How To Avoid Mental Burnout


avoid mental burnout

Have you ever wondered why some things you can do on “auto-pilot” or without thinking, while other tasks are mentally draining?

Your thoughtful tasks are using your working memory (prefrontal context).  Meanwhile, your repetitive, familiar and routine activities are using your basal ganglia, which doesn’t require conscious thought.

Working Memory vs. Routine Activity

David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz summarize the prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia in their article, “The Neuroscience of Leadership”, in “strategy+business” magazine:

  • Working Memory (Prefrontal Cortex) – Your prefrontal cortex is your working memory.  It’s your brain’s “holding area,” where perceptions and ideas can first be compared to other information. It fatigues easily and can hold only a limited around of information “on line” at any one time. It promotes and supports your higher intellectual functions. It’s particularly well developed in humans and doesn’t exist below the higher primates.
  • Routine Activity (Basal Ganglia) – Your basal ganglia is involved by routine, familiar activity. It functions exceedingly well without conscious thought in any routine activity. Any activity conducted repetitively (to the point of a habit) will tend to get pushed down into the basal ganglia. This frees up the processing resources of your prefrontal cortex.

Example of Automatic Memory

You can relate to this using driving a car as an example. When you first learn to drive a stick shift, it’s a lot of thinking and processing. You’re using a lot of your working memory (prefrontal cortex.) Once you get enough practice, it becomes a habit and you no longer have to think about your driving. At that point, you’ve baked the routines into your basal ganglia.

How To Use This

You can apply this in a few ways:

  1. Chunk up things you learn.  When you’re learning something new, chunk it up so your working memory can handle it.
  2. Create checklists.  Second, when you are getting overloaded, consider creating a checklist so you can “dump” your working memory.
  3. Know what to expect.  When you are learning a new task and it feels awkward, rather than get frustrated, remind yourself that you’re dealing with prefrontal cortex and you haven’t move it to your basal ganglia yet.
  4. Make it a routine.  When you practice something enough, eventually you don’t have to think about the basics.  The basics are automatic.  You can then move your thinking up the stack and focus on higher level things.
  5. Take more breaks.  When you’re mentally drained, give your prefrontal cortex a break.  Do something mindless for a while, or get out of your head and into your body.  In my experience, a pattern of 20 minutes deep thinking with a 5 minute break, or 40 minutes with a ten minute break has worked well.  You need to test and find your own patterns.  The key is to recognize when you’re getting diminishing returns from your sustained thinking and know when to take your own breaks.

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  1. Hi J.D. – This reminds me of how when I’m working on something new, I can get to feeling overwhelmed and my brain just can’t handle anymore. I do find taking a break does help, as does writing down what I’m learning.

    I also find that if I have a lot of things I want to do, if I make a list (not necessarily a to do list, but more of a reminder list) I feel like I am emptying my brain. That ebook you claim I have in me, is on that list. Haha.

    After reading this post it’s made me realize more of how the brain works. Knowing that will help me to accomplish more, in hopefully less time. Thank you!

  2. You know, I just remembered how rough it was to learn driving with a stick shift way back when. Now it almost feels like the car is part of me, I don’t even have to think about it – I just know.

    Great post J.D.! 😀

  3. It might sound funny, but I need to make it a routine of taking more breaks.

    Although I did not understand step 3 that very well, a very informative post nonetheless.

  4. @ Barbara

    I know what you mean about making lists. I use tickler lists for a lot of things, and it definitely helps keeping my mind nice and clear. I used to let reminders float around as distractions, but now that I have trusted places to look.

    This is definitely one of those things that when you know how it works, it’s easier to change for more effective patterns. The big change for me was adding more checklists for some of my common routines and taking more breaks. Between just those two things, I free up a lot more cycles to focus on bigger picture things in my life.

    @ Louisa

    Thank you. Now that you mention it, I remember having a really tough time when I started. It’s definitely second nature for me now, and I like the fact I don’t have to think my way through the gears.

    With my motorcycle, each Spring I have to remember some of the basic again. What’s interesting is that my body seems to know it better than my brain. If I try to think my way through it, I get stuck. I need to feel my way through it to remember the gears.

    @ Praveen

    Now that I’m aware of how it works, I take a lot more breaks. It keeps my energy high and I use extreme focus in bursts. It’s way more effective than sticking with something, past diminishing returns. I used to do more marathon thinking, but I actually need to do more series of sprints.

    Let me elaborate on point #3. When you learn new things, they aren’t in your muscle memory or basal ganglia yet. This means it takes a lot of prefrontal cortex to think your way through. For example, let’s say you were going to learn another language. It’s extra tough in the beginning because you have to think through so many of the basics. If you trust that things will get easier because they’ll become second nature for you, then it’s easier to make it over the humps.

  5. JD,
    I use similar pattern, what’s new to me is “taking breaks”. It also sounds very reasonable – letting my brain muscles to rest.
    Very insightful – off to practice this 😉

  6. Hi JD

    Great reminder that we have more control our minds than we sometimes think.

    I’ve heard it described as moving from:
    Unconsciously unskilled – you don’t even know you can’t do something
    Consciously unskilled – you’ve realised you don’t know how to do it
    Consciously skilled – now you’ve learnt how to do it, but you still have to actively think about it
    Unconsciously skilled – you can do it without thinking – like the driving.
    to (if you lucky)


  7. @ Alik

    It definitely makes sense. There’s a line between focus and fatigue. For a while I was taking too many breaks, but it was a lack of focus. Now I recognize a difference between “my brain hurts” and “I’m bored.”

    @ Juliet

    Yes, I love that frame. I plann to post on it some point. I think that frame helps with motivation and with our own expectations. It’s a frame that explains the cycle of learning, while the prefrontal cortext and basal ganglia explain how it works.

  8. Hmmm interesting!! It just explains why I’ve been feeling overwhelmed when I need to do something unroutine lately. I guess having too much on my plate is causing me stress. So if I have to add in something new, I find it difficult to cope.

  9. @ Evelyn

    You also might be going through a lot of learning. It’s a cycle. Sometimes I think I’m churning, but I’m actually just making slower progress than I expected.

    Try the rule of 3.

    Think of 3 outcomes for each day, each week, each month. They are progressively bigger. Nailing 3 things each day will help you feel on track and it’s easy to stay focused. Just do 3 MUSTs each day and let your SHOULDs and COULDs slough off, and that will help you get momentum again and avoid overflowing your plate.

  10. I know this list of 5 can be applied to anythign we’re trying to do or learn but boy – it seems tailor-made to the music project I’m working on now, specifically with learning to sing one melody while playing a different guitar pattern – challenging for sure! But doing the practice in smaller chunks, making my checklist, givong myself time to learn and taking breaks, it should get really routine in a while.


  11. I think #3 is very important. Since starting out blogging I’ve had to remind myself that there’s a lot of learning that is going to take place.

    I like the breakdown of Working Memory vs Routine Activity. I’ve also heard of Working Memory described as “mental RAM”.

  12. I have no task memory whatsoever, so I need to write things down or I will tell my bf that I’ll do something then promptly forget it.

    I think it’s because my Working Memory is so full of concepts and ideas that there’s no room for other things…

  13. Great Post J.D.!

    In dance when you are learning a new routine you do alot of thinking and repatterning to get the thoughts and body to allign. It’s challenging and we talk about rewiring our system especially if we have training in dance that is opposite of the training for this particular routine. We work on sychronizing it all. I think all learning goes through this process.

    I often felt that feeling you describe here of not being able to bring up information needed at the split second retrieval. It definately correlates to the to full working prefrontal area.
    Sometimes just taking a moment helps revitalize the efforts then.

  14. J.D.

    For me, #2 – making a checklist is critical. When I’m learning a new task it’s much easier if I can write down the steps to refer to later. Especially if it’s something that I’m not doing frequently. Even though I may have done the task a few times, if too much time passes between instances, I’ll need that checklist to be sure I’m doing it correctly rather than relying on memory. Excellent post.

  15. @ Jannie

    I can definitely relate to that. I can’t learn a new song, unless it’s in chunks. I need to get a chunk down at a time. That’s also how I needed to learn a lot of martial arts moves, one chunk at a time. You know you’ve nailed it when you can do it without thinking.

    The mistake I used to make was practice a move until I did it right. Once I got it right, I stopped. What I didn’t realize was that I needed to burn it in so I didn’t have to think about it. Once it’s burned it, that’s where you can find your flow and really play at excellence. Otherwise, the basics are always a distraction.

    @ Broderick

    There’s definitely a lot to learn with blogging. Good move setting realistic expectations.

    I like the mental RAM metaphor. I regularly dump my RAM to page files to free myself up.

    @ Alex

    I’m with you. My task memory is pretty much gone too. Partly it’s because I have a very dependable system.

    I really value freeing up my mind from tasks to worry about concepts and ideas.

    @ Diane

    Thank you. Dance is a great example and it reminds me of learning my martial arts forms. My best instructors would focus on getting one chunk down before moving to the next. The worst ones just kept running all the way through leaving everybody lost and frustrated.

    It’s always funny how awkward it feels too when one of the moves is contradictory to a pattern we’ve already learned. The mind says go, but the body says whoa.

    I used to fight the breaks, but now I realize breaks help you bounce back better so I’m quick to take a break when I feel I’m slowing down.

    @ Your Happiness Power

    I know what you mean about those intermittent tasks, where it’s easy to forget all the details. Checklists are definitely a life saver. There’s some tasks I pretty much deped on my checklists, and I’m glad.

  16. This is pretty empowering. Knowing that I can make some tasks easier by doing them often enough to become routine is comforting. I’m excited by the possibilities of getting mechanics out of the way in a few hobbies so that I can focus on the “fun” part of being creative!

  17. @ Sara

    You have a way with words and I like the way you put it … “getting the mechanics out of the way.” Your’e right, once you nail the mechanics, you free yourself up for getting in the flow.

  18. Creating lists really helps me “dump” my brain. Sometimes I get so overloaded with things I need or want to do. Taking it out of my mind helps me focus.

  19. @ Carla

    I very much agree. Just today somebody was asking me how to dump their brain. Once I got in the habit of dumping my brain, I’ve been surprised by what I actually get to focus on. It’s also a nice peaceful calm.

  20. wow, I think I really needed to read this today – I have been avoiding the rests and working in chunks….I just try to keep going and going until the job is done and then I kind of melt down and I am not sure if I retained anything.

    I was thinking I should just appoint a rest period each day…as I get so frustrated with the computer problems, writing, family chores, and taxes right now all feeling like a pressure – I have lots of lists; I truly need to give the pressure points a rest…Thank you

    Thank you for your kind words on BWOB today too A very nice Valentine

  21. @ Patricia

    Thanks for stopping by. Rest periods are a great way to go. I used to push myself past limits thinking I was on a roll. In reality, usually I was past my limits. Now I think of my day as a series of mini-sprints versus a marathon. I get a lot more done in short bursts and I have more energy throughout the day.

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