July 13th, 2008

How to Prevent Burnout from Stress: Live like a Sprinter, not a Long Distance Runner

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When we expend energy, we draw down our reservoir. When we recover energy, we fill it back up. Too much energy expenditure without sufficient recovery eventually leads to burnout and breakdown (Overuse it and lose it). Too much recovery without sufficient stress leads to atrophy and weakness (Use it or lose it).

-Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, The Power of Full Engagement

There needs to be an equal balance between stress and recovery- too much of either one has negative consequences
There needs to be an equal balance between stress and recovery- too much of either one has negative consequences
Nature is constantly oscillating- think of tides moving in and out, the seasons changing, or the sun rising and setting. We as human beings naturally follow a similar rhythm with our energy levels. Our natural state is to oscillate between rest and activity, similar to a sprinter. Unfortunately, our society of technological innovation socially sanctions living like a long distance runner– we ignore rest and fail to recognize its necessity for preventing burnout and sustaining high performance.

Ignoring recovery for too long causes burnout- symptoms of being burned out include emotional exhaustion, loss of motivation, detachment, isolation, and irritability.

Are your addicted to living like a long distance runner?

Living in a state of stress produces an adrenaline rush, and over time, this becomes addictive, and we lose the ability to relax. Common sense would tell us we need to take breaks and rest, but instead we overindulge in work, and face the consequences. Researchers have found that self-described workaholics have a significantly higher than average incidence of stress-related illnesses, divorce, and alcohol abuse.

Are you creating artificial relaxation and alertness?

If you regularly rely on alcohol, marijuana or sleeping pills to calm down, you may be trying to create relaxation (artificially). Similarly, if you rely on stimulants such as caffeine or amphetamines, you are trying to create alertness (artificially). Both of these artificial means of oscillation are masking the bigger problem- you are still living life like a long distance runner.

Are you creating artificial importance?

Do you like the feeling of importance when you become busier? Even when it means being unavailable to your friends and family? This artificial importance will only create artificial success, as you are still living life like a long distance runner.

Are your work habits putting you at risk to karoshi?

Karoshi is the term in Japan which means “death from overwork”. This is apparently a fairly common occurrence. In fact, I just read about a Toyota engineer who worked himself to death today (he died of heart disease). Additionally, I have known several people in the workforce who have had heart attacks after working extreme long hours under high pressure.

Research shows that these five key factors contribute to karoshi:

  • Extreme long hours that interferes with normal rest patterns
  • Night work that interferes with normal rest patterns
  • Working without holidays or breaks
  • High pressure work without breaks
  • Extremely demanding physical labor and continuously stressful work

Here are some tips for preventing burnout (or karoshi!), and living like a sprinter:

Tips for Preventing Burnout from Stress and Living like a Sprinter

1) Balance stress and recovery to achieve your best performance

Push yourself beyond your ordinary limits, and regularly seek recovery, and you will grow. This is similar to lifting weights at the gym. The problem with people who live like long distance runners is that they don’t allow themselves to recover, and get burned out as a consequence. This brings us to the topic of tip 2.

2) Create a ritual of disconnecting

New technologies such as Blackberries/PDA’s, and social networking tools (ex. Facebook, Twitter), make it easy for us to never truly disconnect. Several people I work with will bring their work phones/laptops with them on vacation, and check e-mail/take phone calls the entire time. This is faulty, socially-sanctioned “live life as a long distance runner” logic.

It is a very good plan every now and then to go away and have a little relaxation… When you come back to the work your judgement will be surer, since to remain constantly at work will cause you to lose the power of judgement.

-Leonardo Da Vinci

Da Vinci’s advice still applies to us today. To prevent work burnout, create a daily ritual (read my post on creating consistent daily habits) of completely disconnecting- have a daily stopping point. For example, if you are a business traveler, make a habit of not working during your commute, and instead, relax and read books/magazines. If you are on vacation, completely disconnect from your work- don’t bring your PDA or laptop.

Another option for preventing work burnout is to disconnect during your lunch. A lot of people fall into the habit of eating at their desk, or eating with coworkers and discussing work-related topics. To truly disconnect and use your lunch break to recover, you may need to eat by yourself.

3) Create healthy breathing, eating, sleeping, and exercising habits

Breathing: This is an easy way to relax and prevent burnout- throughout your day, make a habit of breathing in to a count of three and out to a count of six, for several minutes. This will help you relax deeply.

Eating: Eat small meals at regular intervals (five to six times a day is recommended), in amounts that are satisfying (not over or under filling). Try to eat primarily foods that are low on the glycemic index, as these will provide a steadier source of energy. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water!

Sleeping: Get 7-8 hours of sleep. If you are able to, take at catnap in the afternoon. Winston Churchill was a proponent of this, explaining that a catnap helps you get two days in one, as you wake up more alert and sustaining energy.

Exercising: Work out 3-5 times per week, and add some form of strength training to your routine (read my post on losing weight by gaining muscle). Strength training is just as important as cardiovascular training, especially as we age- on average, we lose one-half pound of muscle mass each year after the age of forty in absence of exercise.

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4 Responses to “How to Prevent Burnout from Stress: Live like a Sprinter, not a Long Distance Runner”

Alex the Freelance Twin

July 15th, 2008 - 9:34 am

Great post here. I used to live like this, not taking breaks and just working no matter what. After I forced myself away from work (even for short breaks) helped tremendously. You’re also the first blogger I’ve seen talk about marijuana, and I do agree that people who drink, smoke or use pills to relax aren’t relaxing like they should be. But if you give yourself a work cut-off time, then have a drink or a smoke to wind down after a long day I think that’s a little different. If you’re using those vices to get you through work, that’s a big problem.

Derek Ralston

July 16th, 2008 - 4:10 pm

Thanks- I’ve lived like a long distance runner before also but I learned that it’s not a sustainable way of life.

I see your point about having a drink/smoke after your work, I think that each person needs to find a balance that works best for him/her… The problem for a lot of people is, where do you draw the line- how many drinks do you need to unwind? Do you need these each day after work? Are you rationalizing having “one or two drinks” when it’s really more than that, and happens more frequently?

Very inspiring story on your blog (how you and your brother quit your normal jobs and starting making money online/doing freelance full-time)!


April 30th, 2010 - 7:37 am

I have been dealing with stress for several years, Now into constant anxiety/panick attacks, feeling that nothing that my doctors do is helping. I am tired of being medicated, just to feel worse. I do smoke, but have cut out drinking all together of the last year, learned that it was making me feel 100% worse afterwards. The only problem that I see is that for me (a mother of 4) I have a 4yr old, 7yr old, 9yr old, and 17 yr old is finding time to relax along with working 40 hrs a week, and working is a need. Trying to spend time with my family more and not concentrate on work or other household extras that cause the stress is a definate help. My children need me more than my job or keeping an immaculate house. Taking first steps to recovery.


July 5th, 2011 - 3:52 am

Most of the time i am able to balance my working and private life. Trouble is that i also have fibromyalgia which emphasis issues like feeling exhausted and feeling overwhelmed. I often have to fill in for others in my department because we are understaffed and i can end up doing two full-time jobs per week. I have tried to delegate without luck and do feel like i am heading down the slippery slop of having to be signed off by doctors, while this article does make some sense, it is not always as simple as it sounds. Especially if you are working to keep your job, rocking the boat can cause major problems and you then feel under more pressure in case your job is next to be cut!

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