After months on the road as a digital nomad, I burned out hard. Since I left behind my corporate New York City life to circumnavigate the globe by couch-surfing through my social network (I don’t use the website – only human connection), I've been running around nonstop, constantly balancing travel, work, and sleep (spoiler: I don’t get much of the latter).
Last year, after a few consecutive weeks of excessive physical activity, an inconsistent diet, and long travel stints with little sleep, I hit a limit. I was so exhausted, both physically and mentally, that my eyes would droop the second I sat down with my computer. Realizing this way of life was not sustainable, I had to force myself to slow down and seriously consider what it means to create a balanced life.
Despite my unique lifestyle – I recognize most people don’t travel full time – a lot of the lessons I’ve learned about burning out (and more importantly, how to prevent it) are applicable to everyday life. I share my biggest takeaways:
1. Organization is essential. Organization – or lack thereof – was one of my biggest downfalls when it came to burnout. For the most part, I don't have an issue mentally “bookmarking” my to-dos. As life got busier and responsibilities multiplied, however, things started slipping through the cracks. I am now my own boss, which makes staying on track significantly more complicated. Every day, I have to manage deadlines, budget, sponsorships, and content creation, all while on the road. The more my responsibilities piled up, the more I realized that I am only one human and cannot track everything in my life without proper organization.
I learned from this experience that in order to prevent burnout, it’s important to create a system to streamline thinking. On my end, this meant organizing my to-dos into a comprehensive list (which were previously dozens of loosely scattered notes on my phone), creating an excel sheet mapping out projects and deadlines so I didn’t lose track, and most importantly, prioritizing: that is, determining which tasks were most urgent and which could be put on the back burner.
Visualizing responsibilities and organizing them in a way that felt manageable helped tremendously in relieving stress and providing order to my scattered brain.
2. Learn to say "no." As my brand storytelling coaching business and following grows, I am getting more and more requests for collaboration. At first, I wanted to say yes to most projects since they provide me with experience and exposure. Recently, though, I learned that it's ok to say no.
For example, I can no longer write articles for free just to get my writing out there - now I have to charge. When I am offered paid work, I still have to seriously weigh whether the pay and exposure are worth the cost of time and effort.
I learned that realistically, no single person can be everything to everybody. We have to make choices, especially when presented with an overwhelming amount of options, and protect our time ruthlessly. Part of preventing burnout is making sure we are selective about the opportunities we want to take on, and focus on a select few rather than spreading ourselves too thin.
3. Don't be a slave to technology. I'm not one to preach about this because I am definitely still a slave to mine. One of the greatest costs of becoming a digital nomad is being consistently tethered to my phone. It’s exhausting: some days, up to 80% of my work can happen on there since I’m always on the move, and sometimes I wake up in the morning and spend over an hour just catching up on messages. As helpful as technology can be, the explosion of over-communication associated with it can also create a lot of stress and anxiety.
The best work-around to disconnecting from technology, I found, is literally leaving it behind. It's difficult to do when so much of my work depends on it - I shudder at the thought of how many emails and notifications await me once I’m back online - but it really does wonders to clearing and relaxing the mind. For example, I wrote this entire article immediately after disconnecting to meditate for an hour, when previously I had a writer’s block for days.
4. Respect your heart. This may sound like new age BS, but hear me out. One of the biggest lessons I learned from staying with a spiritual healer in Bali is that our mind and our heart are two separate entities, and both need to be respected. Our mind is the one that pushes us to work those few extra hours, meet our friends for drinks, and still manage to get enough sleep, all in one day. Our heart is essentially our intuition - that voice in the back of our head that begs us to stop pushing, tells us that we need rest to properly function, or that we need some time off to recharge.
If you only allow your mind to lead the way, chances are, you'll burn out. You have to listen to what your body and heart need. I pushed myself so hard last month, often times waking up before sunrise to have enough time to explore places and write about my experiences, all before sleep. My mind gave out on me: I haven't experienced a bigger writer's block since I started my trip as I did during that time.
My most valuable lesson in preventing burnout is: listen to your heart, and take rest when you need it. Taking personal time to recharge has been crucial to my productivity and well-being. Since realizing that I had burned out, I’ve consciously carved out blocks of time to just relax and do nothing. As we go on with our busy lives, it’s important to continue dedicating time and attention to activities that we enjoy – not because they will generate income, or help us with XYZ – but rather because they genuinely make us happy.