By Gaurav Kale
Monday and Tuesday were fantastic: you got all your work done, stuck to your workout routine, and went to sleep feeling invincible. Wednesday and Thursday are ripe for getting ahead for the first time and preparing for next week’s inevitable workload. But instead of progress, Wednesday brings crippling lethargy; you barely work up the effort to leave your apartment for groceries and even your Spotify hype playlist cannot snap you out of the funk.
It’s easy to look at the high rate of burnout among students and blame it on the constant piles of work, or perhaps even the broader shifts towards toxic hustle culture. While these factors contribute to burnout, they are also effectively out of our control. By week 4 or 5, most of us end up in a vicious cycle of productivity and fatigue: hyper-focused when a deadline looms, yet too spent during the following days to make the most of our free time, or proactively prevent next week’s grind session. When searching online for ways to mitigate this, one common solution is to simply spread work throughout the week–doing a bit each day in order to make small strides towards completion. But of course, sticking to a rigid routine is susceptible to being derailed by any schedule changes. Regimented routines also require a tremendous amount of willpower to stick to, which draws into question their feasibility. Instead of focusing on our workloads, it’s important we frame burnout as a function of our time off.
Whenever I finish an assignment, my first instinct is to go to Netflix or Youtube and passively pacify my frazzled mind. But while it may feel momentarily soothing to watch five straight episodes of Peaky Blinders, or to take a five-minute turned thirty-minute TikTok break, these activities do little to mitigate the burnout. While these actions may feel like breaks, they have the opposite effect. For one, your brain needs time away from the blue light itself–too much disrupts circadian cycles. Maybe time away from the screen after working on your laptop for four hours might help you wean off that melatonin gummy dependence you’ve been building up. Scrolling through social media for half an hour will never leave you refreshed and ready to go; you’ll probably want to open the app again instead.
Instead of occupying your mind with something, give it some time off – even just ten minutes a day. Doing nothing for even ten minutes a day is far more difficult than scrolling through social media, yet it will help you relax far better.
Think of these periods of nothing like observing a rat in a maze: from the little dude’s POV, every new dead end is just as discouraging as the last. But our aerial view allows us to see exactly how far it has left before reaching the exit. Doing ten minutes of nothing affects our mind similarly: going from task to task during the day, buffered only by phone breaks, gives us tunnel vision about the work ahead. In real life, each roadblock the rat runs into represents unforeseen obstacles, another wrench in our perfectly planned schedule. Burnout is just what happens if we keep running at these walls headfirst. Instead, stop to acknowledge all the progress you’ve already made. Taking a break for ten minutes allows us to step back, mentally declutter, and appreciate the progress we’ve made thus far – an affirmation that will bolster motivation, and delay burnout.
The first article I wrote for the Bruin Review, “Do More Nothing”, had a similar idea: take a short break every day. However, as a wide-eyed freshman quoting the “four noble truths of Buddhism” as evidence, I believed these breaks to be a remedy to improve mindfulness and stay in tune with the world around us. Two years later, with the full experience of the grueling quarter system, I have realized that sometimes our lives are too busy to actually put effort into being mindful. My peers and I are the evidence for dealing with burnout. Clearly, my freshman advice fell short; it is difficult to appreciate the world around us when there are already too many tasks we need to have tabs on in our heads. I now believe that doing nothing will keep you grounded within yourself. Taking a break then becomes the act of being at peace with the part of our lives that we can control. At times when it seems like there is too much to deal with, being able to step back, breathe, and reaffirm yourself is crucial to preserve your ability to move beyond the cycle of burnout.