Category Archives: Life

Suffering from Burnout? How to Know When to Rest or Push

Earlier, I wrote about the 20 Mile March. Today I want to expand on that idea. There is one small hiccup in that analogy that usually trips people up: how do you know when you should push, and when you’re in burnout and deeply in need of a break?

Does your life plan account for enough rest?

Rest is important. Rest is actually what we spend MOST of our time doing, believe it or not.

Even for endurance athletes and for extreme sports, they spend more of their time resting than pushing. Even if you’re an extreme athlete, working out and training for 6 to 10 hours a day, you’re not in training mode the remainder of the day, anywhere from 14 to 18 hours.

We think, at times, that a 20 Mile March means we have to be hustling and pushing and “always on.”

We don’t always spend as much time thinking about all that other time that is equally important. (Even if you’re walking 20 miles a day, at 3 miles per hour, you’re only walking 6.5 hours per day.)

The problem lies in how we think about rest and recovery.

Without adequate rest, we’re headed towards burnout.

Rest is not waste. Rest is actually quite active.

In the times we aren’t walking, marching, or making our work happen, what are we doing? Here’s some of what a well-rested life includes:


Sleep is not a thing that you can successfully skip. You might be able to push through a certain number of years in your younger life, but most people pay the price for this decision.

Sleep is a time when we recover, when our cells map out what happened during the day. There are massive amounts of brain activity that happen when we close our eyes. We provide the foundation for insight and work when we get enough sleep — not the reverse.

Yet so often we think about sleep as something that will happen after we reach a certain point. What if it’s the reverse? What if enough sleep will lead to better breakthroughs?

(For more on this, read this extensive and useful article by Scientific American on why our brains need downtime.)

Active rest

In sports, there’s a concept called “active rest” and it’s the space between pushing on a repetition and completely collapsing on the couch underneath a pile of nachos. This is: Stepping away from your computer for a brain break during the day. Listening to music or closing your eyes for a 5-minute rest to recharge. Saying no and carving out space for recovery and rest. Taking a walking meeting.

(Hint: catching up on all the blogs and news or reading email might not be active rest.)

Active recovery

Recovery isn’t something that happens by chance. We are always preparing ourselves and our bodies for the next round of work, and recovering from the past round of work. How we sleep, how we eat, how we hydrate, how we limber up, and how we pay attention all matters for our next round of work. This means: choosing activities that refresh and refuel us. Noticing what drains us or what activities are correlated with “off” days.

Preparing ourselves and our bodies

We are constantly preparing and readying ourselves for the next moment. Elite athletes and star performers have strategies and plans that work for them, for a reason. This means: How much time do you spend linking what you do in your down time to how you perform during your on time?

Should you keep going? How to decide your next actions:

So what about today, right now? How do you know what to do next? How can you discern if you’ve put in your 20 miles, and you need to rest, or if you really need to put in more effort?

Let’s first assume that you’re not burned out, but you need a plan of action. Then, what you’ll do is take the next 20 Miles and break them into pieces.

1. Ask yourself: what’s the next step?

How can you build in a small amount of forward momentum without going too big?

On the days when you’re feeling foggy or slow, when you’re wondering if you should be pushing harder, or you’re not sure what to do—this is the time to steady the pace. Find a rhythm and a march that works. Plot out a course that is even. Line up activities that are small wins that don’t take a pile of energy.

2. Make the pieces smaller, but still take steps

For me, as one example, the idea of “writing a book” can be a terrifying construct. In order to keep putting a foot forward, I have to break things into microscopic bits. Then, when I’m having one of those days where the idea of writing a book is too overwhelming to think about, I’ll open up the queue and just do the next few tasks:

  • Research the next 5 people to interview
  • Edit and revise 3 pages
  • Read through the notes from my editor
  • Write a free-flow of a few paragraphs to get the ideas loose for the next chapter.

20 Miles doesn’t have to feel arduous and complicated. 20 Miles can be done by walking a leisurely pace in the morning for three hours, taking a significant portion of the day to rest, and doing an afternoon walk for 2 hours, followed by an evening walk for an hour.

Bonus tip: At the last startup where I worked, we used a tag called @easy and @10m in our project management software for any tasks that were easy to complete and quick. Then, on days when you need to slow down or stay steady, we’d just hit that pile of work.

3. Focus on Active Rest

Find the sweet spot where you don’t stop completely, but you ALSO don’t burn out by trying to caffeinate, push, and get into “beast mode” just to make it through the day. A clue is: if you’re going for an extra coffee, you might actually need to slow it down a bit and leave work early, instead.

But, there’s one other thing to consider. And this is when the above isn’t working, or a succession of days starts to feel sloggy with no end in sight. If that’s true, there are two possibilities:

4. You might need to adjust your goals.

If you’re feeling perpetually sloggy and burned, perhaps you’ve accidentally constructed a “60 Mile March” or a “100 Mile March” and the pace you’ve set doesn’t provide enough space for rest or recovery.

Personally, I’ve tried many times to set out on a 60-Mile March pace and realized that 14-hour days of writing is not sustainable.

The solution: adjust your plan to create a true 20-Mile March. One that doesn’t take more than 6 hours per day, maximum (and if you hustled on a great day, you could be done in 4 hours). A plan that allows for a very slow day that still accomplishes those 20 miles. Ask yourself:

On the worst day of the last few months, would I still be able to accomplish 20 miles?

That’s your pace.

But there’s one more thought to consider:

5. You might need more deep rest

Sometimes, especially in this culture, people are burned out.

You’ll know that you’re more than just sloggy if you’re feeling like you: (1) can’t hardly make it out of bed in the morning, (2) you’re getting sick, (3) you’re angry or mad or some other pent-up emotion, or (4) you can’t find a way to make yourself care anymore.

These are red-flag signals of burnout — and that you need a break, more than anything else.

There have been entire seasons in my life where the focus of the quarter is getting the minimum done, sleeping a ton, and saying no to things. Life is full of stretches when we need to rest and recover.

True rest, however, lets our brains and our minds and bodies melt down and reboot. This might mean that you take a day to binge-watch television _OR_ it might mean that you need to make some more active steps in your rest and recover:

  • Journaling
  • Taking time away from your job or work
  • Booking a massage or bodywork
  • Taking a bath, going for a soak, trying a float
  • Going away for a weekend
  • Spending quality time with friends
  • Letting the calendar or the agenda go to the wayside
  • Saying no when we’d regularly say yes (or vice versa)

It feels uncomfortable to do things differently than we’ve done them before. Things might come up that chase us back to our bad habits. Things might come up.

Where are you in your journey?

As you contemplate your journey and your 20 Mile March that you’re on, remember that this is about the long game: you’re setting up systems for health, for purpose, for your life.

You’re designing a life that takes you where you want to go, that’s steady, that’s consistent, that has purpose, that has direction.

Along the way, you’re cutting back and trimming out anything that doesn’t work for you. You’re experimenting and iterating.

And, you’ll learn when to push and when to rest.

Use the metaphor of the 20-Mile March to find a way to move forward every day.

Some 20 mile days might be a lot of uphill hiking, and some days might be filled with glorious views and vistas. Others might feel easy and light. And some days might feel sloggy and slow. We don’t stop just because one day feels off.

And other days you might get up and do the walking you need to do, slow and steady, and when you’re done walking in the early afternoon, you’ll rest, sleep, recover, and enjoy the rest of the day, because you’re not pushing further or faster or harder—you’re making progress, bit by bit.

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