The Secret to Less Burnout and Higher Productivity Is Something You Wouldn’t Expect

Burnout is still having a moment in today’s rise-and-grind.

Though its definition is a little up to your interpretation, it’s recognized by the World Health Organization as a response to workplace stress and categorized by feelings of exhaustion, negativity, cynicism or “mental distance” from work, as well as a feeling of being ineffective or not accomplishing anything. But it can also come from other life stressors, such as being a caregiver, feeling lonely, or feeling like you never have time to do the thing you love doing

Simply put, burnout is a state of exhaustion that comes after being in a period of chronic stress.  

Feel familiar? If so, you aren’t alone. Burnout can affect anyone, employed or unemployed. It’s gotten more attention lately in certain industries, including the health care, where the workforce was stressed past its max during the pandemic, but it’s rising in workers everywhere by some estimates. Women and younger workers might also be more affected.

Burnout can impact your health, change your diet and disrupt your sleep – causing you to need more of it or shave off hours. But there’s some good news: burnout is a solvable problem. Some ways you can reverse it include setting work/home life boundaries; saying no to tasks you don’t have time to complete; and swapping out one task a week you feel like you “have” to do with a task you really “want” to do. But one of the simplest ways to start dealing with burnout is by… sleeping.

Let us explain.

A person sleeping at her desk with pink sticky notes over her eyes

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Sleeping more to think less (and ultimately do more) 

Anyone who’s experienced the nagging feeling of falling behind can relate to the urge to either stay up really late or wake up super early in order to “get ahead” of the day. But though getting back on track by completing one overdue project in the early-morning hours may be necessary sometimes, you’re backing yourself into a painful corner if you routinely try to outcompete burnout and “get ahead” by slimming down sleeping time. And the quality of the work you’re actually trying to do may suffer, too.

Not sleeping can turn adult minds into toddler brains

When I asked Shelby Harris, a clinical psychologist who created the “five sleep languages,” whether there was any merit to my feeling that I revert back to a toddler brain when I’m sleep deprived, she (more or less) said yes. 

Sleep is imperative to our cognitive flexibility, which is our ability to respond to our environment and adapt to changes when they occur. Because your ability to respond to and prevent burnout depends on your ability to recognize when you’re overstressed or overworked, and then come up with ways to ease the stress, you’ll see how sleep plays an integral part in burnout prevention. 

Among other functions crucial to health, sleeping helps us do things that are important to ward off burnout, including: 

  • Process memories.
  • Concentrate.
  • Manage stress.

It also refines our perception of the world. 

Sleep is so important to our cognitive functioning and emotional processing that being deprived of those crucial seven or so hours can deliver us to a mental state where a would-be minor inconvenience feels like the end of the world, and you feel like there’s no fix to a problem. 

Anyone who’s ever spent time with a young child and walked with them through a conflict may be with me on the notion that sleep deprivation can lead to toddler-level problem solving abilities.

To help solidify the idea that your performance, and your satisfaction with what you’re doing, will improve if you spend more time sleeping (and less time staring at your problem), think of your brain as a computer, with sleep as its charger.

A toddler looking grumpy eating dirt

Do you feel this way when sleep deprived?

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Treat your sleep routine like a charger for your laptop 

We know that being sleep deprived slows reaction time and that good quality sleep is linked to higher academic performance among college students, as well as higher paychecks for working professionals. The better you treat the machine, the better the machine works for you. And that means shutting your laptop, plugging it in to charge, and leaving it alone sometimes.

If you’re like many people who’ve experienced burnout, you might have a hard time separating your workplace from your home, which also means your bed and sleep. If this is you, follow these CNET tips for working from home and setting boundaries. Simple things like avoiding opening up your laptop in bed can help give you that much-needed recharge. 

If poor sleep is generally a problem for you, you might consider completely revamping your bedroom or wherever you sleep. Simple changes like reducing noise and lowering the room’s temperature may help. 

If you need a hand figuring out how to get better sleep, read more about the different sleep languages, and specific tips for each language, and here’s how to create the best environment for quality rest.

And remember: Burnout doesn’t have to be permanent.  

Read more: White Noise vs. Brown Noise: Which Is Best For Sleep? 

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