Ask Stew: How to Prevent Burnout

nap Iraq
Senior Airman Ryan Baker, a vehicle operator with the 70th Medium Truck Detachment deployed to Iraq, takes a rest Oct. 28, 2011. (Photo by Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen/United States Air Forces Central)

Life can seem like a series of stressful events that we have to plow through each day until we see the light at the end of the tunnel. It is easy to get overwhelmed and burned out when the days start early and the nights end late, with multiple responsibilities to juggle throughout the day.

Here is a question from a young man feeling the burn of work stress, academic stress, family stress and financial stress.

Hey Stew. What do you do when you burn out? How can I prevent it? I am waking up at 6 a.m. to study or exercise (more studying than exercise these days) before my toddler wakes up. Going to work and coming back home tired has burned me out. It has been a tough year. Any advice? Thanks, Paul.

Paul, it sounds like you have a lot of balls in the air these days. Good for you, since that means you are working hard to better yourself. The struggles from this time in your life will end at some point, but learning the tools of recovery will help you manage these long days of hard work and growth in the meantime.

Preventing burnout and getting over burnout requires a thorough understanding of recovery. Your mastery of recovery will be the key to not just preventing future burnout, but also performing your best, ensuring longevity and finding ways to reduce chronic stress.

Try the following recommendations to help you manage your day better and focus more on recovery.

Time Management

With this many responsibilities (yay, adulthood), learning to manage your time is critical to your health. The good news is that you can count on cycles and breaks with school. When school is in session, your ability to set and stick to a schedule will make the difference in your success. Add walking and deep breathing to relax for as little as 15 minutes before you study in the morning or during a lunch break at work.

Add Physical Activity

I know adding something to each day sounds crazy, but a stress-busting walk with deep breathing can go a long way in helping you metabolize the stress hormones that are racing throughout your body right now. You can use the time during these breaks to recover.

Start replacing study time with some easy physical activity to burn off some stress. Allow a short burst of physical activity to awaken you or keep you alert later in the day. There's no need to go hardcore right now, as the last thing you need is to add a physical stressor to your long days and nights.

Eat Well So You Can Sleep Better

Avoiding burnout is about giving your body proper fuel and making sure you have a chance to recover from your busy day's activities and responsibilities. Nutrition will help you recover and not burn out. If your diet is lacking nutrients like fruits, vegetables and lean proteins full of antioxidants and amino acids, your ability to be energized throughout the day and recover from the day of stress will be severely reduced. Avoid caffeine or energy drinks later in the day since they do not offer real energy like nutritious food does and only help you with short-term alertness and can interfere with the real recovery of sleep later in the evening.


Restorative sleep is the No. 1 tool for recovery. Do everything you can to get at least six hours of sleep during your busy periods. It's even better if you can mix in 7-8 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period through a combination of sleep and naps. I know having children can make that a pipe dream, but teaching your child good nighttime rituals will also help both them and you. Just like you do for the morning waking hours, set an alarm for bedtime and start the bedtime rituals immediately.

Change Things Up

Every now and then, change your routine to avoid doing the same old thing day after day. This will help prevent the psychological effects of burning out. We all go through peaks and valleys in life where the days are long, but the years seem to fly by. Change is good and will help you experience the fun moments in these important years.

The stresses that come with academic, work, financial, family, physical, and mental challenges are as real as being in life-or-death situations. Take your recovery tools seriously, budget your time properly and eat for energy versus drinking "energy drinks." These tools will help you find balance in life.

Lastly, when in doubt, stop what you are doing and breathe deeply to help you relax when you are feeling stressed and burned out. Then take a break, even if it's only for a few minutes.

Related articles:

Six Tips to Fight Stress

Recovery Tools of the Trade

-- Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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