Burnout could be the official word of 2022 (and 2021, to be honest). So many people have had first-hand experience with it that you would think we’d understand it perfectly. But most people don’t really know what it is, nor what to do to prevent it.

Burnout is not simply being “tired.” It’s also profound emotional exhaustion, often leading to negative mind states such as feelings of hopelessness or professional inadequacy. It’s also not something that can be “fixed” with some catch-up sleep-in on the weekend. If you had a battery inside you, burnout is when you don’t have much energy — even after you’ve had a full “charge.”

If you feel like more people than ever are experiencing burnout, you’re not wrong. The macro-events of the past few years have pushed many of us to our personal brink. But the true culprit behind burnout lies in an evolutionary brain bug.

We were never designed to deal with chronic stress. While we live amid skyscrapers, our brains still think they’re back in the Stone Age. When we experienced stress then, it was almost always short-lived and infrequent.

Being chased by a predator was super-stressful, but it didn’t happen every day — and you didn’t carry that state of extreme alertness back with you to camp and throughout the next week. In other words, the stress “cycles” that we navigated were intense but short and — crucially — completed.

Fast forward to today: we don’t face terror on the savannah, but our low-level stress loops never get closed. The brain responds to stress by flooding your body with cortisol, giving you a burst of energy and focus to deal with the threat. But our stress response was never meant to remain on indefinitely, and that’s where the modern evolutionary mismatch occurs. Our brain reacts similarly to any stressor — a cranky email or a hungry lion — even though they’re not equivalent at all. Over time, that flooding of your system with cortisol wears you down.

Burnout is the result of thousands of uncompleted stress cycles. So the best way to prevent it is to regularly close out those stress loops, much like we have to close those apps that stay open on our phones.

The analogy is apt, as both the stress and the apps lurk in the background, imperceptibly but unmistakably affecting your performance.

  • Every couple of hours, get up away from your desk and take a walk outside. Even 10 minutes in nature or a park will lower your cortisol.
  • Every night after work, switch off by doing something cognitively demanding or physically immersive. Cooking a complicated meal or playing tennis with a friend forces you not to think about the office and helps you shut down that cycle.
  • Every week, take some time — 2 to 4 hours — to clear your mind and engage in what you find to be a restorative activity. For some, that’s a bike ride or a hike; for others, it’s a dinner out with friends.

Close your stress cycles like your open apps, and you’ll take a big step toward preventing burnout.