Burnout resolutions: 'After one month of small changes, I feel better than I have in years'

Learning to embrace ‘under-ambition’ and self-compassion may be the best way to get through the year, Brigid Delaney discovers

Well this is the final instalment for Guardian Australia’s burnout recovery journey, but the hope is that you are set up for whatever 2021 throws at us.

We may not know where this year will take us. We may lockdown again. We may be homeschooling again, we may repopulate our cities (and our gyms). Or maybe a combination of all of the above.

The experts consulted by Guardian Australia were asked to provide tips and advice that were pandemic proof. They all advised that modest changes approached consistently can be more effective than big, sweeping resolutions.

And after one month of trialling their advice, I have to say – I feel better than I have in years. This is due to three relatively small – but also kind of big adjustments – that have been gamechangers.

These three things all built on one another (habit stacking) – as our experts suggested in week one.

The first habit was the hardest to embed – but has made a profound difference – and that is quitting the booze for January, which I’ll continue into February. This change has had a big impact on the quality of my sleep, and this in turn has given me more energy to exercise.

As a result I have started exercising four times a week. I have enough energy and motivation to turn up to the gym, rather than make excuses.

These three shifts in habit (alcohol, sleep, exercise) have not happened overnight. It’s taken around three weeks for me to see benefits of increased energy from better sleep, and parlay that extra energy into exercise.

It would have been great to make shifts in nutrition too – and that was the original plan. But it’s been a lot just to get to this point so far – sticking with booting the booze and starting regular exercise.

This “slowly does it” approach is good practice, apparently. All the experts I consulted for this series say it’s unwise to try to make too many changes too soon. Instead – you have cut yourself some slack; give yourself the room and permission to screw up occasionally. Expecting perfection – then stopping all the good habits because of one bad day or night is apparently a common mistake.

The mindset: be under-ambitious

Dr Breanna Wright, a behavioural change expert from Monash University, says, “It’s really important to be under ambitious or realistic. If we aim too high, and then miss a session at the gym – for example – we feel like we’ve failed at our goals – and we’re less likely to carry on with our resolutions.”

Right now, as a lot of us return to work or the office, our routines (which may have included home-based exercise) are being shaken up again.

The action: schedule realistically

Wright advises that “it’s about building in contingency time – because life happens. Say we plan to go to the gym at lunchtime – but don’t get there. Realise meetings go over, our time will naturally blow out. We have to build in that buffer time – so that we’re not disappointed in ourselves because we don’t do the activities each day.”

This might be allowing half an hour extra either side of meetings in order to protect that time at the gym.

She suggests at the start of each week (or on a Sunday) we plot out a schedule for the week that includes exercise. “The most important thing is to plan. Some people are very calendar based, some people are reminder based. The most important thing is to write down your plan but allow this contingency.”

“Personally on a Sunday, I plan out my week. I try not to do too many things in one day. I won’t go to the gym or do a class if I’m meeting my friends that same day – as I’ll be rushing and cutting things too fine. We can get over-ambitious when we are planning – thinking we can get more done in a day or a week.”

The next step: nutrition

In many respects, nutrition is the trickiest thing of all to get right. There are so many mixed messages out there. For every person spruiking a high fat, low-carb diet, there is someone else advocating the opposite.

Likewise meal times: should we fast and eat once or twice a day or have five or six small meals a day?

I ask personal trainer Tania Drahonchuk from Vision Personal Training Bondi Junction what nutrition regimen is best. There are no easy answers here. “We don’t prescribe diets at all,” says Drahonchuk. Instead she recommends tracking my food to get an idea of “macros” – that is, what portion of protein, fats and carbohydrates I consume each day.

“We advise people to limit refined foods (including refined sugar and processed foods), track portions and balance food by looking at the macros. The average person consumes quite a high amount of carbs and fat. By making small changes you can see results.”

Vision Personal Training has an app to track macros – but you can also do it through free apps such as My Fitness Pal.

Drahonchuk is keen that I don’t feel like I’m on a “diet” but rather improving the food I eat. I should ideally steer away from oily, fatty, carb-y, processed foods and towards more whole foods.

Final thoughts

OK – so bring on February. I’ll be tracking my food and conscious of what I eat – but I won’t be dieting or denying myself. I’ll be trying to exercise four times a week but not beating myself if I miss a session at the gym. As all the experts say – this stuff should be for life, not just for January.


Brigid Delaney

The GuardianTramp

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