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UC Berkeley’s Dr. Sahar Yousef Tells Us How to Avoid Burnout

By Katherine Gustafson

Last week, EM Marketing hosted a virtual, interactive workshop titled “Leading During Rapid Change: Insight and strategy to help your team handle stress,” led by UC Berkeley’s Dr. Sahar Yousef, a leading cognitive neuroscientist and a lecturer at the Haas School of Business.

We’ve been living through some seriously challenging times characterized by high stress and rapid change. Dr. Yousef has great insight into what this situation does to our brains and how we can employ science-based approaches to keep ourselves from burning out.

How does stress work?

Dr. Yousef started her talk by pointing out that humans are “phenomenal stress machines.” Stress is good for our immune systems and our brains, she said — as long as it’s acute stress that ends, as opposed to chronic stress that continues to keep up hyper-alert all the time.

These days, she says, it’s very easy for us to maintain a state of constant stress without realizing it. Something as simple as looking at our phones in bed keeps us hyper-vigilant from the moment we wake up due to the “avalanche” of inputs we’re dealing with.

“It’s a constant increase in stress,” she says. “When is the exhale? We’re not meant to deal with this cycle that doesn’t complete. This leads to burnout. This is unhealthy stress.”

How can we manage stress to avoid burnout?

So, what can we do to ensure we don’t keep feeding this cycle? Here are some of the key takeaways from Dr. Yousef’s talk that really stuck with us at EM.

  • Reframe stress for yourself and your team. Dr. Yousef emphasizes that stress is a sign that we care deeply about something. Try reframing your thinking about stress — that it is a healthy thing if you close its cycle, and that it indicates caring and compassion. This approach can help you think of stress strategically, use it to get things done, and avoid having it rule your life.
  • Adopt the 3M framework to avoid burnout. Dr. Yousef recommends taking 3Ms: macro breaks (a full or half day off every month), meso breaks (2-4 hours off every week), and micro breaks (a few minutes off every day). “Off” in this context doesn’t just mean not actively working; it means “being off the grid mentally.” That means complete psychological detachment — not having responsibility for anything or to anyone during that time.
  • Do a cognitively demanding task to give your brain a break. It may seem counterintuitive, but doing a cognitively demanding task such as taking up a new hobby or doing a crossword puzzle actually helps your brain recover from stress. This type of cognitive demand precludes using your brain to ruminate, plan, or analyze, thereby giving your brain relief from the deluge of administrative demands it constantly deals with all day.
  • Identify your three most important tasks every day. Stress feels more manageable if we believe we can control it or direct it. That is why a good strategy for managing stress is to identify your “MITs” – Most Important Tasks. Dr. Yousef recommends writing down three MITs each day and working to accomplish them. It’s very important to limit the number to three, as this allows your brain to focus on what’s most important to you each day.
  • Externalize your thoughts. It can relieve your brain’s stress levels to write out your thoughts, no matter how humdrum they are. The technical term for this practice is “cognitive offloading,” but Dr. Yousef calls is “brain dumping.” The goal is to get your thoughts out of your head to reduce the load burdening your working memory. Dr. Yousef does this first thing in the morning when she’s feeling overloaded, as well as before bed. “If you’re feeling like your mind is heavy with stuff, get it out,” she says.
  • Care for yourself by sleeping well. Dr. Yousef’s top recommendation, bolstered by decades of research, is to get seven to nine hours of high-quality sleep every night. Without this time for your brain to rest and restore, it lacks the capacity to handle the onslaught of information and life events that happen every day, and it must triage what you can handle. Not getting enough good sleep leads to an ongoing stress cycle, making it more likely that you’ll confront burnout.

The great thing about these suggestions is that they’re simple and straightforward. What’s that? Taking ten minutes a day to do a crossword puzzle or writing down the fact that I need to buy milk can reduce my risk of burnout? That doesn’t seem too hard! And if you use all these approaches collectively, you’re going a long way toward caring for yourself in this challenging, stressful time.

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About Katherine Gustafson

Katie Gustafson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, focusing on content writing for business, tech, finance, and nonprofits.

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