Are you in a funk?
Are you exhausted or overwhelmed?
Are you in burnout?

Today’s workers are suffering from a burnout epidemic. It is estimated that 40% of office workers in the United States and Canada are burnt-out and that statistic is even higher in industries like medicine and athletics which have 50% and 60% burnout rates respectively.

The danger is that burnout is linked to under-performance, low self-esteem and feelings of hopelessness.

The major cause? Employees are being overworked without reaping the rewards. The Economic Policy Institute reports that between 2000 and 2014, economic productivity increased by 21.6%, yet wages have only increased by 1.8%. To accomplish that, a Gallup survey reports that American employees are working, on average, 47 hours per week, yet they are not compensated for those extra hours, leading to burnout.

Even the most successful people hit plateaus or funks. Arianna Huffington is a mega successful journalist, author and entrepreneur. During the peak of her business running the Huffington Post she was swamped with work and putting in tons of hours. But she kept pushing and pushing. Eventually her energy got so low that she passed out on the bathroom floor of her home—ultimate burnout. She says that it was a wake-up call that she had to re-evaluate her life and rekindle her fire.

Let’s see how you can rekindle your fire…

#1: Burnout Alters Your Brain

If you’re feeling burnout at work or in life in general, it is not just a feeling that will go away on its own. Neuroscientists discovered that burnout has the following effects on your brain:

  • It enlarges your amygdala – the part of the brain that controls emotional reactions. This can increase moodiness. It also causes you to have a stronger stress response when startled.
  • Burnout causes the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that is responsible for cognitive functioning – to thin. This happens normally with ageing but in people who are stressed for prolonged periods of time, it occurs much more rapidly.
  • Parts of the brain that control memory and attention spans are weakened. This makes it more difficult to learn.
  • The brains of people who are chronically burnt-out show similar damage as people who have experienced trauma.
  • Burnout reduces the connectivity between different parts of the brain which can lead to decreased creativity, working memory and problem solving skills. 

With these kinds of extreme effects, burnout is no joke. Luckily, with the right self-care, they can be reversed. One study took a group of stressed out medical students who were preparing to take their licensing exam and found that their brains showed many of the impairments described above. However, after four weeks of relaxation, many of the changes in the brain were reversed. They also stopped experiencing the side effects such as having a short attention span and mood swings.

How can you incorporate relaxation into your everyday life? How can you rewire your brain?

#2 Increase Your Neuroplasticity

Contrary to popular belief, your brain doesn’t stop changing once it is fully developed. Scientists have discovered that our brains have the capacity to change to meet the demands placed upon it. Your brain’s ability to adapt is called neuroplasticity and the more plastic your brain is, the easier it is for you to perform well on new, challenging tasks.

The key to increasing your brain’s plasticity it to be constantly learning. When we learn, it forces our brains to make new connections that, when confronted with a challenge, it can use to generate more creative solutions. The best part about this is that, with regard to plasticity, your brain benefits from all learning equally.

Your motivation to increase your neuroplasticity may be to improve your performance at work, but what you learn doesn’t have to be related to your job to achieve that. You could learn how to play ukulele because it seems like a lot of fun or learn professional photography skills to capture your memories or learn a new cooking style every week to broaden your meal selections. The possibilities are endless, allowing you to be productive while pursuing personal interests you might otherwise push aside because you think they are a waste of time.

When you choose to learn skills that are genuinely interesting and fulfilling to you, it strengthens the benefits. The results of learning skills that help us fulfill personal goals are rewards that trigger the release of the neurotransmitter, dopamine. The rush of dopamine-induced pleasure you get when making progress toward your goals will motivate you to accomplish your learning goals.

Action Step: Create a learning bucket list! Make a list of all the skills, ideas and things you want to learn in your lifetime. This is even more powerful than a regular bucket list because it re-wires your brain AND gives you ways to relax.

#3: Team up with accountability partner

Whether you are trying to excel at a project that may earn you a promotion at work or you want to become skilled at a pressure-free hobby like learning how to cook a particular type of food, opt to have an accountability partner (or multiple) who will help motivate you to succeed.

Your brain benefits from accountability partners in two primary ways:

  • You will perform better. As highly social creatures, our brains drive us to impress others. Researchers have found that when working in a space surrounded by other individuals who will judge our work or when we are in a position where, upon completion, we must show our work to others, our brains adapt to the increased social pressure to lead to increased performance.
  • It minimizes your fears of being lonely. Similar to the benefits your brain receives when you have a support network of people interested in your success, it reacts the opposite when you feel lonely. Neuroscientists discovered that the pain of social isolation is registered in your brain almost identically to physical pain. So, the effects of not having people you can trust to hold you accountable and encourage you is like trying to work while having a physical injury.

Action Steps: Choose at least one method to hold yourself accountable socially:

  • Identify an accountability partner(s) who will periodically check in on you to make sure you are achieving your goals.
  • Work in shared spaces with other productive people who, perhaps not directly, would make you feel a little guilty if you let yourself get distracted scrolling on social media when you should be working on your project.
  • Join groups of people working to accomplish similar goals so you can support one another throughout the entire process. A great way to find these groups is Meetup

If you are struggling with meeting new people, no worries! We have plenty of resources to help you build the relationships you need to succeed. Here are a few:

#4 Create rewards systems for yourself

Neuroscientists discovered that the primary difference between “slackers” – people who are lazy, lack motivation and do not strive to achieve goals and “go-getters” who are highly goal-driven and are typically successful in achieving their goals are that the brains of go-getters have a much stronger, more developed reward system. They experience high levels of pleasure when they make progress aka receive a reward. This motivates them to continue pursuing new, larger goals and reap their rewards. On the contrary, the brain’s of slackers only light up in a small area. Their brain’s natural lack of excitement from rewards limits their motivation to push themselves and become more productive.

Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re a go-getter, otherwise you wouldn’t care enough about your personal development to get this far into the article. To harness your brain’s natural love of rewards, you need to learn how to motivate yourself.

Action Step: Level up your motivation with our 10 science-backed motivation tips.

#5: Nourish Your Brain

Waiting until you are burnt-out and/or in desperate need to increase your productivity, means you will always be struggling to bring your brain back up to peak performance. For long-term success, taking care of your brain should be a top priority. In addition to incorporating the productivity tips above into your daily routines, here are a couple of strategies to keep your brain in top shape:

  • Daydream the day away. Okay, not the whole day, but definitely part of it. Though staring off into space doing nothing may seem like the most unproductive thing ever, it is actually key to maintaining your mental health. As mentioned in the beginning of the article, working non-stop and feeling like you can’t take a break without falling even more behind are drivers of burnout and corresponding brain damage. Daydreaming, even in a couple minute bursts, wards off stress and burnout. Researchers discovered that daydreaming improves your cognitive functioning and working memory. This is partially because daydreaming calms your brain, making it less reactive and able to function without the effects of stress.
  • Get creative to be creative. Other researchers found, and this may surprise you, people are best able to solve problems immediately following a state of creative brainstorming and daydreaming. This is because daydreaming gives our unconscious minds time to sort through all of the information we consume during periods of activity and make connections between them. 

A great time to daydream is when you are transitioning between tasks. Transitions provide natural opportunities for breaks and it gives your brain a chance to prepare to engage in new work.

Action Steps:

  • Begin purposefully daydreaming throughout the day. Write down any thoughts or ideas that come to mind in a special notebook.
  • Need some help? Check out our playlist of videos to recharge your brain! Like this awesome one:

#6 Nourish Your Body

I know, you’re constantly being told that you need more sleep and exercise, but if you’re not already doing, it is probably because you don’t think you have the time and/or the exercise isn’t worth it. However, did you know that exercising is tied to your job performance? When you engage in physical activity it increases your heart rate and delivers more oxygen to the brain. In as little as twenty minutes this can improve your cognitive functioning and memory.

Exercise also releases a flood of endorphins that improve your mood and lower your stress hormones, helping you to feel more positive and stable throughout the day.

On the contrary, sleep deprivation has the opposite effect. Researchers found that the brains of sleep-deprived individuals are more emotionally reactive, less plastic and have worse memory.

How do you sleep? Most people have no idea that their position affects their mood.

  • On your back
  • Curled up in the fetal position
  • On your stomach
  • Always different

40% of people sleep in the fetal position! Researchers found that this position is adopted by highly emotional and sensitive people–more than twice as many women sleep in this position compared to men! However, when we take up less space we feel less capable. When you stretch in the morning, it can help produce hormones to get your energy higher. Try a more expansive position or stretch before getting up.

Don’t exercise and sleep well for your body; do it for your brain (or better yet, both!).

Action Step: Check out our science of sleep post. Which position do you sleep in?

#7: Do Less

Like many successful people, hard workers typically try to do everything, but this is unsustainable. In the words of productivity guru, David Allen:

“You can do anything, but not everything.” –David Allen

Put that quote up on your desk, stick a post-it on your mirror, tweet it out to family and friends because you do not need to feel guilty for not being able to do everything.

Action Step: Use my guide for being less busy.

#8: Find Your Rhythms

Which description best describes a night owl?

  • Creative & impulsive
  • Powerful & charismatic
  • Sensitive & funny
  • Logical & people-pleasers

Researchers found that night owls and morning people have different personality traits. Night owls are more creative and impulsive, while morning people are more logical and tend to be people-pleasers! The more you honor your natural rhythms the better off you are.

Bottom Line: Don’t fight your natural rhythms. Our sleep cycles are hard-wired.

Action Steps:

#9: The Small Stuff Counts

Sometimes it takes something small to beat a little burnout. For example…

What do you think is the biggest stress reliever at work?

  • Plants
  • Candy bowl
  • Music

People with a plant in their office report 15% less stress. There are tons of studies about the power of green spaces and parks on productivity and relaxation. In Japan, there is a concept known as forest bathing, called Shinrin-yoku (森林浴). They say that forest air and being surrounded by greenery is the best form of meditation. Another cool fact: People with blue walls make less typos than those with white walls!

Get a plant for your desk!

After reading this study I got a little bamboo plant and named him Spencer, and now I absolutely adore him–it might be unhealthy. I stroke his leaves and sing to him–weird or ok?

This is my little bamboo plant I named Spencer…I love him.

#10: Get Happy

According to the research, what is most likely to bring you the most happiness?

  • $100
  • A gift
  • One less wrinkle
  • Thanking someone

The research on happiness is clear–thanking someone or doing one gratitude exercise has a longer lasting effect on happiness than money, compliments or even a big piece of chocolate cake!! Oh, how I love the Science of Happiness–it never ceases to surprise me. We have been studying happiness for over 4 years at our lab, asking people inappropriately personal questions, comparing their results and looking for patterns.

Happy people have a secret.

One of the biggest happy aha-moments we had was realizing that happy people approach happiness differently. They see happiness as a skill as opposed to an accident. It’s almost as if they invest in their happiness like stock brokers invest in the stock market.

Action Step: Take our Power of Happiness Course

#11: Make a Power Statement

In this last tip, I want to teach you my favorite anti-burnout method. I call this a power statement. The reason why this is so powerful is because it focuses you on what fuels you. Burnout comes from a lack of flame or passion. I want you to hone in on what drives you and what you need to do to move forward in your life.

Here is my burnout challenge. I want you to fill in the following power statement:

I want to __________, so I can __________. My first step is: _________.

  • First, what do you want? What do you want more of in your life?
  • Second, why do you want it? What drives you? What’s the end goal you are working towards?
  • Third, what is the first step you need to do to get there? Don’t make this too big. Think of the very first step you need to do to move you towards your desire. It can be as small as making a to-do list or buying materials.

Let yourself be totally flexible with this exercise. For example, here are some power statements from our other students:

“I want to write a memoir, so I can change the world. My first step is to ask my grandson to help me learn how to use my computer.”

“I want to be a volunteer firefighter, so I can help my community. My first step is to apply online.”

The amazing thing about this exercise is it can change depending on where you are in your life. You can fill out this power statement every 6 months and see what changes. It’s a great way to start New Year journal exercises or monthly goal check-ins.

And regularly checking in with what drives you and your actions steps prevents and fights burnout. Save this statement for when you need it most.

Bonus: Cuddle

Another great stress busting technique…cuddling! If you can believe it, there are 58 ‘official’ cuddle positions. In the name of research, I decided to do a little demo day all about cuddling. It was one of the most awkward videos we have ever shot, but the science of cuddling became very clear. Cuddling makes you happy:

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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