On the Ragged Edge of Exhaustion: How to Keep Going When You Can’t Take Time Off

“When you are overworked and exhausted, there is a kind of delirium … you are totally focused on the project.” — Dame Zaha Hadid, Iraqi-British architect.

On the Ragged Edge of Exhaustion:  How to Keep Going When You Can't Take Time Off  by Laura Stack #productivityI don’t think I’ve ever met a single person, no matter how much they loved their job, who didn’t look forward to vacation time. It’s an ideal way to rejuvenate yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally, and to recharge your creative energies so you’re tanned, rested, and ready to tackle the world when you return. Two-week vacations work best, but even a week can cure you of your workaday blues.

But we Americans seem to have something against vacations. In fact, the USA ranks at the bottom of the list when it comes to vacation days in the developed nations; workers in every country in the European Union get at least four weeks a year, and our British counterparts get six. Even when we have extra vacation days, we tend to leave some of them on the table at year’s end.

The reasoning for limiting vacation time often boils down to a belief that staying at work increases productivity, but it’s well established that the most productive people take frequent breaks. Even mini-breaks of a few minutes at a time can make a noticeable difference in productivity levels.

The Dream vs. The Reality

We all know we do better work when we’ve had enough sleep and otherwise feel healthy. And sometimes, it’s beneficial to take a mental health day off work to recharge and shake off the office politics, petty squabbles, and other little annoyances. But what if you’ve used up your PTO for the year, or your team has entered crunch mode for a project, or, as Zaha Hadid notes, you’ve passed into a “delirium focus”—and you’re just physically and mentally exhausted? What if you simply haven’t slept well and feel like a zombie? How can you keep your productivity at a reasonable level until you can recover fully?

If you’ve pushed so hard you’re going to crash, or if you’re so tired you’re actually sick, then you have no choice but to take time off—even if you have no more vacation or sick days. With rare exceptions, even the least sympathetic manager or team leader would rather give you enough time off to recharge than lose your productivity long-term. It’s expensive to replace a good worker.

Exhaustion happens to people at all levels of the business hierarchy. Even business superwoman Arianna Huffington has admitted to collapsing from exhaustion in 2007, which she says served as a “wake-up call that changed my life.” As I constantly remind people, we aren’t machines, designed to run constantly. Even machines won’t last for long unless you turn them off sometimes and do some preventative maintenance.

Your time off is your preventative maintenance.

Simple Steps 

Even if you can’t take much time off, you can compensate. On those days when you’re just short on sleep, take it easy. Keep your goals for the day clearly in mind, and pay close attention to your to-do lists. Put off less important tasks, especially if your focus has been compromised. For those you can’t avoid, maintain a sense of mindfulness; don’t let yourself drift into thoughtless autopilot, or you’re likely to make mistakes. Complete reject all distractions, and keep moving; sitting still tempts you to fall asleep. I advise you to imbibe a little coffee—I jokingly call coffee my biggest productivity tip—but don’t overdo it, or you’ll face the wrath of a caffeine crash later. Hydrate yourself, too; if fact, if you can, get under the water and take a shower before you head into the office, even if you’ve showered the night before. Immersing yourself in running water can be invigorating.

All that’s fine for a one-day tired spell, but what about when the exhaustion is bone-deep and long-term? First off, force yourself to take the breaks you’re owed—even if you don’t want to. Take the traditional fifteen-minute “coffee breaks” in the morning and afternoon, your lunch breaks, and your weekends—just get away from your workspace and do things that have nothing to do with your job. Walk around, watch silly TV shows or cartoons, or read. On the weekends, sleep in. In fact, make sure you get your full round of 7-9 hours of sleep every night. Your brain needs those 90-minute REM sleep cycles each night to help repair itself and your body, and to keep you sane.

Mini-breaks can keep you healthy, too. I know a self-employed knowledge worker who, when he hits a rough spot in his work or feels like taking a nap, pops outside to do a little gardening, even if it just involves trimming a hedge for five minutes. It’s different enough that it engages different parts of the brain than his regular work, allowing him to rebound a little. As the saying goes, sometimes a change is as good as a rest.

It’s especially important to unplug when you feel it’s less possible, like during crunch time. The brain, despite representing only a small percentage of your total body weight, uses up 20% of your body’s fuel. That’s why office work tires you out even when it seems like you didn’t do much. They don’t call thinking and planning “skull sweat” for nothing. And speaking of fuel, make sure that on top of hydrating, you eat enough to keep going. During busy spells, it’s easy to skip meals, so schedule them if you have to. Be especially vigilant about eating breakfast, because if you’re going to “eat that frog” early in the day, you’d better eat some bacon or toast first. 

The Bottom Line

You want to be productive, but don’t take it too far. If you overwork yourself, you’ll become useless to everyone. Sure, the hottest stars burn brightest… but they also burn out first, like an overstressed light bulb, and sometimes they do so explosively. When you feel exhausted and overworked, your body’s sending you a message to slow down in no uncertain terms—or it will slow you down, like it or not. Even if you think you just can’t take time off, do it anyway. Take every second you can, at least for a short time, and pull yourself back together.

Better to produce steadily and reliably for years than to have a brief, spectacular career that ends suddenly and tragically.

© 2016 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored seven books, including Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (January 18, 2016). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and in 2015 was inducted into its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401 or visit her website.