Be honest: 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?
Let me share this story about one of my best friends. 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. 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?
What if I told you 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.
Tune in to your ultradian rhythm.
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.
Why taking more breaks can help us 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!)
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.
We underestimate and undervalue the importance of self-care and stopping. We love to pat ourselves on the back for staying up until 2:00 a.m. or being so busy we forget to eat, but it’s just because that’s what our culture has come to value. It’s not making us healthier, happier, or more productive.
Simply put, we need to 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.
Here's what your most productive day looks like.
Creating a natural rhythm 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. (Whether you do 90 or 120 minutes is up to you, as is whether you take 10 minutes or 20 minutes for your break.)
On a fundamental level, the ultradian rhythm and this “work smarter, not harder” mindset comes down to paying attention to your body and mood. 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 pause.
Here’s what a typical workday might look like:
- 7:00 a.m.: Set an alarm and get up. Take 10 minutes to yourself for deep breathing, a dry brush, a shower, stretching, a moment in the sun…. Then prepare yourself and your family for the day.
- 9:00: Workday starts: power work session 1
- 11:00 - 11:15: First self-care break
- 11:15 - 1:00: Power work session 2
- 1:00 - 1:30: Lunch (Yes—another self-care break!)
- 1:30 - 3:00: Power work session 3
- 3:00 - 3:15: And yet another self-care break. Yes, yes you can!
- 3:15 - 5:30: Workday home stretch! And you’re feeling good!
- 6:00 p.m.: Head home and take another quick break for some downtime, movement, or laughter before beginning your evening.
Feel free to adjust this based on your schedule as needed. Just don’t skip the breaks!
Got 15 minutes? Here are some ideas to reset and reboot.
It’s not enough to simply stop working during these 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 to 20 minutes is optimal, even five minutes helps.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to combat burnout throughout the day:
1. Take a bio break.
In my practice, 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, but also to hydrate. Hydration and elimination help clear accumulated toxins from the body, and we now know that the brain and nervous system has lymph nodes that dump toxins, too.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. Connect with other people.
Don’t underestimate the power of social networks—the real-life kind. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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 this one-day plan to balance your cortisol and common food mistakes that could be harming your thyroid.