Sometimes it feels like it’s pretty cool to be overbooked. As young working professionals, we may pride ourselves on four-hour sleep cycles, daily happy hours, long workdays, a slew of SoulCycle classes, dates, wine tastings and networking events to fill the gaps in between. Sometimes we do so much that we forget to take a break, and then shit hits the fan. Suddenly (and very naturally), the Wonder Woman attitude takes a 180-degree turn and we start to hate everything: our job, friends, hobbies, and parents. We’re tired, grumpy, skipping workouts and lashing out at small children at the grocery store. Basically, we’re burnt out.
And, while you may recognize the telltale signs of burnout, taking the steps to change your schedule from “Oh-my-god-everything-is-happening-at-once” to something more manageable can be difficult. No worries, we’ve done the work for you — well, you’ll still have to do those expense reports. We’ve reached out to top experts to share their secrets on how to structure your most productive workday, ditch stress eating, and prevent social burnout. (It’s real!) Get ready to hit reset and reveal a new chilled-out you.
We know shaking the morning comatose state may take a few hours for some (along with the healing powers of a Trenta-sized iced coffee), but as tough as it is, getting your butt out of bed earlier to tackle a project can take a lot off your plate. "I was never a morning person, but one of my biggest productivity hacks is to get an hour of work done in the morning before my daughter and husband get up — it’s the only time during the day I have completely to myself," says Camille Sweeney, a New York City-based journalist and coauthor of The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well.
"I trained myself to work in the morning, and it's that feeling of knowing I've already accomplished a task that makes me feel productive for the rest of the day." Knocking off that to-do list early in the day can have long-term job perks, too. Recent research from the Harvard Business Review found that people are the most productive and proactive in the morning, which can help fuel positive career changes.
No need to sacrifice your weekends to tackle spreadsheets (unless you, um, want to), but a couple of uninterrupted morning sessions a week will result in less stress and a higher sense of achievement.
When it comes to getting things done, we tend to have an all-or-nothing mentality: "I need two hours to plow through these expense reports, or it's going to take me three hours to revise this project draft." But, let's be honest, most of us can't go 10 minutes without being interrupted by a phone call, coworker, or our own vices (a.k.a. Instagram, the demise of all productivity). So, instead of waiting for the perfect block of time to become available, it's easier and insanely more efficient to work in smaller increments, such as 15 or 30 minute periods.
"We're inclined to think in terms of hours, but it is amazing how much you can get done if you bite off something smaller at first," says Sweeney. "Plus, it's easier because you don't have to try to find that one-hour chunk. Anyone can find 15 minutes, and if you have a good flow going, you can continue for longer." Set your timer, pop in a motivational playlist, and watch your to-do list shrink.
Gchat, Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail will all have to take a number. Just like you schedule time for happy hours and spin class, dedicate a 10 to 15 minute specific block (or blocks, if necessary) to tackle technology, says Sweeney. Otherwise, it's easy to get lost clicking through all your accounts and wasting a massive amount of time watching cat videos and reading through KimYe's tweets, which we're betting are not directly related to your job.
Even if your office mates are chronic Gchatters or emailers, in most non-emergency cases, it's not necessary to respond to every message right away. "You can almost always get back to someone in 15 minutes. And, if you're working in 15-minute chunks, you can take time to respond instead of always feeling like you are reacting to the message, which feels so much more manageable," she says.
Of course, taking time to connect with other humans can be incredibly helpful with dealing with stress. "We are social creatures, so knowing you are not alone and having a sense of community can have a huge positive impact on social and mental health," says Harding. Sharing your feelings can boost health, too. A recent study in PLOS One found that workers who had high personal social support reported the greatest well-being. So, it's not about being an antisocial hermit. It's just about making time for everything while minimizing stress.
Spending 30 minutes on LinkedIn connecting with professionals you met the night before — fine. But, using work time to stalk pictures of your ex-boyfriend's Caribbean vacation (hey, it's easy to get sucked in) calls for some tech reevaluation. "It's amazing to be connected through social media, but you have to be aware of how much time you're spending on it and see if investing that time has enough value to you because it's so easy to lose track!" says Sweeney. She suggests keeping a log for a week and writing down every time you hop on Instagram, Twitter, or anything else social-media related. "We can easily trick ourselves to think that we are being productive, but if we see on paper that we spent a certain amount of time on Facebook or LinkedIn, essentially doing nothing, we can free up a lot of lost time."
Need an instant reality check? This Facebook calculator from Time can tell you exactly how many days — yes, days! — you’ve spent wasted on the site since joining. Note: I had to prematurely stop mine because it was so depressing. Twenty-six days!?!
Stop Watching TV (Unless It's Really Funny)
After a long day at the office, there's nothing like popping a bottle of red wine and sinking into the couch for a Game of Thrones or Law and Order marathon. But, this seemingly relaxing habit is actually not a stress-buster at all. "With the exception of a good comedy, watching TV won't slow down heart rate or reduce blood pressure, so you're not really diminishing your stress response," says Dr. Mladen Golubic, MD, Ph.D, medical director for the Center of Lifestyle Management at the Cleveland Clinic.
Leave the drama for a less stressful day/week and slip in a few minutes of humor post-work or at the office. "Laughter reduces cortisol, the stress hormone released during the fight-or-flight response," says Kelli Harding, MD, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University. If your cube mates are on the serious side, take a five-minute break to watch a clip of SNL. Hey, it's for your health.
“Even when you feel like you can’t control anything, you’re always in control of your breath,” my favorite yoga teacher once said. And, it’s true: Taking slow breaths, whether it’s in yoga class, during meditation, or in line at the grocery store, is something we can master in seconds and it has huge benefits. “Daily breathing practice or meditation increases our ability to bounce back from stressors and increase resilience to stress," says Golubic.
How is this possible? When you're under stress, you're obviously feeling a lot of emotions: maybe anger at your coworker for botching a presentation or fear that you won't be able to meet a deadline. These emotions can encourage cravings that lead to stress-eating. But, slowing the breath brings in a new emotion: calm. "Sometimes you can't always choose the stress in your life, but you can choose your perception of it, which is linked with emotions," says Golubic. Plus, recent research shows that meditation and deep breathing actually produce immediate positive changes in genes involved with inflammation and stress.
If you need a bit more guidance — we breathe every second, but mindful breathing can be tough! — try a meditation phone app or try out a class to help ease into the process and bring those cravings under control.
Juggling projects, happy hours, and yoga classes means we’re taking fast food to a literal level — a.k.a. slurping soup on the subway ride home or while entertaining six colleagues on Gchat. It may come off as super productive to be able to balance the act of eating with whatever else it is we’re trying to do but not paying attention can mess with our bodies. It takes 20 minutes for the brain to register satiety. So, if your sushi is gone in 60 seconds because you’re rushing, you’re more prone to overeating because your body hasn’t had a chance to record that it is full. Setting a 20-minute timer and practicing a mindful eating exercise can help slow your roll and curb weight gain.
Under stress, you may also be using eating as a distraction, says Molly Kimball, RD, New Orleans based nutritionist and creator of Eat Fit NOLA. “You’re trying to numb out any negative feelings and use food as a pick-me-up.” An easy trick is to ask yourself out loud, “Why am I eating and am I really hungry?” she says. This exercise will help you discover if you really you’re really hungry — in 99% of cases you’re not, says Kimball — or just jonesin’ for a diversion.
When we’re frazzled to the max, it’s so easy to reach for pizza or scarf down an entire pint of cookie dough ice cream in 20 seconds. Interestingly, it has a lot to do with how we’re wired. “Carbs, combined with fat and salt, activate the same pleasure receptors in the brain as highly addictive drugs like cocaine,” says Kimball. “Your brain then begins to associate those foods with a reward. That’s why when you eat them you get that feel-good feeling, every time.”
So, are we able to fight biology? The answer is yes, and it’s super-simple. “Just a five-minute walk will flood the brain with serotonin, which will provide the same mood boost as sugar or carbs, but it’s way better for you,” says Kimball. Quell that impulsive Doritos craving with a few laps around the office.