Heal from Burnout Part 1: Taking a Sabbatical

I only became aware I was burnt out when my usual passions started feeling like chores. If you've noticed how sporadic updates for this blog and newsletter have been this year, here's a long post explaining why. As it turns out, it's hard to be excited about things when I'm mentally exhausted.

So 2023 became my year of rest and relaxation. I didn't plan for it. If I had it my way, I would still be pushing hard. I like to work. I really do. And if I'm constantly rewarded for my productivity, whether in monetary gain, kudos for my accomplishments, or internal satisfaction, then it makes sense to keep hustling.

But my body and my brain worked in cahoots this past year to put a kibosh to this way of living. They told me to stop, that I needed a long break.

Photo by Andriyko Podilnyk via Unsplash

Why I took a personal sabbatical

When I first put into motion a plan to work for myself over 8 years ago, it was out of desperation. I am not the type to work a 9 to 5. I suffocate in offices. Even timed breaks stress me out. My desperation lit the fire under my ass to work hard, and I achieved the goal of being my own boss in a year.

But as many entrepreneurs would attest, the burden to grow and succeed rests on your shoulders. The more I worked, the more I saw results. Being on the grind became second nature.

During the pandemic, socializing was out, so I used this time to add even more work to my plate. How about writing two books at the same time? And let me get certified in a bunch of healing classes (I became a Master of Energy in late 2021). Plus get this blog completely redesigned, take a comedy writing class or two, etc., etc.

I was addicted to productivity, although I know I'm hardly alone. During COVID, working not only gave me a sense of purpose but also served as a much-needed distraction. It didn't require a deep connection with my body. I was all mind. And so I overused my brain and depleted my creative energy.

Cognitive fatigue

Who knew thinking too hard could exhaust me more than exercise? An article in The Economist, titled "How thinking hard makes the brain tired," examines what causes cognitive fatigue. It might not be due to using up energy in the form of glucose as previously assumed. Scientists in Paris hypothesized that overworking causes chemical changes in the brain, which presents behaviorally as fatigue.

The fatigue should be a signal to stop working to restore balance in the brain. But I consistently pushed past the signal, the way we're taught to push past the pain in fitness. Not a good idea.

Researchers are still looking for ways to speed up recovery from cognitive fatigue. Meanwhile, sleep is still the best and most natural solution to fatigue. I always get plenty of sleep, but I must've gone beyond what some shut-eye could easily repair.

Overusing my masculine energy

For years, I've been learning about masculine and feminine energy. Everyone has a balance of both energies, although the ratio is unique to each person. I naturally have more feminine energy and know I should rest more in that energy to feel healthy and balanced. But there's a difference between knowing something and truly embodying it.

We live in a society where masculine traits are disproportionally favored. Masculine energy is about being results-oriented, thinking rationally, leadership, competing, ambition, structures, and keeping time. It's about seeing tangible results. Feminine traits such as play, rest, intuition, flow, and enjoying the present or the journey are seen as weak or lazy.

Is it any wonder modern women feel more rewarded when they are in their masculine energy? Being a successful, high-achieving woman is an amazing feat, but the problems come when we don't take enough breaks to recharge in our feminine. Men usually have 7 to 8 times more testosterone than women. A book I just finished reading, Lady Balls by Mina Irfan, talks about how masculine energy can survive on no sleep, no food, and still go hunting for three days. Women can be in their masculine energy for short periods of time, a fail-safe mechanism for emergencies such as crises or a shortage of men, but when they get stuck in their masculine energy for too long, they risk disbalancing delicate female hormones and suffering dire consequences. In relationships, they may start to lack romance and polarity, as well as a loss of libido. In physical and emotional health, they risk adrenal fatigue, autoimmune issues, and burnout, amongst other issues.

It's not about choosing one energy over the other. Masculine and feminine energy need each other to survive. Just because men have the testosterone to work more, pull all-nighters, and bounce back quicker, it doesn't mean they don't get burnt out and suffer serious health issues too. I heard of a lawyer who collapsed one day out of sheer exhaustion. Luckily he had the means to retire early and recover from the health issues caused by the stress of overworking. Embracing feminine energy benefits everyone. As Irfan says, it's the more luxurious energy, the nourishing life force. Without it the masculine energy can survive but it becomes overly burdened.

Now I know why my body forced me to take a sabbatical. While I'm grateful I was able to gain so much by cultivating my masculine energy and developing a good work ethic, it was time to find my natural balance.

What is a personal sabbatical (and what it isn't)

I always thought that sabbaticals were for university teachers taking year-long breaks for every seven years worked. I didn't know it was an option for everyone else. I didn't even know this was what I was doing until someone used the word to describe my state. "Taking a sabbatical" sounds a lot better than being a layabout or "relaxmaxxing."

A personal sabbatical is a deliberate, extended break from your usual routine to focus on personal growth and rejuvenation. That can encompass resting, volunteering, traveling, studying/exploring, working on passion projects, learning new skills, spending time with loved ones, socializing, and focusing on your health.

Sabbaticals do not require you to travel or to escape from everyday life, unless you choose to. I used to have quite the travel bug, but I did not have the energy or the desire to travel much this past year. Traveling felt like more planning and I wanted to "do" as little as possible.

My sabbatical was more about healing and leisure, which meant staying in my city, lounging around, socializing, and working on my passion project. I wanted to do less and be less results-oriented so I could embody my feminine energy of nourishment and play. Because I didn't plan on taking this sabbatical, I still needed to work, but I did the minimum I could get away with, and put more focus on relationships and having fun. Even in terms of fitness, I replaced adrenaline-fueled workouts with gentler activities such as pilates and walking. I needed to be gentler on myself in general.

Watching outdoor movies in the summer

Your sabbatical can have a different focus. It can be whatever you want it to be. Just know that it is not about running away from problems but confronting them with a fresh perspective gained through temporary detachment. It is not about being lazy and avoiding responsibilities but finding better ways of doing things according to your own needs.

Now that I am coming to the end of my sabbatical, I do think it requires careful planning, self-discipline, and using the time wisely. When I take my next sabbatical, here's what I will do to plan it:

What I Would Improve for My Next Sabbatical

1. Decide on how much time I would want to take off: 3 months, 6 months, or a year, with room for flexibility.

2. After I know roughly how long my sabbatical will be, I can estimate approximately how much money I should set aside so I can give myself the option of not having to work during this time.

3. Do I want to stay put or do I want to travel? If the latter, where, with whom, and for how long? Travel will also be a factor in the budget.

4. I would establish clear objectives while leaving room for flexibility. While I did do a lot less this past year, I still spent most of it working on my passion project, writing the 6th draft of my novel. For a hyper-productive person like me, I might feel a sense of aimlessness without a goal or two. If you're like me, I'd suggest making a list of some interests and hobbies you want to pursue to provide some direction or purpose for your time off. But again, give yourself the option to drop it if it's not benefiting you. For example, in the spring, I wanted to get better at chess and even took some lessons. But my brain was still saying no; it wanted to relax. I listened to myself and stopped.

What my future work-life balance will look like

I've stopped buying into the belief that exhaustion goes hand in hand with productivity and success. Hustle culture is out. A healthy work-life balance with plenty of time to rest and recharge is more sustainable for the mind and body long-term. Ironically, it might help us be even more productive.

My sabbatical will probably end with 2023, but I will not be going back to my old ways of working in 2024. I'll still have a good work ethic, but I've laid the groundwork to work with more intention and ease. From now on, I'll be working in a way that takes advantage of all the benefits while minimizing risks for stress and fatigue.

What I'll be embracing is Slow Productivity, which I talk about in Part 2 of the Heal from Burnout series.

Have you taken a personal sabbatical? What did it look like for you? Share in the comments below.


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