How to Avoid Burnout and Boost Creativity

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When you have a pressing deadline or trying to come up with new ways of doing things, you usually sit at your desk and force yourself to think and focus on the task until it is finished. We assume that if we keep our focus on the task until it is complete, what we come up with will be sufficient. Doing this on a daily basis leads to burnout, affects mental health, and stifles thinking and creativity.

What if what you really need is to be distracted?

I do not mean the type of distraction that takes your attention away from your work while you are working. It is the type of distraction you need to disconnect from your work even if the task you are working on or project is not complete, to give your mind and body a breather and a chance to recuperate, recharge, and come back to it refreshed.

Conscious minds have limited capacity. We can only process so much data at one time and only one thought at a time. When we refrain from attending to an issue or problem too closely, we reach the best decisions.

The unconscious mind is superior at processing large chunks of information simultaneously. Recent studies have also discovered that unconscious thinking is well equipped for creative problem solving and coming up with innovative ideas. I know I have had “Aha!” moments unexpectedly when I was not even thinking about the problem.

We do not usually think of taking a break and are inclined to force ourselves to finish the job at hand even if it takes all day, but just as you cannot sprint a marathon, we should not force our minds to either.  While we need time to focus to complete tasks, we tend to force ourselves to keep our heads down too much. Too much focus can hurt your performance and productivity in three main ways:


  1. Focus Drains Your Energy. You will find that if you spend the whole day focused on a task or project, you feel depleted at the end of the day. We need energy to focus and for our mind to work, therefore, we need to use our energy efficiently otherwise we are just exhausting ourselves. If you find that you are going through the day exhausted and downing one coffee after another just to stay focused and awake, other than eating too much sugar, you may have exhausted your brain’s capacity to focus. This will result in a reduced level of functioning and prolonged exhaustion leads to burnout.


  1. Focus Means You Stop Noticing Potential Opportunities. When our attention is too focused on one task for a prolonged period, it can cause us to become oblivious to other things around us. Without being able to see what is going on in your periphery, you can lose track of the bigger picture and may miss opportunities.


  1. Focus Hinders Creativity. Creativity requires you to make connections by creating a pathway of ideas. Focusing solely on one idea too closely leads us to only focus on a small subset of facts. When it comes to problem solving and coming up with new ideas, your mind works best when it is not forced and in a more relaxed state. In a relaxed state, your mind is still thinking in the background, making connections, and utilising the mind’s effective unconscious thinking. Forcing your mind does not leave any space for other thoughts to creep in and spark creativity, and it does not give your mind a breather.


How can we disconnect and distract ourselves that will be productive?

Leave your desk and go outdoors for a walk, cycle, jog, or swim. This approach is beneficial for two main reasons:

  • We are happiest when we are outdoors and close to nature. Nature is essential for psychological functioning and cognitive rejuvenation. Scenes of nature reduce anxiety and lower muscle tension. It engages our interest which elevates our mood, as well as replenishes mental energy that improves our mental health, memory, and enhances our creativity.

  • Movement and exercise jump-starts the mind. Our bodies were built to expend a great deal of energy on a daily basis. Most of us spend the majority of the day sitting in front of the computer. This lack of mobility creates an imbalance in the body’s functioning. Movement and exercise restores the balance. The body was designed to be pushed, and in pushing our bodies we push our brains too, giving us that mental edge. Recent research shows that exercise can boost our memory, elevate our creativity and improve our efficiency.

On days where you cannot leave the office, try doodling. Choose a project, talk (eg. a TED Talk), book, song, or even a word/phrase/idiom. Doodle what you have chosen without using any words that best conveys the message or meaning.   

Scrolling through social media leads to procrastination and does not truly give your mind a break, as well as having an adverse effect on mental wellbeing. Doodling, on the other hand, is a healthy and creative distraction. It helps you connect with your unconscious mind, allowing you to retain more information, improve your memory recall, and build creativity.

Taking a sickie or going on annual leave is not enough and will not curb burnout, if you do not give your mind and body a breather and the chance to disconnect throughout the day. Burnout and stress impair problem solving, decision making, and creativity.

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