Sometimes it’s obvious we need a break, but in most cases we figure it out too late. When you work double-digit hours and Sundays are no longer a day of rest, feeling overworked can become the new normal. Even so you’ll eventually hit a wall, and when that happens it can take days and even weeks to recover the enthusiasm, creativity, and motivation you’ve lost.
Fortunately a few of the same techniques endurance athletes use to detect the need for additional recovery can be used to indicate when you need to recharge your work batteries. Where elite athletes are concerned, chronic overtraining can actually defeat the fitness purpose and result in decreased stamina, power, and speed; sometimes the harder they work the slower they get.
The same thing happens to us when we’re overworked. We put in more hours to compensate… and get even less done. So how can you tell the difference between feeling overworked and really overworking yourself?
I asked Jeremiah Bishop for some simple techniques anyone can use to avoid hitting a wall. Jeremiah is a professional mountain bike rider for Cannondale Factory Racing. He's a twelve-time member of the U.S. national team and is to mountain bike racing what an NBA All-Star is to basketball (except he’s currently not out on strike).
Here are ways to ensure you stay at your professional best:
Check your resting heart rate. Every day, before you get out of bed, take your pulse. (There are plenty of free apps that make it easy. Some even log results.) Most of the time your heart rate will stay within a few beats per minute. But when you’re overworked and stressed your body sends more oxygen to your body and brain by increasing your heart rate. (The same thing happens when athletes overtrain and their bodies struggle to recover.) If your heart rate is up in the morning, do whatever it takes to get a little extra rest or sleep that night.
Check your emotions. Having a bad day? Feeling irritable and short-tempered? If you can’t put your finger on a specific reason why, chronic stress and fatigue may have triggered a physiological response and sent more cortisol and less dopamine to your brain. Willing yourself to be in a better mood won’t overcome the impact of chemistry, and in extreme cases the only cure is a break.
Check your weight. Lose or gain more than a percent of body weight from one day to the next and something’s wrong. Maybe yesterday was incredibly stressful and you failed to notice you didn’t eat and drink enough… or maybe you failed to notice just how much you actually ate. Lack of nourishment and hydration can put the hurt on higher-level mental functions (which may be why when we’re overworked and feeling stressed we instinctively want to perform routine, less complex tasks.) And eating too much food—well, we all know the impact of that.
Check your, um, output. Urine color can indicate a lack of hydration (although sometimes it indicates you created really expensive urine after eating a ton of vitamins your body could not absorb.) The lighter the color the more hydrated you are. Hydration is a good thing. Proper hydration aids the absorption of nutrients and helps increase energy levels. If your urine is darker than usual the cure is simple: Drink a lot of water.
The key is to monitor each of these over a period of time so you develop a feel for what is normal for you. Pay special attention on weekends and vacations, and if you notice a dramatic change, especially a positive one, that’s a sure sign you need to change your workday routine.
Don’t say this sounds like something only elite athletes need to worry about. We all want to be the best we can possibly be, no matter what our profession, and whenever we slam into the workload wall we are far from our best.
And don’t say you don’t have the time to take a short break or get a little more sleep. You owe it to yourself to find a way.
Eventually your mind and your body will hit a wall and make you, so why not do take care of yourself, and improve your performance, on your terms?