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Prioritize this 1 thing to cope with pandemic burnout

Feeling overwhelmed? Author Gretchen Rubin says the answer to coping with burnout starts with this one basic thing.
Illustration of mom on fire while she works on a laptop and takes care of her two sons
"It's easy to lean into bad habits that really wear you down and make life tough, but you sort of don't even realize it it's happening."TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

The ups and downs of life during the coronavirus pandemic can be a lot to handle. But if you're feeling a bit of pandemic-related burnout, author Gretchen Rubin says you're not alone.

"It's the added uncertainty," Rubin told TODAY Health. "It felt like things were very uncertain (at the start of the pandemic) then we had a bit more certainty and now that's gone. I think that's why people are feeling particularly frazzled — the finish line is moving."

But Rubin, who has authored self-help books like "The Happiness Project" and "Better Than Before," says there are ways to take back control of your mental health, the most important of which starts with the physical body.

"Your physical experience always colors your emotional experience," Rubin explained. "Especially when you're under a lot of stress or burned out: It's easy to lean into bad habits that really wear you down and make life tough, but you sort of don't even realize it it's happening."

Rubin, who recently released a collection of journals and habit trackers to assist with building better habits, says getting a good night's sleep is usually one of the first healthy habits to go.

"You hear all the time that you have to get enough sleep," said Rubin. "But when people are feeling overwhelmed, that's when they find it hard to fall asleep or they wake up with racing thoughts or get into things like binge watching something until two in the morning."

While it may seem like staying up late to check off items on your to-do list or finish that binge-worthy series may make things better in the short-term, Rubin cautions that it's important to stay away from things that could temporarily make you happy but will lead to feeling worse in the long term.

Instead, plan for a set bedtime based on what time you need to wake up in the morning and how many hours of sleep you need to get each night.

"Give yourself a bedtime just like you give a 3-year-old a bedtime," said Rubin. "Set an alarm for that bedtime and try to be consistent because when you get enough sleep, you're not impaired."

Another cause of pandemic burnout, according to Rubin, is lack of exercise, something that's become even more common due to the end of what the host of the "Happier with Gretchen Rubin" podcast calls the "5-day-2-day" schedule.

"You used to have the week and then the weekend, but now because of hybrid work schedules a lot of people, even when they go back to work, may not be in that 5-day-2-day pattern ever again," said Rubin. "They may be home on Mondays or work a half day on Fridays, and for a lot of people that's going to require them to rethink how their habits are set up."

Rubin acknowledges that many people tie exercise habits to their weekly routine, stopping at the gym after work or working out after dropping their kids off at school, for example. With the change in routines brought about by the pandemic, Rubin says it may be time to build new exercise schedules.

"Step back and think what are your aims? What kind of exercise do you want to get? How often do you want to get it?" she said. "People who need accountability can't just decide they'll do it on their own and it'll be fine: If you have a habit of going for a walk three times a week with your coworker but now you're not overlapping with that coworker to the same extent, you need to think about partnering with a neighbor or taking your dog for a walk and knowing how sad she'll be if she doesn't get to go every day."

"You may need to build new habits due to the disruption of the old ones," Rubin added. "You may have to rebuild a new way of doing the things that you know make you feel better, not just reestablish your old habits."