Managing #life comes with enough challenges everyone's expected to just manage. So, how do you know when you're tired tired?
One look at life's to-do lists, and it’s a miracle there’s a thought in anyone's heads besides "I need a vacation." Between personal lives, the ever-blurring line between work and "me" time, and attempts at dislodging from hustle culture, time off can seem like an unrealistic wish made in a magical universe filled with rainbow-hued unicorns.
There’s a kind of masochistic push-and-pull when it comes to taking days off from work. You wonder if you really need a break, or if a good night’s sleep will do the trick. Remote work can look like a lazy gal’s dream, even if it just means you're in work brain all day. You feel guilty requesting PTO during the busy season, and the inevitable return-to-work anxiety makes you second guess if it was even worth it.
"It’s hard to actually put aside what you’re doing [work-wise] for a long weekend or even a 20-minute break," says Debbie Sorensen, PhD, a Denver psychologist specializing in burnout. "The pressure makes you feel like you can’t stop—and that’s when you need to do it."
Staying in an overwater bungalow in the Maldives for a week won’t necessarily reset your burnout meter to zero, either. "We still have to put a lot of work into our mental health to get out of a place of burnout," says Amelia Aldao, PhD, psychologist and founder of Together Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. But a vacay is a really good starting point. Just tapping into the R & R groove can put you on the right track.
So, where is "take a break" on your to-do list—at the bottom? Yeah, thought so. Ahead, psychologists who specialize in anxiety, stress, and burnout share 10 common signs that you need to take a vacation ASAP.
1. You’re totally depleted.
Tired. Drained. Exhausted. Choose your fighter. "If you feel like you’ve got nothing left to give and are bone tired in the way that a night of sleep won’t fix, you’re due for a break," Sorensen says.
2. You’re very cranky.
Burnout can turn your cheeky sass into venomous frustration. That kind of irritability and total loss of patience doesn’t feel great—for you or those around you. The tension and friction knocks you off the same wavelength as friends, family, partners, and colleagues, and it also leads you to withdraw, Aldao says.
3. It’s hard to think clearly.
Constantly losing focus and feeling like your head is swimming should raise a red flag that it’s time for a break, Sorensen says. Plus, feeling overwhelmed with work or matters in your personal life can make the smallest things—mailing a birthday card, buying hand soap—seem insurmountable.
When it’s hard enough to focus at work, throwing vacation planning into the mix can feel like a slog. "Travel is a form of external work as well," Aldao says. "If I’m so tired, so burnt out, and everything feels like a big obstacle, the last thing I want to do is start dealing with logistics." So, start small. Dedicate an hour in the morning or evening for a few days to planning your time off. Still too much? Opt for a staycation, local day trip, or just stay at home and commit to doing something you enjoy or bask in doing absolutely nothing at all.
4. You’ve lost the spark.
It’s no surprise that losing a sense of passion or not enjoying your favorite things anymore can signal symptoms of depression and burnout. Productivity dips to an all-time low, and you’re starting to make rookie mistakes at a job you actually like. Sorensen says that’s a clear sign to take time off to slow down. Otherwise, you risk disconnecting further from work and loved ones. (Yes, "me" time is good for your professional and personal relationships!)
5. Your sleep is out of whack.
Need more convincing that a vacation is just what the doc ordered? Sorensen and Aldao suggest looking at your sleep habits. Whether you take hour-long naps after work or suddenly struggle to fall asleep, an impaired p.m. routine is a clear signal that your body is begging for a change. Think about if you’re leaning into your tiredness, instead of adjusting your routine to get more energy.
6. You’re relying on unhealthy habits.
"[There are] all these other behaviors we’re doing to ourselves that don’t help and exacerbate the cycle of burnout," says Aldao. If you're noticing new trends in your daily routine, such as spending more money or time on your phone, that's a sign something's off. Aldao says unhealthy habits, such as increasing alcohol intake and skipping meals, saw an uptick during the height of the pandemic as a load of stress fell into our collective lap. It's not too late to make a change.
7. You’re bargaining with yourself.
Who among us hasn’t reasoned to power through until the next bank holiday for a long weekend instead of just taking time off? Sorry to break it to you, but this line of thinking is a black hole, Aldao says. "We set up these fallacies in our minds that usually keep us trapped," she explains. Some much-needed off time can feel easy to put off if there's a three-day weekend next month, but, in the long run, you're just doing more harm since you're allowing that stress to build and build and build.
8. The return to work is too stressful.
Imagining the first day back after time off is kind of demoralizing, TBH. It’s no wonder that back-to-reality moment can scare you off from using PTO in the first place. When you return, your inbox looks like it's about to explode, you feel bad because you're wondering whether your coworkers had to pick up some slack while you were gone, and now you’re stressed about how you'll catch up. Accept it as part of the process, Sorensen says.
"Recognize that there’s going to be an adjustment period when you go back to work," she says. "It’s okay to feel that way. Even if it takes a couple of days, you’ll get back into the groove."
9. You’re too busy. Seriously, you’re too busy.
"We sometimes convince ourselves we’re too busy, we don’t have time to take a break, or we’re just going to power through," Soresen says. "And that takes a toll." If you feel like the world would come to a screeching halt if you took a break, that’s actually the big red "WARNING" sign flashing in your mind. A gal is about to boil over.
10. You’re stuck in a cycle.
"One of the big obstacles preventing us from taking time off is this cycle of stress and anxiety," Aldao says. Burnout is a nasty loop of feeling unmotivated, exhausted, and underwhelmed, which feeds into overwhelming stress and more exhaustion. The moment you realize you're trapped in this loop, you "have to make a conscious effort to get [yourself] out," she says.
You're not any more immune from burnout just because you're WFH:
How to get ahead of the big breakdown?
- Pencil yourself in.
Instead of waiting for a breaking point to press pause, Aldao and Sorensen say it’s more sustainable to schedule regular time off. It doesn’t have to be a bucket list trip, either.
"It’s not easy to go from working on the couch in pajamas all day to planning a month-long epic travel adventure," Aldao says. "The way out of burnout is by taking small incremental action. There’s no magic solution."
Take it step by step: Commit to a half day off every other Friday. Book a staycation over a long weekend. Plan a three-day road trip to a relative’s town. Work your way up to five days in Tulum, Mexico.
- Get to know your patterns.
"We have to pace ourselves, even though it feels hard to do in the beginning because we have to take a break before we realize we even need one," Sorensen says. Listen to your body for signs stress is starting to get to you, like increased anxiety or crankiness. Make a detour and plan for a block of time to yourself. If you notice a certain time of day when you get sluggish, take a walk around the block or turn a solo silent disco into a daily habit.
- Keep at it.
Taking a time out or doing little to nothing might feel unnatural at first, especially if you’re always go-go-go and in a near-constant state of overstimulation. But Aldao stresses the importance of regularly taking days off so you can avoid a major crash and burn-induced break.
"Not any one of these days will change your life, but also you need to do it," she says. "If you don’t take the time off and find ways to relax or reengage, [relief] won’t happen."