaning of the macro formula while doing burpees. The great thing about this is that you don’t need to go to the gym or an hour run, even a 15 minute workout can do the trick.
If exercising still sounds like hell, you can simply do an activity that you like. Energy management is as important as time management. While studying and working usually drain our energy, there are some things in life that actually give us energy other than sleeping. This could be cooking, reading, taking a walk, talking to a friend, playing some music, dancing or even eating fresh food. You know what activity fits you best.
Getting out of our routine in very simple ways can do wonders. Take a little day trip, go to a different coffee shop, or take a different route back home than usual for example. Even a simple change of scenery could do wonders to dissociate yourself from the current stressful situation you are in and let your brain take a break.
Lastly, make sure to get some sleep. Allow yourself to recharge. Once again, your computer refuses to work when it’s out of battery, so does your brain and body.
Having a completely stress-free life is quasi-impossible and frankly not really interesting. But to be able to use stress to our benefit, we need to get to know ourselves.
We all survive stress in different ways and should know how to cope with it in our own ways. Moreover, there are very different types of stress – the one you feel before an exam is different from the one you feel before meeting your partner’s parents or walking alone in a dark alley.
Get to know your stressors; this could be a messy room, meeting new people, approaching deadlines, uncertainty… Pay attention to how you react to them.
Evaluate your coping mechanisms, and if they don’t seem effective, try new approaches. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Avoiding or decreasing the little stressors in your daily life will certainly help you to overcome bigger and unavoidable stressors like exams or big presentations. Clearly, separating your work and personal time and space will also allow you to relax during the day. Remember to differentiate between things you can and cannot control and dedicate your time and energy accordingly.
We will never be able to avoid stress completely, but luckily it doesn’t have to be an enemy. Even though it may not always seem like it, you are not completely powerless over it, just choose one task at a time to channel your stress – it’s about working smart, not hard. Lastly, remember to take a step back when you feel overwhelmed and look at the big picture. You will see that at the end of the day, things will be just fine, you just need to take a deep breath and have a little more faith in yourself.