Burnout strikes without warning.

Or at least it seems that way. But actually, burnout builds steadily over time, and we just don’t notice it. Fortunately, there’s a tool you can use to spot it earlier – your ability to tolerate silence.

By adding some quietness into your day, you will detect the early signs of burnout and can take action before it’s too late.

Why silence works as a barometer

It feels uncomfortable sitting in silence.

Most people avoid it like the plague. They pepper their days with distractions to avoid being alone with their thoughts. Perhaps some of these examples will feel familiar to you:

We avoid silence because it exposes us to our true feelings. But we can learn to use this to our advantage. By introducing periods of silence during the day, we can keep closer tabs on our real feelings. Silence can help us spot burnout before it claims us.

But fair warning: this won’t be the easiest thing you’ve tried to do.

How to add more silence to your day

To be an effective stress barometer, you need to add more periods of silence into your day.

Start by picking some activities you do regularly and slowly reducing the distractions. It’s best to start small to avoid giving up before the habit forms. Look for activities of 15 minutes or fewer, such as a drive to the local shops. Force yourself to do this in silence and see what you notice.

At first, it might be uncomfortable. Unless you’ve tried meditation before, this might be one of the few times you’ve been alone with your thoughts. Don’t fear it – ride it out. Everything passes with time. Once you’ve mastered one type of activity, move to another.

Over time, as you become more familiar with your feelings, you can detect when burnout is approaching. The more uncomfortable the silence, the more stressed you are. You may notice feelings that have been there, silently, all this time. A deep sense of exhaustion can lurk for a long time if you don’t pay attention. Background anxiety may raise its ugly head as well. Just view this as your body finally getting to speak to you. Listen to it and try not to freak out.

When the barometer swings in the wrong direction, it’s time to start increasing your levels of self-care. Increasing meditation and regular exercise, while reducing screen time and learning to say “no” are all steps that can reset the balance.

On the plus side, you may learn to enjoy the peace and quiet. It can be stressful to be perpetually buffeted by noise and distractions. Once you learn to live without them, the calm becomes addictive. Sitting on a one-hour train ride and doing nothing at all is a remarkable experience.

Noticing when the barometer shifts

As you become more stressed, it’s likely these hard-won periods of silence will begin to evaporate. Think of this as your burnout barometer swinging from “All OK” to “We need to have a chat”.

It can be difficult to notice this change because it happens subconsciously. I liken it to drinking coffee – we don’t feel addicted, but each morning it seems like a great idea to have a cup. Similarly, we don’t feel stressed out, but listening to a podcast seems like a good idea.

The only way to assess your silence barometer is to periodically reflect on it. As part of regular progress reviews, you can ask the question – am I still exposing myself to silence? When you discover that your silence has been eroded by distraction, try to repeat the steps earlier and reintroduce it.

Don’t beat yourself up as the barometer swings back and forth. Even if you have a wonderful stack of productivity and health habits, the barometer will lean towards “burnout” from time to time.

Just notice when it does. And then be a little kinder to yourself than you think necessary.