You’re an accountant deep in tax season, a junior doctor in residency, or an entrepreneur juggling a startup and an actual baby. Many of us go through seasons of life when we have very little personal time. Others may be committed to jobs that regularly involve intense and long hours, creating a long-term lack of rest.
While this kind of overwork is not ideal, there are undoubtedly situations in which it becomes a necessity or makes personal sense. I’ve certainly done it for periods of my life, for instance, in the lead-up to exams or to put final polishes on my books. At times like this, when having full weekend off seems like a distant dream, advice on the importance of maintaining work-life balance, reducing the stress, and getting enough sleep can feel like a slap in the face. You don’t need to be scolded to work less. You need practical tips for surviving and thriving when you have to be fully committed. Here are some strategies that can help:
Use Premack’s principle.
Premack’s principle (as it applies here) is to use an easier behavior as a reward for a harder behavior. For instance, you can reward yourself for finishing a cognitively demanding task (like writing a complex report) by completing a low-key but necessary task, like running an errand that helps you stay organized. This approach can help you pace yourself during your work day, ensuring that you get regular breaks during which your mind can shift into a more relaxed gear, while still being productive. Think of it like recovering from bursts of running by walking instead of stopping.
Tasks you actually enjoy can become tense, unpleasant experiences if, while you’re doing them, you’re mentally elsewhere, feeling stressed and anxious about the other hundred things on your list. What’s quite pleasurable or satisfying for you, even though it’s time-consuming? Perhaps it’s nutting out how best to present an intricate data visualization. Maybe it’s rehearsing speeches in front of friends or family.
You and Your Team Series
If you know the task is important and you’re approaching it efficiently, allow yourself to enjoy it. For recurrent hard assignments, think about the parts of it you like best at the beginning, middle, and end stages. For instance, I like listening to my Mac auto-read aloud drafts of my blog posts when doing my final edits. It’s satisfying to find those last few instances where I’ve repeated a word, made a typo, or the melody of a sentence is wrong. I also like the beginning stages of projects in which I get to top up my brain with broad searches on Google Scholar, and the middle stages when I’m wrestling with parts of what I’m writing that aren’t working but when my overall structure is in place and sound. By articulating distinct, enjoyable aspects of tasks, you can be more mindful and savor them.
Save small scraps of time for mental rest.
When you’re very busy, it’s tempting to try to cram productive activity, like responding to email or thinking through decisions, into any small crack of time. This could be when you’re standing in line at the supermarket, waiting for a presentation to start, or in the five minutes between finishing one thing and joining a meeting. When you’re slammed, it can seem essential to work during these moments. However, you don’t have to. Instead, consider using brief waiting times for true mental breaks. Take some slow breaths, drop your shoulders, and just chill.
You don’t need to take an all-or-nothing approach to this tip, of course. If using small scraps of time to keep work moving sometimes suits you, keep doing it Monday to Friday, but, on the weekend, consider giving yourself those little breaks. Find the balance that works for you.
Add physical decompression rituals to your day.
When we’re overloaded, we can hold a lot of physical tension. This is partly due to our in-built fight/flight/freeze response to fear or stress. For instance, the evolutionary basis of balled fists is your cave-person self preparing to run or punch. Some people breathe faster when they’re stressed. Some adopt an aggressive, dominant tone of voice or body language. Since these reactions are often unconscious, you’ll need prompts to correct them.
Try using context triggers — deciding which moments in the day you’ll use to physically decompress. For instance, maybe you can take some slow breaths whenever you go to the bathroom, or just after you wake up or just before you get into bed. You can also use emotions as triggers, like “When I notice I feel stressed, I’ll scan my body for tension and soften and release any spots I find.” If you’re not sure how to do this, just try opening and closing your fists a few times, clenching and unclenching your jaw, or scrunching and dropping your shoulders. Our thoughts, emotions, and bodily reactions are a feedback loop. When you mimic the physiology of someone who is relaxed, you’ll find that your thinking becomes less closed, and psychologically challenging activities in which you need to think openly, like taking in feedback, will seem easier.
Pair pleasure experiences with other activities.
In my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, I wrote about how people often put off pleasure, especially when they feel too busy or undeserving because they haven’t gotten enough done. You can buffer yourself against the stress of feeling rushed and overloaded if you recurrently pair simple sources of pleasure with particular activities you’re not as excited to do. For instance, I pack peanut butter sandwiches whenever I fly, which is about the only time I ever eat them, and now the two experiences are mentally linked. No matter how stressed I am about my trip or all the work I need to do before, during and after it, I feel just a little bit more relaxed because I’ve packed that treat for myself. Or, if you love podcasts, perhaps you have a routine of listening to specific shows on your commute home each day of the week. If what you love isn’t as simple as sandwiches or podcasts, set aside just a bit of consistent time to indulge in your interest, so you’ve removed decision-making as a barrier. For instance, if cooking is your passion, perhaps you whip up a big batch of something on Sundays that you can then take as lunch for the week.
Just to be clear: I’m not saying that you can life-hack your way through being a permanent workaholic. But, during those times when, on balance, overworking makes short- or long-term sense (or is a necessity), you need some harm minimization strategies. It’s important to pace yourself and not let your obligations consume you.