You're exhausted, stressed, and overwhelmed. Your workload feels insurmountable, and the more you try to tackle it, the harder it becomes. You haven't spent time with friends, gone to the gym, or eaten anything that wasn't delivered in weeks. You feel out of touch with your life outside of work and that only compounds your anxiety. Your body is telling you that you need a day off, but your mind can't even conceive of it.
Welcome to job burnout—a growing workplace condition that as many as 67% of Americans have experienced, according to a recent Gallup poll. "A lot of burnout really has to do with experiencing chronic stress," Dr. David Ballard, head of the APA's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, tells Forbes. "In those situations, the demands being placed on you exceed the resources you have available to deal with the stressors."
If this sounds all too familiar, it's probably time to take action. Maybe quitting your job, or even taking a two-week vacation isn't realistic at the moment. But a personal day to recharge and reset? Sometimes, 24 hours can make a difference.
Sure, you may not have the flu or a broken bone, but that doesn't mean you have to feel guilty for taking a breather. "Many people...don't feel entitled to prioritize their well-being," psychologist Alison Ross tells US News and World Report. "In my view, the short-term gains from giving oneself a break – even if it's one day out of the office – can make a big difference in terms of reestablishing a better sense of well-being."
Call it a sick day if it makes your boss feel better, and tell yourself it's a mental health day if it alleviates any personal guilt. What's most important is that the next 24 hours are stress-free. Once you've set aside the day, it's time to consider the best way to reset and recharge. Barring doing work on your day off, there is no wrong way to spend your personal day. But setting your intention and paying attention to your most pressing needs is crucial. "A mental health day should be designed to give your mind, body, and spirit just what it's craving most—which is different for every person," work-life expert Kathy Caprino tells Shape. With that in mind, here are some options to help you make the most of your day off.
If you want to feel productive without logging on
Clean your fridge, reorganize your closet, Marie Kondo your desk drawers. Find that cluttered or dirty spot in your home you've been meaning to tackle, put on your favorite podcast and go to town. Take your time, enjoy the process and don't spend more than a few hours on it. The idea is to accomplish one small task on your backlogged to-do list that will make your life a little easier when you return to work. Maybe a cleaned-out closet will make you want to get dressed the next morning, or a freshened up desk will inspire new ideas.
If you want to kickstart a healthy habit
When you're in all-work, no-play mode, everything—even crucial self-care habits—get tossed aside. Pretty soon, the idea of taking a yoga class or going for a run seems like a luxury you can't afford. Your day off is a good opportunity to remind yourself how important your physical and mental health is to your overall well-being, not to mention productivity. Take an exercise class, download a meditation app like Headspace, go for a bike ride, and while you're at it, consider how to make time for one of these healthy habits on your workdays. If you've been eating takeout, you might want to treat yourself to some fresh produce and prepare some healthy meals for the next few days. For inspiration, check out some quick (and budget-friendly) recipes here.
If you're missing that connection with people you love
Is there a friend you haven't seen in ages or a family member you just need some quality time with? Burnout can make you feel like your losing yourself, and connecting with loved ones is the best way to remember what matters to you most. Whether exploring a new part of town with a friend, grabbing lunch with your sibling, or just Facetiming with your mom for an hour, catching up with your core folks can reset your priorities and ground you when you're feeling lost.
If you want to plan your next move
So the thought of going back to work in 24 hours makes you sick to your stomach and you know you need to change your job, heck, your career trajectory. Deep breath. You can't figure it all out in one day, BUT you can get yourself on the right track. The first thing to do is look at your finances, figure out how much you need to earn, how much you've saved and whether or not you have enough to live on if you really need to quit your job. Next, start thinking big picture. Ask yourself these larger career questions and write your answers in a journal, read up on some job-shifting advice, and check out this 6-step plan to help you figure out your next move. Don't expect to have all the answers right away, but making room to consider what's possible—financially and professionally—will set you on the right path and help you feel more in control when it's time to go back to work.
If you just want to feel better
If you're feeling physically sick or mentally unable to cope, use this time to set up doctors appointments—whether with specialists, primary care physicians or therapists. If you can see someone on your day off, great, but just getting some appointments on your calendar is a huge step in the right direction when it comes to prioritizing your health over your day-to-day job responsibilities.
If you're simply exhausted and need to shut down
Sleep, my friend. Sleep as long and as hard as you can. And when you wake up, binge watch all the shows, read all the books, take all the baths and wear all the cozy slippers and robes. Stock up on guilt-free relaxation and give your body what it needs. Restorative sleep and relaxation is essential for physical and mental well-being and if you get enough of it, you will be 100% sharper when it's time to get back to work.
No matter how you spend your personal day, don't forget that it's PERSONAL. If you're planning on doing work, that work should be dedicated to your life rather than your immediate superior's needs. While you might not be able to cure burnout or fix all your work problems in 24 hours, hopping off the treadmill for a day gives you a chance to regroup, recharge and gather the strength to make bigger changes down the road.
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In 2005, I opened up a Gmail account and received my first message welcoming me to my new inbox. Today, my account contains 39,000 messages—including the 8,700 I haven't yet opened. To say that it's a source of stress would be an understatement. Between Gmail, work accounts, Slack, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Trello, text messages and yes, the occasional phone-call, it feels like an endless game of whack-a-mole. The minute I respond to one message, another pops up, leaving me with the gnawing sensation that I will never, ever catch up—especially if I want to accomplish anything aside from correspondence. With email, "you have the false sensation of advancing toward a goal, but the moment you look away, the target shifts further into the distance as more messages roll in," Jocelyn K. Glei, author of Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real, tells The Muse.
I may have an exceptionally daunting inbox, but my anxiety about it isn't unique. On average, Americans spend 6.5 hours a day just checking their email—that doesn't include reading or responding to messages. That kind of time suck has taken its toll. With record rates of stress and anxiety among the millennial workforce, the expectation of flexible boundaries and constant communication may be partly to blame. According to one recent Virginia Tech study, managing the barrage of work emails at all hours of the day along with personal responsibilities, "triggers feelings of anxiety and endangers work and personal lives."
It's no wonder we break into cold sweats when we open our email accounts. "A lot of people easily get hundreds of emails a day," occupational therapist Angela Lockwood tells the Sydney Morning Herald. "They get anxious, thinking, 'I don't know how I'm going to cope.'" The result is a very real and uncomfortable anxiety that can be paralyzing. So how do we avoid this feeling without avoiding our email altogether? Here's some expert advice I'll be taking to heart.
Turn Off Your Alerts
The first thing you need to do is turn down the volume on the noise. If you have notifications on your phone that pop up every time you get a new email or social media alert, shut it off. "Email anxiety is very much around that constant intrusion into our day from notifications," suggests Lockwood, author of Switch Off: How to Find Calm In A Noisy World. "So the anxiety doesn't just happen when you open your computer in the morning, it's constant throughout the day." In today's world we're expected to be multitaskers, but it's impossible to complete just one task if we're constantly distracted by reminders of others. It's not like you're going to forget to check your accounts throughout the day, but in order to avoid that panic of inundation, you need the ability to focus on one thing, rather than a million little beeps and buzzes that may not be a priority at the moment.
Batch Your Tasks
"To achieve maximum productivity, we should schedule, prioritize and match the most important tasks that demand the majority of our attention with our periods of high energy levels," suggests The Ladders' Mayo Oshin. "On the flip side, our least important or less demanding tasks should be matched with the lower periods of energy." That means setting aside chunks of time during the day to deal with different types of emails. Oshin suggests checking in three times a day, setting aside 30-60 minutes each, depending on the volume of emails. You should get the most pressing emails out of the way immediately when you have fresh eyes and the most energy, and set aside those less urgent ones for later in the day when you need a break.
Set Your Boundaries
Yes, some emails require immediate responses, but most can wait. (The Muse has a handy guide for lag time etiquette if you're ever unsure.) The problem is that the quicker you respond to emails, the higher the expectations become.
"Be sure to also think about the psychological messages you're sending along with your emails," suggest the folks at TrackTime24, an app designed to help you manage your tech time more efficiently. "Responding immediately trains people in a negative way and sets expectations that can be tough to maintain. Once you're known as someone who drops everything to reply to an email, delayed responses will begin to rub people the wrong way. But if you never set that expectation, taking your time to reply won't make waves."
Cognitive psychologist and improvement coach Amanda Crowell tested this theory herself, by waiting a day before replying to every email. Turns out the world didn't end, and she was able to discover which emailers required the most urgent responses and which ones were less likely to take offense. She was also able to send a clear message that she wasn't always available to everyone immediately. "We are holding ourselves in this prison of constant connection!" Crowell tells Quartz. "It's all about knowing what you really want, and then taking the small steps to get a little bit closer, and a little bit closer over time … that accumulation results in a different life."
Embrace Your "Inbox Infinity"
A few years ago, before the volume of emails in our collective inboxes grew out of hand, the idea of Inbox Zero—or a cleaned out inbox—seemed somewhat attainable. But the trend has gone in the other direction, and for good reason.
"The compulsion to empty our email inboxes is an addictive habit that makes us feel like we're making progress and getting things done, but in reality, we're wasting precious time that could be spent on our most important tasks," writes Oshin.
To remedy this addiction, The Atlantic's Taylor Lorenz came up with a new, more realistic approach to the email pile-up: acceptance, or what Lorenz calls Inbox Infinity. "One critical step in the inbox-infinity method is to publicly admit that you have too much email to handle and be up front about not responding," Lorenz writes. "You can start by messaging close contacts and family members, providing them with alternative ways to reach you."
You can also set an auto-reply that alerts emailers about when to realistically expect a response, and how to reach you if the matter is urgent.
"Since putting up my own out-of-office responder on my personal inbox and adopting inbox infinity, I've felt my stress about opening my mailbox decrease," writes Lorenz. "I've also found that setting the expectation that I may never see or reply to an email makes people even more grateful when they do get a response."
The most important thing to remember is that you are the master of your own inbox. We are all weighed down by the pressure to keep up, but if your unread messages are causing you major anxiety, it's time to relax, take a breath, and consider picking up the phone. Sometimes responding to someone the old-fashioned way is the healthiest move for everyone.