How to Avoid Burnout by Taking Mental Vacations

Last week I did something incredibly rare for me. I took a mental vacation.

It’s hard to step away. With a business that’s off-the-charts and a new-ish gig as a Fast Company contributor, my brain has been switched to the on position for months. I'm also a strategist by trade — and by nature, which means I think a lot. Actually it's more like I'm always thinking. And, it’s what I’m paid to do. As you can imagine, taking a break from thinking is not easy for me. 

There are plenty of advantages to being small. I love being on my own. I have no desire to build a consulting company or have a tradition startup. However, there are some obstacles to navigate when working for yourself. One of the trickiest is taking mental breaks.

When you’re independent, you often wrestle with the direction of your business. There’s always something to do. A million little — and big — decisions to make. Even if you have support, you are the primary driver. It all comes down to you. When you work for yourself, thinking about your business all the time can become a default setting. If you’re not careful, burnout beckons. Taking mental breaks is essential. By the way, it’s also true when you work for someone else or have a side project.

On Friday of my mental vacation I had coffee with an independent writer friend. She’d recently returned from a two week trip to Russia. Before she left, she prepped her clients. She rarely thought about work. She admitted that her project-based work made this easier. She’s right. Even though breaks from project-based work requires effort, taking a mental break is more challenging when your work is ongoing or retainer-based. It also makes mental vacations even more necessary. If you don’t take them, it can lead you to the edge of the burnout cliff. 

Because my work is ongoing rather than project based, I set expectations with my clients upfront so they don’t expect immediate responses. Still, they linger in my mind. Even if I take time away, I’m always thinking about them, plotting their next strategic decision, pondering how to overcome their current challenge. This brain drain can happen for other independents too like those who manage apps or the back-end of client software. 

When you have ongoing clients, you may not be able to take an entire week off. For my mental vacation, I set a goal of not more than 10 hours, including thinking. I hadn’t planned on writing about this and I don’t have all the answers for sure, but I thought maybe one or two of you might relate.

Don’t worry.

This isn’t one of those posts.

As a recovering type A, I'll always be apt to push too hard. When it comes to taking mental breaks, I’m still learning. I’m not going to tell you that I cooked every day, meditated and went on a yoga retreat. This wasn’t a blissed out experience. It wasn’t even a party-til-you-drop sort of experience. I didn’t go to a single social event. It more of a do-whatever-I-want/sit-on-the-couch-with-no-expectations experience. And that’s what I did. I read three books. I went on a netflix binge. Cleaned out my t-shirt drawer. Deleted 6,000 photos from my phone. Researched a new mirrorless digital camera I hope to buy.

This wasn’t what the experts would say to do. 

My mental vacation checklist

I'm not perfect at this. I’m still learning too. But in case it’s helpful, here’s what I did to take my mental vacation.

- Set expectations with my ongoing clients

- Worked only on urgent client priorities (and was strict about this)

- Made myself stop when my mind drifted to clients

- Let go of “shoulds” i.e. "you should be working, your business will suffer...” 

- Used gmail “snooze” function so emails reappeared when back to work

- Had no plans, simply did what I wanted in the moment

- Cleared my schedule as much as possible

- Shut my computer

There are some things I’d do different. I’d turn on the tv less and read even more. I'd go to an afternoon matinee. I would do a daily 10 minute yoga practice, just to keep my body limber. Still, my mental vacation worked. My mind rarely wandered into client work or business planning.

As I write, it’s Sunday morning. I’m sitting at my desk writing to you. My stubborn cold is finally gone. My energy has rebounded. The creativity that had grown to a trickle is back. My grip on my phone loosened, I’m no longer incessantly checking my messages. The guilt has stopped. I feel more relaxed.

Taking a mental vacation was a smart decision. I intend to keep it up. I plan to do a mental break once a quarter, and take smaller, “mini” breaks more often. I can’t wait to see what happens as a result of more mental vacations.