In 2018, I suffered a traumatic brain injury and still deal with the resulting symptoms today. Instead of spending my days in the din of 1:1s, boarding meetings, and strategic planning sessions that being a tech executive requires, I now work in a much more controlled and limited capacity as a consultant and writer. For the last 5 years since my brain injury, I’ve connected with, interviewed, and have been treated by dozens upon dozens of a wide-variety of medical practitioners. I have learned a tremendous amount. But there is one thing that really sticks out for me that I think might apply to many of the high achieving types I met throughout my career in tech: Recovering from burnout looks a lot like recovering from head trauma.
According to a study from Deloitte, 77% of workers say they have experienced burnout, and the Centre for Economic Business Research says that 92% of small business owners have dealt with mental health issues in the past two years. However, general adult responsibility may make a full break (say, moving to the beach and staring at the sea all day) impossible.
So how can brain injury science help? It all comes down to brain health. No, not tech-bro biohacking or optimizing; just understanding how to keep guardrails in place so you can complete the marathon, not win the made-up sprint we’re all racing.
You know the one: early zoom call, walk the dog, make lunches, get the kids ready for school, (maybe) shower yourself, crush your work and deal with your shitty boss, inhale 3-day old, luke-warm leftovers, back to work, silent sob in between calls, throw something together for dinner, (maybe) exercise, chauffeur your kids around to the activities that sounded really great when you originally signed up for them and basically handed over your wallet, oh god don’t forget the phone bill, and collapse in a heap on top of the 3 loads of laundry you’ve been meaning to do for the last 2 days.
Rinse, repeat. If you’re feeling like you’re burning the candle at both ends, I have 3 concrete things for you to consider implementing in your day to day. These shifts are critical non-negotiables to stop the downward spiral, stabilize, and improve brain health (and burnout!) gradually. They won’t surprise you:
a) Personal choices on how to approach your physical and mental health
b) A pacing strategy, which is a pomodoro-style flow to the day
c) A points system, not unlike Weight Watchers, which we will henceforth refer to as Brain Watchers. Just for fun.
Personal choices: your physical and mental health
This is the ‘self-care’ topic that we probably spend most of our time reading about and tinkering with. We talk non-stop about sleep, diet, exercise, and mindfulness, and there’s good reason for that. Sorry, no quick fixes here. The basics:
Start with sleep. Good sleep hygiene is the foundation on which other building blocks can be placed. You don’t need to be a sleep expert to know that a good, solid evening routine can make big improvements to your sleep. It’s not rocket surgery:
- Get rid of screens 2 hours before bed
- Get some exercise during the day
- Have a calming nighttime routine of something like skin care, stretching, aromatherapy or reading a book.
If you have ongoing sleep issues, prioritize getting in to see a medical professional or head to a sleep clinic and get it fixed.
Next up: food. This area of focus is important, but often overlooked when it comes to brain health. We forget that a nutritious diet isn’t all about looking good, and there is so much misinformation and gross diet-culture out there that it’s overwhelming.
I don’t care how you look, but I do care about your sexy brain health. Food does make a difference, and optimizing for brain health and focusing on what you put into your body is going to impact the way you think and the way you feel. Science! Personally, I don’t get too complicated with it: more produce, less processed food. If it comes in a package, moderation is key.
Not only will limiting booze and caffeine make you feel better, it will also make a big difference in your overall sleep quality.
It’s really hard to change these habits, but I know you can do it and I know it’s worth doing.
Move your body. We were not built to sit at a desk or stare at a screen all day, so find an exercise routine you can do consistently. When I was fresh off of my brain injury, all I wanted to do was remain horizontal in a dark, silent room. The neuropsychologist I worked with encouraged me to commit to a minimum of 2 walks per day that lasted 45 minutes each. Because I was on disability leave, I could make it happen. For most, that’s not feasible. What I’d suggest is finding either:
- a group of people to work out with,
- a great home workout program you enjoy, or
- joining a gym that has enjoyable classes at times that work for you.
The less you have to think about it or plan, the better.
Those of us with busy schedules or who need modifications can still do this. It doesn't matter your skill level, ability, or what you choose to do; whatever works for your body is fine. Just get moving! If you have a physical injury, work with a physiotherapist to help get you moving safely.
Finally, reconnect with things that feel good for your soul: get outside and be in nature, have a social visit with people who fill up your cup, or crack open a new journal to reconnect with yourself. On this note, do yourself a favour and get a great therapist. You don’t have to do this all by yourself, and it’s important to have supportive folks who can get you back on track and heading in the right direction.
Pacing: a pomodoro-style flow to the day
This one is for all of my high-achievers out there!
A pacing strategy is where you alternate full-focused, deep thinking with short breaks. For my time management nerds out there, this is very similar to the Pomodoro Technique. I would consider the formal approach to begin, and then be flexible with it; you might need slightly more or less focus time, and slightly more or less recovery time.
Here’s how it works: you work the duration that works for you, let’s say it’s 20 minutes. Then, you have a 5 minute recovery. Repeat.
A few months after my head injury, I could last about 20 minutes, and my recovery time was a long 18 minutes.
What does recovery time mean? This is important. Recovery time does not mean scrolling through Instagram, calling your mom, going shopping, sending your BFF a voice note, tidying up, tossing a load of laundry in, or checking emails.
Recovery means destimulating. The quickest way to destimulate the body is by decreasing or cutting off audio or visual stimuli. For me, it means turning off the light, closing my eyes, and reveling in silence. As I progressed through my own healing journey, I did begin to incorporate a more active-style rest, like meditation, breathing exercises, cuddles with the dog, stretching, or a walk around the block. My ‘recovery’ time slowly decreased from 18 minutes to about 4 minutes, but it’s taken time.
If you work in an office environment, destimulating may be tricky to do. If there is no dark room to hide in, I suggest a) closing your eyes at your desk and listening to a meditation, or b) getting outside for a quick walk.
Brain Watchers: developing your own point system
This is a game-changer for those of us who go until we collapse.
Think Weight Watchers, but for your brain. We’re going to create a points system for your brain that is going to help you manage your overall capacity in a day so that you can decrease your overall stress and recovery time. The strategy comes from the Parkwood Pacing System, where each and every activity you engage in during the day is associated with a number of points, varying between 1 and 5. You get a maximum number of points per day and you can’t earn additional points.
- Driving the kids to school, 30 minutes: 1 point
- Dinner with friends, noisy restaurant: 3 points
- Leading a meeting with 6 people, 1 hour: 5 points
You'll need to create two things:
- A legend: here’s a great place to start building your own legend. Add or remove items that are more relevant to your day and adjust points to your liking;
- A schedule: if you already have a packed calendar, I want you to go through and ‘score’ the last couple of weeks. What are you averaging per day? I’d recommend subtracting 5 points from your daily average and have that be your daily target. If you don’t follow a tight schedule, I’d suggest building one from scratch in a spreadsheet and tallying points that way.
Each item will be different, and every person has a different point capacity. You can test this over a few days to know when you still feel good vs. when you are absolutely toast.
In the early days post head injury, I could deal with (maybe) 15 points in a day. They got eaten up pretty quickly between kids and just existing. I’m now up to about 40-45 points per day. By being thoughtful about how we spend our time and energy, we can better manage for the long game.
We each have a breaking point where we are no longer effective. Most burnout sufferers are struggling through the day, operating through a fog. We are no longer top-form in our relationships or with work. We become irritable or depressed, get a headache, maybe even suffer pain. All of these things are our bodies saying they’ve had enough. You’re spending too many points.
To fix this, you might have to bail sometimes. Reschedule. You may miss that event. You might have to say no. You might have to move things around or delay by weeks or months. This is a huge shift, but by prioritizing and protecting your time, you protect your points. By managing points, you’ll recover from burnout.
When you’re working your way through the week, start by using the goal points as a gauge. You won’t nail it every time, but on the days that you’re over your points, check in: how do you feel? What symptoms come up for you?
The goal, by the way, isn’t to constantly max out your points each day. Instead, aim to be under. This opens up the opportunity to rest, actual recovery, and to begin to find some joy in your days.
A few last notes:
You matter! I know it’s easy to put yourself at the bottom of the priority list, but you cannot continue to be in service to others when you are depressed, anxious, and collapsing at the end of the day. This doesn’t end well. You matter. You deserve to feel good.
You are not lazy. Rest is not lazy. Not being productive is not a failure. The To Do list will always be there, and we need to learn to be okay with that.
This will take a long time. This is not a one month project– this is a lifestyle change. Like I said, you deserve it.