Want to Avoid High School Burnout? We Asked an Expert for His Top Tips
Not only are many of us suffering from the post-holiday, January blues, but the constant pressures of school, juggling relationships and staying on top of social media can feel like it's pulling us in every single direction. So how do we finally get on top of all of it and start feeling in control again? We turned to education and careers expert, and founder of tutoring website The Profs, Richard Evans, who had some ingenious tips and advice for us:
Sweety High: Why are the January blues so common? What are your biggest pieces of advice for finding joy in this sometimes bleak time?
Richard Evans: The January blues is most commonly a come-down following the exciting but exhausting Christmas period. After weeks of excess eating and socializing with family and friends, we suddenly find ourselves back in the same old work routine and missing the good times. However, for some people, the January blues is much more than this. Seasonal Affective Disorder (appropriately abbreviated to SAD) is a recognized mental health condition resulting from shorter days, fewer hours of daylight and less vitamin D. If you are concerned about this, consult with your doctor as there are treatments to help reduce the effects of SAD, including vitamins and sun lamps.
Oh, and we're entering the third calendar year of a global pandemic, so this year is perhaps the mother of all January blues and existential crises.
Given all of the above, I think the worst thing you can do is make January even harder with miserable resolutions that restrict your freedom and happiness. Instead, pick resolutions that bring you joy—such as socializing with friends at least once a week, online if in-person isn't possible.
SH: Do you have any advice for setting realistic resolutions for teens that will actually improve our happiness, instead of setting us up for failure?
RE: Don't make resolutions that make you miserable! Instead, I like to encourage "foundation resolutions"—these are resolutions that are likely to make it easier for you to make those bigger lifestyle changes down the road.
My top tip is to make a resolution that is also a life hack. For example, "I will write a three-point to-do list every Sunday evening for the next six weeks."
Firstly, this resolution is designed to make me more efficient. Writing a to-do list is less onerous than making myself go for a run every day or giving up sugar. However, a to-do list is a kind of mini-resolution. Once I have built the habit, I can put "go for a run this week" onto my to-do list, and gradually increase the difficulty as I get into it.
This resolution is also S.M.A.R.T:
Specific: I have a clearly defined task each week for six weeks.
Measurable: I have to write three to-dos.
Achievable: Three to-dos seems like a nice, low bar to set.
Realistic: It is so important to limit my ambition to avoid burnout. I could say that 10 to-dos are "achievable" in week one, but by limiting myself to just three, I am more likely to sustain this resolution. "Realistic" incorporates my ability to stick to my new habit.
Time-Sensitive: I have one week to complete my to-do list, meaning I can't keep procrastinating indefinitely.
P.S. There is nothing wrong with changing your resolution upon reading this! It's also important to note that, this year, I chose not to make a resolution, and that is fine, too. I often make one at the start of summer instead, when my workload is typically quieter and the weather is better.
SH: What's your advice for avoiding burnout in high school? When school schedules and homework set most of our schedules, how can we best prioritize work during the most productive times, and remember to take breaks?
RE: The best way to avoid burnout is to focus on "energy-maximization." This means focusing your free time on doing things that you enjoy. School offers a great structure and also many opportunities to do sports or join a hobby club. If you can find a weekly activity (football, board games, music clubs) that you enjoy and can stick to, you are likely to have more energy in the tank when it comes to exam season. The trick is to find balance—or adopt a "work hard, play hard" attitude. Remember, school is a marathon, not a sprint.
SH: Why is it so important to separate where you do homework and where you rest and relax? How can we create that division in our lives?
RE: In order to fully relax, we must avoid stressors. Stressors include things that we associate with hard work. For example, having workbooks and timetables on your bedside table or desk might constantly remind your brain of an upcoming deadline when you are trying to switch off. Over the days and weeks, your brain gets less and less rest, which makes you less able to achieve your daily tasks. This vicious cycle can quickly lead to burnout and low motivation. Luckily, there is an easy fix!
If you work and relax in the same place (which is more common than ever during the pandemic) it is imperative that you separate the two activities. Due to space limitations, I use my large bedroom desk for both work and hobbies. However, I have a ritual of clearing my desk and going for a short walk whenever I switch between the two. So when I come back to the same location, it is clean and free from work stressors. This is now my hobby space, where I will not feel guilty about any unfinished work, and I will fill it with all the things that bring me joy. When I'm done, I must clean up so that I can return to my workspace fresh in the morning. It really is true what they say about a clear desk, clear mind!
Relatedly, despite what many people believe, multitasking is actually bad for us. Most people will often end up worrying about multiple things at the same time, and unable to complete any of the individual tasks on their to-do list. If you have ever spent an entire day walking around your home unable to achieve anything, it is highly likely that your brain was overwhelmed with the amount of things to get done, and did not know where to start. This is often due to having overlapping work and leisure locations.
SH: What are your best tips for focusing on well-being and practicing self-care for those of us schooling at home?
RE: Routine, routine and more routine. During lockdown, I would do 10 to 20 minutes of a YouTube workout or yoga each day and then make a healthy lunch. This routine was key to staying sane whilst not able to leave the house.
The importance of routine exercise cannot be overstated. However, if you are like me, finding the motivation to exercise can be the challenge. I love all games, so I recently purchased Ring Fit Adventure on the Nintendo Switch, which gamifies exercise, and I'm amazed at how often I now want to do a squat. Explore innovative solutions to motivation and you may be surprised with the ways in which companies will find something that motivates you to get into better habits.
SH: How can we make the most of our time off so that we're rested and relaxed when we return? Do you have any advice for those of us that find it hard to "switch off"?
RE: Buy The Off Switch by Prof Mark Cropley. This book really helped me to understand why my head was spinning every night. As a small business owner, it has taken me years of sustained hard work to combat this, but I am noticing a much better night's sleep.
If I were to offer just one tip it would be this: turn off all notifications from your phone. Our phones are terribly good at getting our attention and stressing us out. I have had notifications turned off from my phone for four years (including my five social media accounts, four email accounts, three Slack accounts, and I also regularly mute many of my Whatsapp chats). I still check all of these 1,000 times a day (because I am a screen addict), but the important thing is that I am in control of when I want to receive this information. If I am having a day off, or even just a lunch break to exercise or see friends, I don't need to read the bad news until I have finished doing my current activity. This has been a game-changer for me.
Also glued to your phone? Click HERE to find out why constantly checking social media is a lot like having an unrequited crush.