How to Kill Burnout and Upgrade Your Performance the Easy Way


If you're like me, you've experienced how crippling burnout can be. Despite critical deadlines, burnout can keep your motivation at zero. Everything seems harder. And when it hits, the timing often couldn’t be worse.

Our subjective experience of burnout is validated by brain research. Burnout compromises the cognitive and emotional processes in the brain.


But what are the most effective ways to prevent and recover from it? 

Your brain works best if you give it even the tiniest breaks (as little as 60 seconds can greatly improve your performance).

Here’s why:

Burnout is caused by too much focus on achieving goals for extended periods of time. We know from many studies that the longer you stay focused on achieving goals without taking breaks for enjoyment and relaxation, the more your work quality and performance decline. You need to turn down activity in the concentration center of your brain (the Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex [DLPF]) several times an hour to allow your glial cells to clean away the stress-related byproducts generated by the neurons in this area.

The fastest way is to take relaxation break and to fully immerse yourself in any pleasurable activity for 1-3 minutes. This could be a taking a short walk, sipping a warm drink, massaging your own head, sketching a picture, looking at travel photos, watching a video on YouTube... Anything that you enjoy!

This cat massage video may help you.

That said, the most effective way to give your DLPF a rest is to enter a trance-like daydreaming state. Research shows that repeating the word "OM" like a yogi may be the fastest way to do this (other sounds don't appear to work!). That said, you may get some strange looks if you do this around others in the office and want to fall back on a more covert strategy.

Don’t feel guilty taking tiny indulgences throughout the day. In fact, we recommend getting very intentional about them. Set a timer to take quick breaks 1-3 times an hour. When you return to concentrate on a specific goal or task, you'll feel less stress and your productivity and performance will skyrocket. You’ll feel better, get more done, and you’ll protect your brain from debilitating burnouts.

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Neurohemodynamic correlates of 'OM' chanting: A pilot functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Kalyani BG, Venkatasubramanian G, Arasappa R, Rao NP, Kalmady SV, Behere RV, Rao H, Vasudev MK, Gangadhar BN. Int J Yoga. 2011 Jan;4(1):3-6.

Can we predict burnout severity from empathy-related brain activity? Tei S, Becker C, Kawada R, Fujino J, Jankowski KF, Sugihara G, Murai T, Takahashi H. Transl Psychiatry. 2014 Jun 3;4:e393.

Structural changes of the brain in relation to occupational stress. Savic I. Cereb Cortex. 2015 Jun;25(6):1554-64.

This post was lovingly crafted by Josiah Hultgren. He is Founder/CEO of MindFullyAlive, a Senior Lecturer at California Lutheran University, a cognitive coach, and a practical neuroscience expert. He produces and curates mindfulness content designed to improve structure and functioning of the brain.