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Your Go-to Self-Care Activity Might Actually Be Fueling Your Burnout

Mary Grace Garis

Mary Grace GarisMarch 11, 2020

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It’s probably not on-task work and it’s almost certainly distracting behavior, yet nearly all of us are known to check various social media in workplace environments. We justify it every time, thinking that we deserve a small break from the grind, that maybe seeing just how many people viewed that last Instagram Story might give us renewed energy. Well, one takeaway from the most recent Well+Good TALK, which focused on strategies for combatting burnout, made clear that this behavior actually isn’t refueling you at all. In fact, those check-ins may well be making everything worse.

Okay, that sounds very dramatic, I’m sure you have a lovely brain. But the fact is that the human brain as a whole has a hard time distinguishing between spreadsheets and scrolling, and that reality might be fueling your burnout. “When it comes to tech, let me just remind you of something: Your brain doesn’t distinguish between you paging through Facebook and working,” says Celeste Headlee, journalist and author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving. “That’s all work. Your brain thinks that smartphone is work.”

“When it comes to tech, your brain doesn’t distinguish between you paging through Facebook and working. That’s all work. Your brain thinks that smartphone is work. —Celeste Headlee, burnout expert

Headlee points out then when you’re stressed, your amygdala takes over and puts you in fight-or-flight mode, letting your instinctual monkey brain control your actions. If you’re being chased by a tiger, you want the amygdala behind the steering wheel, because you don’t want your prefrontal cortex intellectualizing the experience before you decide how to react. This mode is supposed to be temporary because it ultimately dulls our decision-making skills.

“What happens when we’re in burnout is that it is chronic,” Headlee says. “It’s not something that you experience on one day or even one week. It’s something that continues over time. So you’re in fight-or-flight mode, all the time, and your brain never gets a rest. You’re constantly being ruled by your fear and your monkey brain.”

Speaking of brains, is anyone else screaming inside their own right now? Experiencing a full-fledged horror-movie montage of every time you’ve scrolled on Instagram in the bathroom stall, or sent Facebook messages during meetings, or looked through trending Twitter hashtags to give you a mid-day laugh? I’ve never done these things because I am a perfect angel when it comes to social media in workplace habits. Just kidding—I’m very guilty, and I am internally melting down about what I previously believed to be mind mind-cleansing breaks. It’s daunting to think that those check-ins just create work that’s inherently unproductive.

So, to give your brain real TLC while on the job, the first step is to set clear boundaries with your technology. I purposely bury my Instagram app three pages deep on my phone’s home screen in a folder labeled “Travel,” just so I can’t impulse check it every 15 minutes. (And when I do have that impulse, it takes me several scrolls and a handful of seconds to actually access the app, helping me check in with myself about my intention.) To lessen your natural nomophobia (that’s a fancy word for FOMO), you also might want to turn off your notifications.

The real trick for identifying a break that will actually restore you, though, is finding a complete substitute for a social media check-in. When you find yourself dulled by the workday and tempted to check Facebook, redirect to an activity that’ll actually give your brain a rest. Taking a walk in nature can help reduce stress, and if you’re an urban-dweller, a walk around the block counts, too. Or maybe allow yourself five minutes of meditation at your desk to improve your focus. Even the simple act of daydreaming or reflecting on positive memories can help banish bad feelings when you’re mid-workday.

Feel free to get creative with a social media stand-in, and if you still get the urge to go to Instagram, remember: Your brain will still be on the clock.

Unsure if you’re even burnt out to begin with? Here are four signs of burnout that signify what you’re feeling is more than stress. And then, here’s how to start quenching those burnout flames.

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