How to Avoid Burnout—or a Breakdown

Three ways working parents can combat exhaustion that don’t require radical social change.

Feeling maxed-out? Like you’d like to lie down so badly you are having “hospital fantasies”?

(Not familiar with that term? Hopefully you aren’t as tired as this woman, who writes about her hospital fantasy: “I stumbled back to work when my son was 6 weeks old. He had colic and chronic ear infections, so I really didn’t sleep for a year. No exaggeration. I would fantasize about having a minor car accident on the way to work. Nothing serious—just enough to lay me up in the hospital for a few days so I could sleep!”)

It’s not that I don’t think we have societal problems  that are causing this kind of exhaustion. I do. But there are things that we can do as individuals to prevent burnout and breakdown.

1. Get enough rest. I know, I know, you don’t have time to sleep. Or you think you are the exception to the rule—you don’t need the seven-to-nine hours of sleep that doctors and experts prescribe. Maybe you wish you could get more sleep, but you just can’t find a way to put sleep above your other priorities.

Ask yourself: What are your other priorities? Your health? Your happiness? Productivity and success at work? Raising happy and healthy children? Here’s the truth: You will not fulfill your potential in any of these realms unless you get the sleep your body, brain, and spirit needs.

But that’s not all: We also need to rest during the day . We are not computers, able to run continuously. This means that we need to rest between periods of productivity. After about 90 to 120 minutes of high output, we need a period of recovery—or stress and exhaustion start to build, and productivity starts to decline. Rest periods needn’t be long (10-15 minutes will do) if you truly take a break: Go for a walk outside, read an article that really interests you (but isn’t on your task list), chat with a coworker or neighbor, eat your lunch outside or near a sunny window.

In the wild (or, say, kindergarten), human beings naturally take breaks to refuel with a snack or a meal. Don’t squander this natural rest period by wolfing down your lunch while you read your email, or by sipping a latte while driving to work and calling that breakfast. Practice eating mindfully, paying attention to your food and the people you are with. Notice what you are eating and how quickly or slowly. Breathe. Relax.

2. Do only one thing at a time. Multi-tasking talent is nothing to brag about. If we just focused on one task at a time, we’d actually be more productive in the long run, and we’d be less exhausted at the end of the day. This is because multi-tasking exhausts more energy and time than single-tasking does. Take it from productivity experts Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy:

Distractions are costly: A temporary shift in attention from one task to another—stopping to answer an email or take a phone call, for instance—increased the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25 percent, a phenomenon known as “switching time.”

It is often harder for me to single-task than it is to multi-task. I have to totally remove all distractions to single-task: I do my best writing at a desk I’ve set up in a large closet that doesn’t get phone reception, with my email disabled. I group my daily tasks into two categories: “Think Work” and “Action Items.” Then I block off time on my calendar for both things. I do my Think Work at the closet desk totally uninterrupted, setting a timer so that I take a break every 60-90 minutes.

My Action Items take less focus, but I still tackle them one at a time in sequence—not parallel. Unless I’m working my way through my email, my email application is closed. I answer the phone only for scheduled calls. I leave my iPhone in do-not-disturb mode (so that I can see if my kids’ school is calling, but that’s about it) and reply to texts when I’m taking a break. Having these “rules” for myself has dramatically increased my productivity.

3. Reduce the amount of “junk stimulus” that you need to deal with. We are bombarded, day and night, with loads of, pardon my language, CRAP. TV ads (or even news!) we aren’t interested in that we watch anyway, making us anxious. A mailbox full of advertising and other “dead tree marketing.” Emails upon emails, mingling with Facebook posts and Tweets and texts. (I’m having an event this weekend, and I got nearly 100 texts about it yesterday. That might be super exciting for a teenager, but I thought I was going crazy.)

Left unchecked, all this junk stimulus will bleed us dry. It’s exhausting even as it is sometimes entertaining. This week, take notice of all the clutter in your life.

Start with your environment. Where is there “junk stimulus”—stuff that makes you feel tired when you see, hear, or otherwise experience it? Consider visual clutter, like that over-stuffed kitchen drawer you open every day looking for a paper clip. Ponder auditory clutter, like whiney kids who make you tense, or the neighbor who really does need to fix his car alarm. Think about online and media distractions. (You might enjoy them, but for mental health reasons, consider indulging in them only occasionally, as a treat.)

Christine Carter, Ph.D.*, is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. She is the author of “RAISING HAPPINESS: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.” She teaches online happiness classes that help parents bring more joy into their own lives and the lives of their children, and she writes an award-winning blog for *Greater Good* ( “Sign up now with promotional code ActiveKids, and get $25 off the cost of the class!”