I'm Taking Better Breaks to Beat Burnout

Know anyone who might be experiencing some form of burnout? 🙋🏻‍♀️

Burnout Background

I started curating information about burnout in the fall of 2020 after hearing Brené Brown's podcast interview with Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski about their book Burnout. In the spring of 2022, burnout seemed to be the theme of the season, and since I compiled so much information, I thought I would organize and share some of the resources here. 

One key idea I've heard in recent months is that precision of language is important when discussing burnout. Burnout is a continuum, rather than on or off. Burnout is commonly associated with overwork, although a lack of fairness, poor relationships, or a failure to meet values may also lead to burnout.

This article from the Headspace team references research that identifies three subtypes of burnout: frenetic, under-challenged, and worn-out. Each burnout subtype manifests itself in different ways: profound emotional and/or physical exhaustion; feelings of lack of professional efficacy, i.e. feelings that work doesn't matter; and feelings of negativity or cynicism.

I also now know these burnout "consequences" correspond to categories in Christina Maslach's Burnout Inventory. (Here's a simple assessment.) 

Breaks to Beat Burnout

Last year, this video appeared on my Headspace meditation app, and the idea of taking different types of breaks to curtail exhaustion from burnout was a small, concrete, manageable step for me.

In the video, Dr. Yousef describes each type of break:

  • macro (at least one day off a month);
  • meso (at least a couple of hours of true downtime each week);
  • micro (a few minutes each day to breathe, recharge, or move).

After watching this video, I decided to get intentional about my breaks. I gathered my resources and now have a three-step plan for my breaks. I also found quotes from additional books that supported these ideas. 

By the way, my favorite tool from the past year is Readwise, which captures highlights from my Kindle books, so this tool helped me quickly find all of the quotes relevant to burnout!

Taking better breaks. Do it for yourself, icon of phone with no symbol, icon of clipboard and check list. Text: “take the break.” “Step away from the screens.” “Have a plan.”
3 Steps for Taking Better Breaks

Step 1: Take the break!

I often feel like my to-do list is overwhelming, and there's no time for breaks, but now I know that break-taking is essential.

Eve Rodsky in Finding Your Unicorn Space implores,

If we want to avoid burning out, we each have to find time to step back; cultivate our curiosities, interests, and passions; and remember who we are apart from our jobs and our family roles.

In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown says,

If you believe being overly busy and overextended is evidence of productivity, then you probably believe that creating space to explore, think, and reflect should be kept to a minimum. Yet these very activities are the antidote to the nonessential busyness that infects so many of us. 

Step 2: Step away from screens. 

It's easy to think that I'm taking a break from a project by checking email or scrolling Twitter, but now I know that's not a true break.

From Annie Murphy Paul's book The Extended Mind

We imagine that we’re replenishing the brain’s depleted resources when we spend our breaks doing something that feels different from work—scrolling through Twitter, checking the news, looking at Facebook. The problem is that such activities engage the same brain regions and draw down the same mental capital we use to do our cognition-centric jobs. We resume our duties just as frazzled as before the pause, and maybe more so.

Step 3: Have a plan for breaks.

I need to know what to do during my breaks so I don't return to the habit of mindless scrolling (or continuing my work.) 

I love this entire article from Anne-Laure Le Cunff from Ness Labs, and she offers five different possibilities to help make the most of work breaks. These ideas could work for micro or meso breaks:

  1. breathe
  2. socialize
  3. get into nature
  4. move
  5. create

This quote comes from The Power of Fun by Catherine Price, and she shares fantastic categories for planning for breaks, whether they're micro, meso, or macro.

...think about my leisure time—whether with screens or without—as falling into three categories: connection, creation, and consumption. (I call these the three c’s.) Then I ask myself which of these feel the most enjoyable, nourishing, or satisfying—and in what doses.

I've been working for several months to be more intentional about my breaks, and it seems to be helping. (At least I'm not glued to my device for so many hours of the day!) My go-to micro-break now is a movement break, which often means a single lap around the building. My meso breaks are often consumption (reading for fun) or connections (coffee with a friend), but I'm also working on more creative outlets, such as learning calligraphy. For macro breaks, I'm fortunate to have vacation days, and I'm using my days.

So what about you? Do you think taking intentional breaks might help with burnout symptoms of exhaustion?

Additional resources and ideas from: