Let's be real here: When was the last time you took a break when you felt like you needed one? Do you pause when your body asks for permission to do so, or do you push through until you either crash from exhaustion or feel an emotional explosion coming on?
Let me share this story about one of my best friend's responses to burnout. I think we can all relate.
She was going through a busy time at work, and she was determined to keep pushing until her to–do list was done. Instead, she found herself cranky and irritable, even yelling at her husband at the end of the workday. She felt like she was spinning her wheels – and growing increasingly more frustrated. Late one day she texted me to say she was raising the white flag and just “had to cave.” So that’s what she did, literally. She crawled under the covers, retreated for an hour and emerged a new woman.
What a wonderful metaphor for this common but avoidable situation. How often do you push when you really need to cave, even though you feel burnout is drawing near? Do you ever use your pause button, or is fast-forward your go-to?
What if I told you that there’s a quick, easy way to avoid caving and prevent breakdowns from happening, a way to feel replenished and calm, ready to tackle whatever life is throwing your way? This life hack can help you work smarter, not harder, and it’s the one thing you can do every day to combat burnout – no matter how busy you are. In fact, it’s something I do daily, whether I’m working with patients, writing a book or doing research.
Don't Burn Out, Reset
The secret is to tune in to your ultradian rhythm, which, simply put, is your balance of activity and rest. While circadian rhythm is our daily wake–sleep cycle that creates, for example, our diurnal cortisol rhythm, ultradian rhythm is a series of shorter cycles that happen throughout the day. Ultradian rhythm involves 90 to 120-minute bursts of productivity and focus followed by 15 or so minutes of rest.
This concept has long been acknowledged by traditional healing modalities. Traditional Chinese Medicine employs an organ clock broken into two-hour segments that dictate when each organ or system is functioning at its best and with the most energy, and this cycle also prescribes the optimal time to sleep, eat and work. In Ayurveda, the dosha clock is broken into four-hour segments based on the same principle of finding the best time to perform certain activities to keep the mind and body in balance.
Organizational psychology and efficiency experts also recommend creating a rhythm to increase productivity in the workplace. For example, the Pomodoro Technique uses 25-minute bursts of activity with breaks after four work sessions, and Anders Ericsson’s groundbreaking 1993 study of musicians found that the most talented violinists all practiced the same way: three sessions of no more than an hour and a half, alternated with breaks.
Ernest Rossi’s 1991 book The Twenty Minute Break – based on the research he had done into ultradian rhythm – paved the way, explaining how the activity–rest cycle can reduce stress and maximize performance. Journalist and author Tony Schwartz, founder of The Energy Project, also recommends a “90-minute solution” to revolutionize work–life balance.
My friend and colleague, renowned health journalist Pilar Gerasimo, shared several other examples of ultradian rhythm in action when she joined me on my podcast. It’s a topic that piqued her interest when she was researching metabolism and energy, and she calls it one of her personal and professional “a-ha” moments.
Taking More Breaks Can Help You Stay Focused
Though we as a society have glorified busyness, it doesn’t help us do more. It seems counterintuitive to step away from our work in order to improve focus and productivity, but consider the tale of Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician and physicist tasked with finding a way to measure density. He racked his brain for a way to determine whether the king’s crown was pure gold, without harming it. It was only when he lowered his weary body into the tub that his “Eureka!” moment happened. The lesson: Rest gives our mind the time and space to connect the dots and process our experiences. (Score one for self–care!)
Rest gives our mind the time and space to connect the dots and process our experiences. (Score one for self-care!)
We tend to think that the answers and our productivity come from hard work and pushing through, but that’s only one part of it – and working without a break carries a hefty price tag. Another very important part of work happens while we’re resting. Rest is when we allow our brain to take away the strain, so integration can happen. Integration and consolidation take place when your brain is working behind the scenes to organize, process and file information. Sometimes this allows solutions to appear in ways they don’t when we’re just pushing through. By honoring our ultradian rhythm, not only are we getting the break, but we’re getting the success – and preventing burnout.
We underestimate and undervalue the importance of self–care and stopping. We love to pat ourselves on the back for staying up until 2 a.m. or being really busy, but it’s just because that’s what our culture has come to value. It’s not making us healthier, happier or more productive when you look at other cultures that value self–care, pleasure and happiness.
Simply put, we need to take rest to work better, smarter and more efficiently. Ignoring our natural rhythm can lead the body to shift into overdrive or exhaustion, the two “SOS” categories I talk about in my book The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
Creating breaks in your day is quite simple, and you can start to feel the impact almost immediately. I don’t actually set an alarm to remind myself to take breaks, though you might want to start with one if you are accustomed to overriding your natural cues. (And, it’s worth noting that whether you do 90 or 120 minutes is purely individual, so experiment with what works for you.) Over time, you start to feel a new natural rhythm taking shape, and one that's a lot healthier than the one where you just push on through to exhaustion.
On a fundamental level, the ultradian rhythm and this “work smarter, not harder” mindset comes down to paying attention to your body and mood. To go even deeper, the one thing I really do to prevent burnout is pay attention to how I’m feeling. I know how humans are hardwired evolutionarily and biologically, and I honor that. As you start to practice this new rest–work cycle, you’ll start to tune in to what your body really needs to keep your energy steady and your focus sharp.
If I’m working on a project and I start to feel distracted, I try not to push past that. I use that as a natural signaling mechanism from my body that it’s time to get up, shift for 15-20 minutes, then come back to it. If at the end of the day I’ve shifted and tried to come back to something but I still feel distracted, I actually stop. I replenish myself, rest, eat well and come back to it with more productivity and energy the next day.
Here’s what a typical workday might look like (below this section you'll find ways to recharge during your Ultradian Breaks):
6:30 a.m.: Wake up and take ten minutes to yourself for deep breathing, a dry brush and a shower, a few minutes of stretching, or a morning practice that you love that when you do it, it starts your day off right.
7 am: Prepare yourself and your family for the day. Make sure to get some breakfast!
9am : Your professional workday starts – This is your Power Work Session #1
11-11:15 Now's time for your first Ultradian (or call if self-care) Break
11:15 – 1 pm Back to work for Power Work Session #2
1-1:30 Lunch time! (yes, use this as another Ultradian Break)
1:30-3:15 Work session #3
3-3:15: And yet another self-care break– yes – you can! Walk, stretch, hydrate, get some fresh air.
3:15-5:30: Final power work Session – the work day home stretch and you’re feeling good!!
Use this last work session to tie up any loose ends and make a list of what needs to get done tomorrow. (This tip is for all the “Worry Watchers” out there.) By having a list ready to do, you can leave your work at work, freeing up your mind to focus on other aspects of your life.
5:30 p.m.: Head home and take another quick 15 minute break for some down time, movement, dancing, or laughter before beginning your evening.
Huge shifts can happen if you take a major break between your workday and evening. Studies have shown, for example, that nurses who take a 15-minute break at the end of a stressful workday have healthier cortisol rhythms at night. Healthier evening cortisol levels also help your weight, hormones, blood sugar, cravings and sleep. Really paying attention to that morning wakeup and evening wind down and using them for self–care can help you stay on track.
You know that as soon as you walk through the front door or pick the kids up from school, you’ll be in “go” mode. So before starting your evening routine, take time to pause and let go of what accumulated during your day. Think back to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Each time Mister Rogers walked in the front door, he stopped to take off his work jacket, put on his trusty cardigan and change his shoes. This was a signal that his workday was over, and his home routine had begun. Consider a similar ritual for yourself: Put on your comfy pants, make a mug of tea or wash your face – whatever it takes to trigger that shift.
Listen to a podcast instead of the news on your commute home, stop at a park for a leisurely walk or spend 15 minutes holed up in your bedroom, enjoying the peace and quiet. I know, I know, that’s likely a tough one if you live with kids or pets!. If that's the case, put on some music and rock it out with the kids, or take that pooch for a lively walk!
6 Ways to Completely Reset in Just 15 Minutes
It’s not enough to simply stop working during your work breaks. You actually need to reset, not deplete yourself further. If you use your time to scroll through Instagram, read the news or pay your bills online, your brain doesn’t press the reset button. Social media and other online tasks aren’t changing your brain focus – you’re still wired into the computer. If you’re distracted because you “need” to Facebook, do it for a minute or two, but then shift to something different (offline). Don’t use that time for more of the same. And while 15–20 minutes is optimal, even five minutes helps.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to combat burnout throughout the day:
Take a bio break. I often hear women say “I was so busy I didn’t have time to pee” or “I forgot to drink water all day.” Use these breaks to not only use the restroom – including taking the time for a bowel movement if you haven’t had one yet today – but also to hydrate. Hydration and elimination help clear accumulated toxins from the body, and we now know that the brain has lymph nodes that dump toxins, too.
Eat something healthy. Sugar and coffee are quick fixes that, when used in excess, end up depleting our energy more in the long run. Instead of coffee, especially in the afternoon, reach for water or herbal tea. Skip the sugary snacks that will be burned up quickly, and choose portion–controlled snacks that contain protein, complex carbohydrates (which take longer to digest and don’t cause the same crashes) and/or healthy fats. Some of my favorites include: hummus or guacamole and veggies, a hard–boiled egg with Himalayan sea salt, “hippie mix” with dried fruit and nuts or, on days when I really need it, a handful of almonds and two squares of dark chocolate.
Move your body. Sitting all day can take its toll on your body as well as your mind. Use at least one of your breaks to shake off the cobwebs. Do some light yoga, go for a walk (even around the parking lot) or play with your kids. You’ll get your blood flowing and feel more energized for your next work session.
Connect with friends or colleagues. Don’t underestimate the power of social networks – the real–life kind. If you work from home or don’t spend much time with people, pick up the phone and call a friend or loved one during a break. Laughter stimulates our vagus nerve, the prime mediator of our parasympathetic nervous system that controls our rest–and–digest functions. If you’re in an office, keep your chit–chat positive, as gossip and complaining have the opposite effect we’re going for.
Get outside – or at least look out the window. Spending time in nature is a wonderful way to shift our focus and reset. You don’t need to seek out a park or someplace special; simply getting out of your office building can help. Leave your earbuds at your desk and really listen to the sounds of nature surrounding you. If going outside isn’t possible, looking out a window can have similar beneficial effects.
Be mindful. Practicing meditation, deep breathing and other activities that create a more mindful, relaxed mood are perfect for these short breaks. These practices also stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, relieving that sense of strain and creating more integration in the brain.
Make “work smarter, not harder” your new mantra to combat burnout, boost energy and beat brain fog every day. If you’re interested in learning more about how to rescue your metabolism, hormones, mind and mood, check out my book The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution.