What you might crave most is some time off to fully unplug—and understandably so. According to the Harvard Business Review, sabbaticals are the best way to recover from burnout. Indeed, I love the idea of a multiple-month sabbatical and even offer specialized coaching programs to help clients prepare for them at my burnout-relief consultancy Hooky Wellness. However, as much as I love them, such lengthy breaks from work are not always practical or possible for logistical or money reasons—and thus, cannot be the only way to find relief from burnout.
Not to mention, even if you are able to take a well-deserved sabbatical, vacation, career nap, or some other version of a break, there will be a period before you get to step away when you need to work through impending burnout. It is during that time, before you can recharge, in which I recommend that you shift into “low power mode.”
What is low power mode as it relates to burnout?
"Low power mode" is a phrase most commonly associated with smartphones, referencing a setting that allows a phone to reduce the amount of power it's using in order to extend its battery life. (If you’re like me and forget to charge your phone when you’re sitting around the house, then you’re likely quite familiar.) You'll typically get a notification from your phone to turn on this setting when it's at 10-percent battery power or less, prompting you to adjust its battery usage and begin conserving its energy until you can charge it.
Operating in "low power mode" involves doing what you need to do while preserving what little energy you have left.
This setting is an apt metaphor for what's going on when we're dealing with burnout and how we might act while we need to continue to work through it. Burnout is physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting, creating low energy levels and reduced capacity or bandwidth—much like a phone with low battery power. In turn, operating in "low power mode" involves doing what you need to do while preserving what little energy you have left.
Much like low power mode on a phone, this is a temporary state of functioning: You can only continue delivering while dealing with limited energy for a certain length of time until you will need to plug in and recharge. But for that interim period, learning how to operate in low power mode can help you retain your mental well-being and preserve a basic level of productivity when a real break is not (yet) possible.
How do you operate in low power mode?
1. Lower your battery usage
Just as a phone stops running certain programs and doing non-critical background tasks when you put it on low power mode (for example, an iPhone will pause uploading photos to iCloud and stop using 5G), so, too, should you lower your own battery usage by focusing on just the necessary items on your to-do list when you have to work through burnout.
Prioritize the most important tasks, and postpone the rest until you feel more energized. It's essential to give yourself permission to step back and see the bigger picture, identifying the tasks that are most critical and being realistic about the amount of time and energy it will take to address them effectively.
It's also important to release any guilt about postponing things or delegating. If you feel like even your everyday tasks are becoming too much, ask for help from colleagues, friends, or family members to free up some of your limited energy.
2. Stop mindlessly swiping
When your own personal battery enters the yellow zone, one of the first things to cut is mindless swiping. Sorry, but repeatedly refreshing Instagram, Threads, and Twitter can wait until you're back at full capacity. Not only is this draining your battery, but also, you’re consuming a ton of (mostly unnecessary) content, which can clog the mental space you need for positive, reaffirming information.
Instead, be intentional about checking social media when you need (or want) to do so, and set clear limits for yourself on usage so as not to unintentionally whittle away your remaining battery life.
3. Practice small actions that extend your battery life
When you're already approaching burnout, making big changes to your routine or lifestyle can feel too daunting. Instead, focus on embracing small changes that can have a significant impact.
To return to the phone metaphor, an iPhone uses 54-percent less battery when you reduce screen brightness; disabling GPS and auto-updates, and closing out of apps you aren't using are other small actions that can help the phone preserve its juice.
The same thing applies to real life and self care: Small but mighty actions like taking a moment to express gratitude, doing a five-minute meditation, going for a brief walk, speaking an affirmation into the mirror, and setting a clear work-life boundary can add up to boosted energy, an improved mood, and intrinsic motivation.
4. Plan to recharge ASAP
There’s no way out of low power mode other than to actually recharge. To be clear, recharging is not a luxury but a necessity especially when it comes to burnout. When you notice the signs of burnout creeping in, it's important to plan some time for yourself to fully recharge (as soon as it feels feasible), so that there's a light at the end of the low-power tunnel.
Once that time arrives, plan to plug into your personal source of power with activities from what I call the four pillars of mental wellness: growth, rest, play, and community. The first includes any activity that stimulates or stretches your mind (think: taking a workshop on a topic that fascinates you or setting aside time to use a language-learning app), while the second is all about soothing your senses, perhaps by way of listening to a calming playlist or guided meditation, or getting a massage. Meanwhile, the "play" pillar is anything that's just for fun (like singing karaoke or playing a board game), and the "community" pillar encompasses anything you might do with people who light you up, like loved ones or friends.
Whatever you choose, the sooner you recharge, the quicker you can bounce back to full power mode—and do more of the things that bring you joy. Naturally, taking a break may seem impossible when there are so many things to do, but the truth is, without prioritizing time to recharge eventually, you will likely find that your symptoms of burnout only intensify.
How to recognize when you are in low power mode
Unlike a smartphone, we do not have automatic notifications or adjustments, so the ability to recognize when you are in low power mode and need to operate accordingly is grounded in personal awareness. Dedicate time monthly to reflect on whether you might be starting to exhibit the warning signs of burnout. You can add this reflection to your journaling routine, or use the burnout quiz at Hooky Wellness to gauge your state of being.
When you’re experiencing burnout, it can feel as though you'll never regain your energy levels. But again, just like a phone in low power mode, this situation is temporary. Through intentionality and the changes in behavior outlined above, you can hold onto enough energy to make it to the metaphorical charger and avoid being stuck with a dead battery.
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