Bustle’s Personal Best is a series on how to identify — and then unabashedly go after — what you truly want, by learning from people who’ve already done it.
The life of someone on the brink of burnout often looks like this: You sit down at your desk at 6 a.m. to work unblinkingly through the day, barely pausing to eat or drink. You cancel a meetup with friends because you’re too tired (and busy) to hang out. And then, after falling facedown into bed at midnight, you wake up exhausted to repeat the cycle ad infinitum.
Of course, to someone who’s working hard to achieve a goal — whether it’s starting a business, finishing school, or writing a book — the idea of a “taking a break” can seem foreign. And yet it’s crucial to remember that you’re a human first and a go-getter second.
While reaching a goal requires a ton of time and dedication, a work-life balance is what helps prevent burnout along the way. “Burnout is a state of mental and physical exhaustion that keeps you from achieving your goals,” psychotherapist Angela Ficken tells Bustle. It can impact your mental health, lead to loss of motivation, and even leave you wondering if you’re on the right path, she says.
What’s worse, the true burnout tends to happen after you reach your goal, says Roma Williams, LMFT, a therapist and founder of Unload It Therapy. That’s because there’s often no endpoint when it comes to achievements. Once you graduate, it’s time to work or earn more diplomas. Once you write a book, you have to market it. Once your business opens you have to run the dang thing. And so on.
That’s why, ambitious folks, it’s incredibly important to learn how to pursue your goal without letting it take over your life. Here are tips from therapists for doing so, as well as from people who have been there.
1. Talk to yourself about balance.
It’s easy to get sucked into the idea of a hustle culture that expects you to go, go, go 24/7. This lifestyle is blasted across social media, where people talk about “grinding” and “girl bossing” and “never quitting,” even though these mentalities can lead to burnout.
To flip the script, licensed psychologist Lori L. Cangilla, Ph.D. suggests repeating a mantra to yourself, like, “I can work toward my goal while maintaining other parts of my life.” It’s just a few simple words, but it’ll reduce mental strain and help you see the bigger picture.
2. Keep a sense of humor.
Big projects, like starting a business, will come with countless ups and downs. You’ll fail, you’ll make mistakes, people will fall short of expectations, and it’ll all feel incredibly draining — especially if you lie awake at night agonizing about it.
That’s why Cangilla recommends maintaining a sense of humor as a way to give your brain a break. “Learning to laugh at yourself and at circumstances you can’t control may help you stave off the exhaustion and weariness that leads to burnout,” she tells Bustle.
Instead of staying up till 2 a.m. agonizing over a mishap, look for the humor and think about how this process will make for a great story someday. Then try to get some sleep.
3. Create a visual of all your priorities.
To keep life outside your goal top of mind, Cangilla suggests creating a visual reminder, like a vision board or collage of photos, to display all the other things you care about. That way, when you’re knee-deep in work, you can glance up, see pics of your hobbies and friends, and remember to push these things to the top of your priority list. (When was the last time you had a movie night, anyway?)
4. Establish a routine early on.
Flannery Cronin, the owner and craftswoman behind lighting company Friend of All, says she worked so hard when starting her business that she actually ended up in the ER. “My nervous system was shot from the stress, and my back was always going out from working too much,” she tells Bustle.
It prompted her to set up a healthier routine that included weekends off and plenty of breaks during the day. “My number one tip would be to establish a healthy routine like this as early as possible, and stick to it,” Cronin notes. She also recommends taking regular walks and not checking your phone, when possible.
Once her business was established, Cronin’s quest for balance inspired her to create a three-day work week for herself and her employees. “We get the same amount of production done, my staff is healthier and happier, and so am I,” she says.
5. Check in with yourself.
As you chase your goal, make it a habit to check in with yourself so that you can catch the early signs of burnout, which include getting easily irritated, feeling more tired than usual, and not taking care of yourself in the ways that you want and need to.
According to Jordan Brown, MS, LPC, NCC, a licensed therapist who opened her own private practice, regular check-ins are what kept her in a good headspace throughout the process. “I would check in with myself at the end of each day and each week,” Brown tells Bustle. “If I was feeling too tired to spend time with loved ones, that was — and continues to be — an important sign that I have done too much during that day or week.”
6. Set alarms.
If you’re someone who tends to burn the midnight oil, then it might help to set an alarm to remind yourself to do something else. That’s a tip Gabriela G. Valdez leaned on when starting her own podcast management business.
“I set up an alarm on my Alexa so that she would remind me, with a kind message, that I needed to stop working,” Valdez tells Bustle. “The alarm would go off every night at 8 p.m.” That’s how Valdez knew it was time to call it quits for the evening.
You can also set alarms to remind you to look up, take a breath, and participate in other areas of life. This is when you might drink some water, text your friends back, walk your dog around the block — or whatever else feels right.
7. Schedule chunks of downtime.
The idea of self-care can sound a lot like “giving up” to someone working toward a goal. “How am I supposed to open a business if I’m just lying around with a coconut face mask on?” you might ask. But according to Williams, self-care is key.
Sure, it might include pampering moments, but Williams says self-care is also about having fun things to look forward to, including swaths of time where you revel in rest and relaxation. “Schedule it in regular intervals,” Williams tells Bustle. “Maybe it’s on a Sunday from 9 to 2 where it is all about you.”
Still not buying it? Fricken notes that downtime helps you come back strong and refreshed so that you can actually be more productive.
8. Cook a meal (or two).
Another simple way to feel like a person — and not just a worker drone — is by actually making time to eat real meals as often as possible. You know, instead of slamming a granola bar as you rush to the subway or a bowl of cereal as you type.
“I made the promise to myself that I would eat homemade food every weekday at the table and not in front of the computer,” Valdez says. “I would cook my own lunch and use that time to unplug my brain from work-related stuff.”
9. Let your brain rest.
When you take a break, or pop out to enjoy a hobby, try not to spend the entire time mulling over worries or ideas and instead fully live in the moment. According to Meghan J. Ward, an author and mother of two daughters, this type of mental break was helpful when she was writing her book.
“There was so much power in letting my brain switch off from ‘thinking mode’ into more of a default mode, where it could solve problems and help me work through sections of my book without me intervening,” she tells Bustle.
The benefits of being more present are twofold: Your brain gets a break from problem-solving and, while it rests, it might actually have new ideas. “It can feel tempting to keep working hard,” Ward says, “when what you really need to do is create some space from it.”
10. Adjust your definition of “productive.”
If possible, you might even need to adjust your definition of what productivity looks like, and then cut way back on how much effort you expend.
“I wrote a novel in about six months this year,” Caitlin Fisher, an author and coach for LGBTQ+, disabled, and neurodivergent creators, tells Bustle. But instead of forcing themself to write every moment of every day — as is often suggested — Fisher scheduled a few hours on Wednesday mornings to work. And that was it.
“Because it’s only a few hours a week, it was easier to stay committed to it,” they say. “In the past when I’ve worked on books or writing projects, I tried to write every day and found that burned me out. So when I started working on [my book series], I committed to a very small, very achievable habit that would get me there.”
11. Look for more ways to be social.
While it can be tempting to forsake your social life in the name of your goal, it really is important to maintain this area as much as possible. “There’s nothing wrong with putting your work first,” Ficken says. “Just remember that a strong support network can help you increase resilience and deal with life’s adversities more effectively.”
It’s also fun to meet friends for pizza, visit family, and actually attend that barbecue your neighbors keep inviting you to. So close your laptop, turn off your alerts, and step away. Getting out will be good for you, good for your goal — and it’ll help prevent burnout.
Blasche, G. 2018. Comparison of rest-break interventions during a mentally demanding task. Stress Health. doi: 10.1002/smi.2830.
Otto, MCB. 2020. The Development of a Proactive Burnout Prevention Inventory: How Employees Can Contribute to Reduce Burnout Risks. Int J Environ Res Public Health. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17051711.
Velando-Soriano, A. 2019. Impact of social support in preventing burnout syndrome in nurses: A systematic review. Jpn J Nurs Sci. doi: 10.1111/jjns.12269.
Angela Ficken, Boston-based psychotherapist
Lori L. Cangilla, Ph.D., licensed psychologist