How to Recover from Burnout
When peak performance goes off the rails.
Posted Jan 19, 2021
Burnout is identified by three symptoms: exhaustion, depression, and cynicism. It is the by-product of repeated and prolonged stress. Not the result of working long hours, rather the result of working long hours under specific conditions: high risk, a lack of sense of control, a misalignment of passion and purpose, and long and uncertain gaps between effort and reward. Unfortunately, these are all conditions that arise during our pursuit of high, hard goals.
This is why it’s time to get gritty about recovery.
And grit tends to be required. It’s hard for peak performers to relax. If momentum matters most, sitting still feels like laziness. And the more aligned with passion and purpose we become, the more “wasteful” time off starts to feel. Yet, since burnout leads to significant decline in cognitive function—making it one of the most common enemies of sustained peak performance—you absolutely have to get gritty about recovery. And not all recovery strategies are the same.
The main choices are passive and active. Passive recovery is TV and a beer—sound familiar?
Unfortunately, alcohol disrupts sleep, and TV keeps the brain active in an unusual way. Real recovery requires shifting brain waves into the alpha range. And while TV shuts down your higher cortical centers—which is good for recovery—those constantly shifting images overstimulate the visual system, pulling the brain right out of alpha and into beta—which is the brainwave signature of awake and alert.
Active recovery is the opposite. It ensures that the brain stays off and the body can mend. By flushing stress hormones from the system and shifting brain waves into alpha (first), then delta (later), active recovery practices allow us to reset. Sure, peak performers take this to considerable extremes: hyperbaric chambers, sensory deprivation tanks, nutritional specialists micro-counting caloric intake. These are useful tools, and go this route if interested, but the research shows you can get gritty about recovery in three simpler steps.
First, protect your sleep. Deep delta-wave sleep is critical for recovery and for learning—it’s when memory consolidation takes place. You need a dark room, cold temperatures, and no screens. Our cell phone’s glow is in the same frequency range as daylight, and this messes with the brain’s ability to shut down completely.
And shut the cell phone down for a while. Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep a night, but figure out what’s optimal for you, then make sure you consistently get what you need.
Second, put an active recovery protocol into place. Body work, restorative yoga, Tai Chi, long walks in the woods (what people have begun calling, much to my chagrin, “nature-bathing”), Epsom salt baths, saunas, and hot tub soaks are the traditional methods. My personal preference is an infrared sauna. I try to do three sessions a week, forty-five minutes each. In the sauna, I split my time between reading a book and practicing mindfulness. Saunas lower cortisol. When coupled to the stress reduction produced by mindfulness, this one-two punch hyper-accelerates recovery.
Third, total resets matter. Everybody has a point of no return. If your work is consistently subpar and frustration levels are growing, it’s time to step away for a few days. For me, this is once every ten to twelve weeks. My go-to break is a solitary two-day ski trip. I’ll read books, slide down snow, and try to talk to no one. But that’s me. Figure out what’s you.
Most important, stay in front of this problem. Burnout costs you both motivation and momentum. In the short run, because chronic stress interferes with cognitive function, it’ll have you producing poor quality work that needs to be redone. In the long run, because burnout has permanent neurological effects on everything from problem solving to memory to emotional regulation, it can completely derail a quest for the impossible. So, while inserting mandatory time-outs into your schedule can feel like a waste of time, it’s nothing compared to the time you’ll waste once burnout sets in. If you get gritty about recovery sooner rather than later, you’ll go farther faster as a result.
Excerpted from The Art of the Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer. Copyright © 2021 by Steven Kotler. Published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.