On Burnout

I really did enjoy getting my Master's degree. It was an opportunity I still cherish, two years to dig into a problem, and try to understand it with as much depth as I could.

Unfortunately within that enjoyment, I did a poor job of taking care of myself, and by the end, I was suffering from burnout. My case of burnout was very shallow compared to some cases you'll read about. I recently read a post from someone (which, I alas, cannot find), where they said their burnout got so bad they felt physically ill every time they sat down at a computer.

For me, my symptoms of burnout were pretty simple: My interest in my field began to wane. I found it harder and harder to work on my projects, even as I put more and more hours in. Focus didn't come which made deep work hard. I found no interest in learning new things in computers, and I was emotionally very weak. I couldn't handle drama of any sort. Funny enough, for me, this mostly came out in media selection. I didn't watch any drama of any sort for almost two years. I couldn't hack it emotionally -- I lacked the energy to deal with emotionally challenging media. I totally quit on House of Cards, and have still, never gone back. Those two years I watched and read almost exclusively junky comfort media, comedies I knew would be unchallenging, or that I had read/watched before.

At this point, I am four years out from my encounter with burnout. The recovery process was slow. I knew I was burnt out, and so starting my new job, I set down some rules for myself to help me recover. These things were absolutely key:

  • Work 9-5, Monday through Friday, and take at least 45 minutes for lunch: This meant that I had a regular schedule, but most importantly, it meant I had time outside of work. The lunch thing didn't start as a rule, but I quickly realized it was hugely helpful for team bonding.
  • Laptop stays at work: For almost the entire first year, I was nearly religious about this, and it helped immensely. I intentionally made sure that I wasn't able to work outside of my work hours.
  • No Work on my Phone: This was another step at ensuring work stayed at work, and home stayed home.
  • No tech news: I have always had a problem with the firehose of tech news out there. It was really important for a good while to try to help enforce the work/home separation by trying to turn off technology at home. This meant no tech news. I set up content blockers on all my devices to keep me away from them, as my muscle memory would thwart self control.

While not rules, I found my mind naturally wanted to help heal itself: I found the idea of working on a computer at home outside of office hours pretty repulsive, so I spent relatively little time on the computer at home. Instead, I read quite a bit. Eventually, I started playing guitar

Over time, I found I could manage taking the computer home every once and a while. Eventually I could deal with more challenging media. But it took time. At this point, I feel mostly recovered. I would say it took two years for most of the work aspects to clear up, but it still took another year before I felt emotionally strong enough to watch/read more emotionally challenging media.

Despite my mostly recovered state, I have had a couple of run-ins with incipient burnout again. When stressed out, the instinct is to work more: Start working 50-60 hours a week. I have absolutely done this, and it's so ineffective in my experience. Rapidly you start to make mistakes. Those mistakes turn out to eat every extra hour put in, and more.

No, learning the lessons I did from burnout, when I get stressed, I try to remind myself to work less. Play guitar more. It's counter-intuitive especially when you are stressed, but that is absolutely the time to schedule a vacation, take advantage of the health benefits and get a massage. Slow things down, so that the brain works again. Working from home, like I do now, I have to be extra vigilant, as my old strategies of "leave the laptop at work" don't have the same power that they did when I had an office to go to.

Last time I felt burnout inching towards me, I finally sat down and started to think about how I organize my work. I got and dug into Things, and started trying hard to get things out of my brain. I read (most) of David Allen's Getting Things Done. I think it's keeping in the theme, that when burnout starts to happen, staying the course is absolutely the wrong thing to do.

I like what I do, and I'd like to keep doing it for a long as I can, and this means taking care of my whole self, physical and mental.