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Banishing burnout in 2021: how to make an exercise routine you’ll actually stick with

Brigid Delaney
·6-min read

Hello fellow burnouts. It’s week three of my plan to get on top of exhaustion, and I’m making progress.

I’ve been taking the advice of experts, trying to build a new habit each week. Last week I adopted an exercise routine that was much more ambitious than what I’d been doing in 2020. I’ve been finding it extremely difficult so far. It’s at a higher intensity, and when I ask my body to take it up a notch, it feels like I’m pushing a suitcase the wrong way up an escalator. One positive thing all this sweating has done is aided my sleep. At the start of the year I was finding it very hard to sleep properly, and physical exhaustion has been making that easier. I’ve also spent two weeks off alcohol, which has certainly helped – and made my skin look fresher. While the exercise has been tough, the sleep has given me more energy to push through it, and I feel like I’m nailing the mindfulness practices I adopted in week one and two.

Related: I teach a course on happiness at Yale: this is how to make the most of your resolutions

By February, studies have shown that around 80% of resolutions have been quietly dumped. I’m confident that won’t be me, or us, right?

As with the last two weeks, week three is about making a few more small changes – both to routine and mindset – and ensuring they become embedded, then turn into habits.

The check in: exercise

I’m experimenting with what time of day is the best for me to exercise. A morning workout on an empty stomach last week nearly ruined me. So this week I’m focusing on finding a regimen that will work – not an uncommon New Year’s goal.

In 2020 – increasingly I suffered from what I term structural issues – tennis elbow, injured lower back, tight shoulders. I was falling apart. A strong, flexible body is my best defence.

Last week I joined Vision Fitness, where personal trainer Tania Drahonchuk helped me set some goals and tried to get a sense of where I’m at – and where I need to be.

We did a session of body weight exercises over Zoom together – very important for longevity – and I was knackered after the planks, pushups and leg curls. Clearly core strength is an area I need to work on. Drahonchuk suggests it’s best to start this kind of routine 20 minutes at a time; especially if you haven’t been working out much.

She also advises that with running and other forms of cardio, it’s not about the pace, but the time you spend doing it. It’s better to walk briskly for half an hour than run for four minutes, hit a wall and stop.

Habit forming: if… then

Dr Breanna Wright, a behavioural change expert from Monash University, says around week three when making new resolutions, “motivation can potentially drop off a little bit”.

If you resolve to exercise before breakfast but you hit the snooze button instead – Wright advises you have a contingency plan up your sleeve.

Called the “if then” plan – it’s “essentially planning for the inconsistencies in our lives, motivations, weather and energy levels. An “if-then” plan can be a good way for people to think out how to overcome these barriers – so “if the weather is bad, I will exercise indoors today”.

“We know our days never quite go to plan … there’s always disruptions but it’s really important to make plans before the interruption occurs,” she says.

Wright advises to write down the “if then” back up plan. “It binds us a little more strongly if we’ve written it down on a piece of paper.”

The mindset: stop doomscrolling

World events being the way they are – all scrolling is doomscrolling now. If March 2020 felt like a year, the first week of 2021 felt like a month.

With chaos in Washington, a mutant strain of Covid doing the rounds and borders opening and closing around Australia, spending time on social media and reading the news was incredibly stressful. If we want to avoid further burnout in 2021, we need to be mindful of how we consume the news, says Kate James, a life coach and author of Change Your Thinking to Change Your Life.

“We often turn to habitual behaviours like scrolling through social media or the news, because they numb thoughts and feelings.” But James observes that time spent “scrolling through social media passes quickly and adds very little to my life”.

“Social media – and anything related to our phones – is so highly addictive,” she says. Instead we should consciously try and choose activities that “re-energise us”.

Related: Burnt-out resolutions: retaking control of yourself when the world is chaotic

Action: James advises not to check your phone first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening, when you are trying to wind down.

Instead you should deliberately schedule in blocks of time when you can look at your phone (depending on your job) and turn off notifications the rest of the time.

If the news stresses you out – you should limit the times per day you check news websites to once or twice. “It’s about finding a balance between staying informed and getting addicted to the news. There’s a lot of drama that accompanies the news cycle – and drama is addictive as well. It draws us in in ways that no longer feel good for our well being,” she says.

I feel as if I need to be across the news cycle for my job – but I’m going to start small and not check Twitter and Instagram as soon as I wake up (it is literally the first thing I do of a morning, sometimes prompting a surge of cortisol depending on what comes up on my news feed).

I already banned my phone before bed in week one, and now I’ll claw back my mornings too – I’ll give it an hour before I start consuming the news – and do some exercise and meditation at the start of the day instead.

Coming up...


This week Drahonchuk has asked me to keep a food and exercise diary to keep me accountable. She says it’ll also let her see where my eating habits are letting me down. With my sleeping in place, and my exercise slowly becoming routine, diet will be the final step.