Racing On the Edge of Burnout

Exhibit A:

It’s been a year and more and I think a lot of us are on the ragged edge of burning out completely. Those that think they are superhuman and can just keep grinding away at things without acknowledging what’s going on are kidding themselves. I know I’m feeling it too even though I have a pretty decent handle on what’s going on. Let’s explore some of the ways it’s impacting us and what should be done, if anything can even be done.

Creativity Black Hole

I don’t feel like doing anything remotely creative right now. The cooking will get finished. The dishes will be done. The things in my floor will be picked up and put away. But beyond that? Good. Luck. I’m not feeling any kind of drive to do anything beyond that.

Remember when everyone was picking up quarantine skills? Baking, cooking, knitting, crocheting, home improvement, or even an instrument? Those were fun days filled with massive uncertainty and a need to distract ourselves from what might be coming next. However, those skill pickups are things that need time to work on and refine and continue to master. And now that the world is back in full swing we don’t have any more time than we did before. In fact, we have a lot less.

Now we face a choice of doing what we’ve always done before, albeit in a more restricted fashion, but now with the added pressure of an additional time sink staring us in the face. You can’t improve your cooking skills if you don’t cook. But when you don’t have a mountain of free time to devote to researching recipes or putting together the best shopping list or exploring new places to source ingredients you’re going to feel like it’s back to being a chore and end up churning out chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese.

That’s what burnout looks like. When something you previously enjoyed becomes a chore like any other because you have no time to devote to it and get enjoyment from it. Whether you want to admit it or not all your creative pursuits feel like this right now. I know I find myself zoning out more often than not when it comes to free time. I don’t want to write or cook or learn to play the harmonica. I just want to spend a few moments not thinking about anything. And that’s what it feels like to be burned out.

How about doing things even remotely adjacent to work? Writing a coverage post from a presentation or recording a new podcast episode or a video? If it feels like actual work you’re probably going to avoid it just as much as you avoid the things you actually like to do. That means the rest of your creative output is going to suffer too.

Escape Velocity

Now that we know we’re burned out and don’t want to admit it, how do we fix it? The short answer is that we can’t. We’re still in the uncertain period of balancing work and creativity and other stuff going on. Our current battle is watching those two things fighting for supremacy. Work commands our attention to get the stuff done that pays the bills. Creative pursuits are clamoring for air because remember that cool time last year when we made all the sourdough bread? How do we make them both work?

Another quote that has been resounding with me recently is “If you prioritize your distractions over your responsibilities then your distractions are your responsibilities.”

We want to get away from the stuff that grinds on us. But when the things we use to get away become a grind then they just fall into the same place. We need to keep those distractions separate and use them when we need to as opposed to just taking a 30-minute break twice a day and working on our harmonica scales. When you associate your distraction with your responsibilities you stop liking it as much.

I use Scouting as one of my distractions. It’s basically my hobby at this point when you consider how much time I’ve invested into it. Yet, I find myself starting to get burned out on it as well. Part of that is my inability to say “no” to doing things. And that lack of time is wearing thin because I can’t be everywhere at once. I need to pull back from all the things that I’m doing because otherwise my hobby will become just another job that gets in the way of me relaxing and letting go.

Understanding each and every part of these battles is key to drawing the lines around what you need to keep burnout at bay. Our brains like to consume all the things around a hobby or topic and then walk away from it when it doesn’t produce the same kind of dopamine response. We have to teach our brains to enjoy a bit of what we like and not eat it all at once and get tired of it. That’s why scheduling time for things is so important. Otherwise you’ll grind yourself away to nothing. Make time for your responsibilities and your distractions and don’t mingle the two or you’re going to end up with some kind of unappetizing oatmeal of things.


Tom’s Take

I’m burned out. And I don’t want to admit it. Things keep slipping out of my head and I can’t seem to keep up like I want. Acknowledging it is the first step. Now that I know I’m burned out I can try and fix it by making those changes. Don’t soldier on and hope that you’re going to pull through it. Admit that you’re more burned out than you realize. You may not be completely gone yet but if you ignore it you soon will be. Instead, take the time to prioritize what you need to take care of and what you want to do to enjoy life. Schedule a hike. Make time to practice your instrument. But make sure you keep it segregated and keep your work life where it belongs. Don’t bake bread at 9am on a Monday and don’t send emails at 9pm on a Friday. And be kind to yourself. Your brain doesn’t like burnout any more than you do. Take a moment, take a breath, and take some time for you.

Tech Field Day Changed My Life

It’s amazing to me that it’s been ten years since I attended by first Tech Field Day event. I remember being excited to be invited to Tech Field Day 5 and then having to rush out of town a day early to beat a blizzard to be able to attend. Given that we just went through another blizzard here I thought the timing was appropriate.

How did attending an industry event change my life? How could something with only a dozen people over a couple of days change the way I looked at my career? I know I’ve mentioned parts of this to people in the past but I feel like it’s important to talk about how each piece of the puzzle built on the rest to get me to where I am today.

Voices Carry

The first thing Tech Field Day did to change my life was to show me that I mattered. I grew up in a very small town and spent most of my formative school years being bored. The Internet didn’t exist in a usable form for me. I devoured information wherever I could find it. And I languished as I realized that I needed more to keep learning at the pace I wanted. When I finally got through college and started working in my career the same thing kept happening. I would learn about a subject and keep devouring that knowledge until I exhausted it. Yet I still wanted more.

Tech Field Day reinforced that my decision to start a blog to share what I was learning was the right one. It wasn’t as much about the learning as it was the explanation. Early on I thought a blog was just about finding some esoteric configuration stanza and writing about it. It wasn’t until later on that I figured out that my analysis and understanding and explanation was more important overall. Even my latest posts about more “soft skill” kinds of ideas are less about the ideas and how I apply them.

Blogging and podcasting are just tools to share the ideas that we have. We all have our own perspectives and people enjoy listening to those. They may not always agree. They may have their own opinions that they want to share. However, the part that is super critical is that everyone is able to share in a place where they can be discussed and analyzed and understood. As long as we all learn and grow from what we share then the process works. It’s when we stop learning and sharing and try to protest that our way is right and the only way that we stop growing.

Tech Field Day gave me the platform to see that my voice mattered and that people listened. Not just read. Not just shared. That they listened and that they wanted to hear more. People started asking me to comment on things outside of my comfort zone. Maybe it was wireless networking. It could have been storage or virtualization or even AI. It encouraged me to learn more and more because who I was and what I said was interesting. The young kid that could never find someone to listen when I wanted to talk about Star Wars or BattleTech or Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was suddenly the adult that everyone wanted to ask questions to. It changed the way I looked at how I shared with people for the better.

Not Just a Member, But the President

The second way Tech Field Day changed my life was when I’d finally had enough of what I was doing. Because of all the things that I had seen in my events from 2011 to 2013, I realized that working as an engineer and operations person for a reseller had a ceiling I was quickly going to hit. The challenges were less fun and more frustrating. I could see technology on the horizon and I didn’t have a path to get to a place to implement it. It felt like watching something cool happening outside in the yard while I was stuck inside washing the dishes.

Thankfully, Stephen Foskett knew what I needed to hear. When I expressed frustration he encouraged me to look around for what I wanted. When I tried to find a different line of work that didn’t understand why I blogged, it crystallized in me that I needed something very different from what I was doing. Changing who I was working for wasn’t enough. I needed something different.

Stephen recognized that and told me he wanted me to come on board without him. No joking that my job offer was “Do you want to be the Dread Pirate Roberts? I think you’d make an excellent Dread Pirate.”. He told me that it was hard work and unlike anything I’d ever done. No more CLI. No more router installations. In place of that would be event planning and video editing and taking briefings from companies all over the place about what they were building. I laughed and told him I was in.

And for the past eight years I’ve been a part of the thing that showed me that my voice mattered. As I learned the ropes to support the events and eventually started running them myself, I also grew as a person in a different way. I stopped by shy and reserved and came out of my shell. When you’re the face of the event you don’t have time to be hiding in the corner. I learned how to talk to people. I also learned how to listen and not just wait for my turn to talk. I figured out how to get people to talk about themselves when they didn’t want to.

Now the person I am is different from the nerdy kid that started a blog over ten years ago. It’s not just that I know more. Or that I’m willing to share it with people. It has now changed into getting info and sharing it. It’s about finding great people and building them up like I was built up. Every time I see someone come to the event for the first time I’m reminded of me all those years ago trying to figure out what I’d gotten myself into. Watching people learn the same things I’ve learned all over again warms my heart and shows me that we can change people for the better by showing them what they’re capable of and that they matter.


Tom’s Take

Tech Field Day isn’t an event of thousands. It’s personal and important to those that attend and participate. It’s not going to stop global warming or save the whales. Instead, it’s about the people that come. It’s about showing them they matter and that they have a voice and that people listen. It’s about helping people grow and become something they may not even realize they’re capable of. I know I sound biased because the pay the bills but even if I didn’t work there right now I would still be thankful for my time as a delegate and for the way that I was able to grow from those early days into a better member of the community. My life was changed when I got on that airplane ten years ago and I couldn’t be happier.

The Double-Edged Grindstone

Are you doing okay out there? I hope that you’re well and not running yourself thin with all the craziness still going on. Sometimes it seems like we can’t catch a break and that work and everything keep us going all the time. In fact, that specific feeling and the resulting drive around it is what I wanted to talk about today.

People have drive. We want to be better. We want to learn and grow and change. Whether it’s getting a faster time running a 5K or learning new skills to help our career along. Humans can do amazing things given the right motivation and resource availability. I know because I taught myself a semester of macroeconomics in a Waffle House the night before the final exam. Sure, I was groggy and crashed for a 10-hour nap after the final but I did pass!

It’s that kind of ability to push ourselves past our limits that both defines us and threatens to destroy us. I’m a huge fan of reading and fiction. Growing up I latched on to the Battletech novels, especially those written by Michael A. Stackpole. In his book Lost Destiny there is a great discussion about honing your skills and what it may end up costing you:

Were we to proceed, it would be the battle of the knife against the grindstone. Yes, we would get sharper, we would win great victories, but in the end, we would be ground away to nothing.

 

Running in Place

That quote hit home for me during my CCIE lab attempt training. I spent my free time after work labbing everything I could get my hands on. I would log on about 8pm every night after my eldest went to sleep and lab until midnight. Every night was the same chore. No time for television or reading anything other than a Cisco Press book. Instead, I drilled until I could provision EtherChannels in my sleep and could redistribute routes without a second thought in four different ways. I felt like I was getting so much accomplished!

I also felt tired all the time. I had no outlet to relax. I spent every waking minute of my free time focused on sharpening my skills. As above, you could practically hear the edge of the knife on the grindstone. I was razor-focused on completing this task. As I learned later in life, the joys of hyper focus in ADHD had a lot to do with that.

It wasn’t until I got through my lab that the true measure of this honing process hit home. I spent the weekend after my attempt hanging out with some friends away from technology and the whole time I felt unsettled. I watched horrible movies on the Sci-Fi channel and couldn’t get comfortable. I was antsy and wound up, even though I’d just completed a huge milestone! It wasn’t until about a week later that I was finally able to put a name to this anxiety. I listened to the little voice in my head repeating over and over again in my downtime: “You really should be studying something right now.”

I was in search of my next grindstone. My knife was sharp, but I knew it could be sharper still with the next certification or piece of knowledge. It took me a while before I could quiet that voice and focus on restoring some semblance of my life as I had known it before my lab attempts. Even now there are times when I feel like I should be studying or writing or creating something instead of unwinding with a book or a camping trip to the woods.

The rush of dopamine that we get from learning new things or performing skills to perfection cannot be understated. It makes us feel good. It makes us want to keep doing it to continue that stream of good feelings. We could focus on it to the detriment of our other hobbies or our social lives. And that was in the time before when we could go out whenever we wanted! In the current state of the pandemic it’s easy to get wrapped up in something without the ability to force yourself to walk away from it, as anyone with a half-filled room full of a new hobby can tell you.

Setting Goals with Limits

What’s the solution then? Do we just keep grinding away until there’s nothing left? Do we become the best left-handed underwater basket weaver that has ever existed? Do we keep forcing ourselves to run the same video game level over and over again until we’re perfect, even if that means not getting out of our house for weeks at a time? Can we do something repeatedly until we are destroyed by it?

The key is to set goals but to make them in such a way as to set limits on them. We do this all the time in the opposite direction. When we have a task we don’t like to do we force ourselves to do it for a set amount of time. Maybe it’s an hour of reconciling the checkbook or thirty minutes of exercise. But if it’s something you enjoy you have to set limits on it as well to avoid that burnout.

Find something you really like to do, such as reading a book. However, instead of devouring that book until it’s finished in one sitting and staying up until 4am to finish it, set an alarm to cut yourself off after an hour or two. Be honest with yourself. When the alarm goes off, stop reading and do something else. You could even pair it with a task you like less to use the little dopamine boost to help you through your other activity.

It’s not fun to stop doing something we like doing even when it’s something that is going to make us a better person or better employee. However, you’ll soon see that having that extra time to reinforce what you’ve learned or collect your thoughts does more for you that just binging something until you’re completely exhausted by it.

Remember when TV shows came out weekly? We had to wait until next Thursday for the new episode? Remember how much you looked forward to that day? Or maybe even the return of the new season in the fall? That kind of anticipation helps motivate you. Being able to consume all the content in one sitting for 8-10 hours leaves you feeling great at first. Later, when your dopamine goes back to normal you’re going to feel down. You’ll also realize you can’t get the same hit again because you have consumed your current resource of it. By limiting what you can do at one time you’re going to find that you can keep that great feeling going without burning yourself out.

Yes, this does absolutely apply to studying for things. Your brain needs time to lock in the knowledge. If you’ve ever tried to memorize something you know that you need to spend time thinking of something else and come back to that item before you really learn it. The only thing that transfers knowledge from short-term memory to long-term memory is time. There are no shortcuts. And the more you press the edge of the knife agains the stone the more you lose in the long run because the available resources are just gone.


Tom’s Take

I’m not qualified to delve into the psychoanalysis part of all this stuff. I just know how it works for me because that’s who I am. I can shut out the world and plow through something for hours at a time if I want. I’ve done it many times in my career with both work and personal tasks. But it’s taken a long time for me to finally realize that sprinting like that for extended periods of time will eventually wear you away to nothing. Even the best runners in the world need to rest. Even the smartest people in the industry need to not think about things for a while. You do too. Take some time today or tomorrow or even next week to set goals and limits for yourself. You’ll find that you enjoy the things you do and learn more with those limits in place and you’ll wind up a happier, healthier person. You’ll be sharp and ready instead of a pile of dust under the grindstone.

Making Time For Yourself

I was a recent pop-in guest on the Network Collective Holiday Show with my friends Jordan Martin and Tony Efantis. One of the questions they had been asking their guests was about the big lessons we’ve learned this year. As I thought back on the roller coaster ride that was 2020, I realized that one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned is that I need to make time for the important things for myself.

Mark It Down

I know it sounds like a given, but we all need to make time for ourselves. I realized that when my usual schedule of running myself in overdrive and jumping from one event or travel opportunity to the next evaporated back in March. I found myself sitting at home and working toward some uncertain future. I never thought that there were going to be huge problems but I also didn’t know how things would end up turning out.

As the days grew into weeks and eventually into months, I quickly figured out that the normal I once knew was going to stay gone for quite a while. In place of that was a situation that I needed to adjust to. And that was going to to take some time. I needed to catch my breath but I also needed to build a skill set that would allow me to continue forward.

Over April and May I got better at cooking. I retaught myself the basics of making all kinds of meals. I gained the confidence of trying new things. It helped me find a bit of stability. It happened because I started doing research and setting aside time every day to practice those skills. Maybe it was something small like making tacos. Or even putting something into a slow cooker. But it was time that I needed to take to do something that I needed to learn.

The second big lesson in taking time for myself came in June. With the move of Cisco Live to a digital event an the likelihood that everything else for the rest of the year was going to go the same way, I took the opportunity to get back into better, healthier shape. I had a hard time exercising on the road with the hotel gym being something that I didn’t appreciate. I started getting up earlier and going for walks and then for short runs. Then I upped my running and my walking distances. I made sure to lace up running shoes every day no matter what. No excuses whether it was raining or blisteringly hot outside.

Taking the time to get into better shape has had a huge impact on my self worth and my health. I’ve dropped 50 pounds since March and my running times keep coming down. My pants size went down significantly and the pictures of myself that I’m taking now barely resemble pre-COVID me. All because I took the time for myself.

Make It Happen

There’s no magic in what I did. There was no special system or secrecy code to get me to where I am right now. The only trick was making the time for myself. It’s like the financial books you can buy that give you tips to put into practice to get rich. One of the first is “pay yourself”. It’s contrite but proves the point that you need to give yourself resources to work with or you’ll never get ahead.

Time is as valuable as resource as anything we have. We can’t save time and use it later. We can’t manufacture time. We can only use the time we have to the best of our abilities. Sometimes that means putting something we want to do on hold because of something we have to do. As someone that prides myself on writing lots of blog posts it meant that I had to put that particular part of my productivity behind more immediate things like getting my morning run in. It meant getting the Gestalt IT Rundown story script done before I could play a game or watch a TV show.

Time is what we make of it. I’ve started to realize that by blocking more and more of my time to do things. Maybe I put down on my calendar that Tuesday evening is a day to draw or practice a new cooking skill. Thursday morning could be my long run of the week and my day to research topics for my Tomversations videos. Whatever it is, I make it stick. I don’t need to schedule my exercise in the mornings because it’s become a habit for me. But I do need to schedule the other things to make sure they’re done. You don’t need to have a mark on every minute of your day to be productive, but you do need to make sure you make time for the pieces that are important.

That means making time for non-work things. It’s easy to fill up our calendar with things for work. It’s harder still to fill up the calendar with non-work tasks and skills. Schedule a hike on a Saturday morning. Make Monday night your night to work on a craft that you want to do like learning leather working or knife making. Maybe you just want to say that Wednesday at lunchtime is the place where you’re going to schedule time to read a few more pages of your new favorite book. There are all things that as valid as the next staff meeting or briefing that you have to do. Because they enrich you and help you become a better person.

More importantly, by scheduling these things in your calendar on a personal level you remind yourself not to let work get out of hand. When you live in the office, which is the same as working from home now, you will find yourself working at midnight some nights because you just couldn’t put the work down. By reminding yourself of what’s important you draw a bright line between work and personal and ensure that you have time to put in effort on both without getting overwhelmed.


Tom’s Take

There’s a bit of irony in me saying that you need to make time for the things that are important to you while I write this post after midnight on Christmas. The fact is that I made time earlier today for my family to open some gifts and help bake cookies. I went for a walk and watched some educational videos. Sure, I eventually found the time to write for myself but it came after I had taken care of other things. My journey through 2020 has taught me that time is the kind of resource you need to pay yourself with as often as you can. But you can’t just mark off your calendar and hope that something magical happens. You need to make the effort to use your time wisely and work on yourself. Every new skill you learn or pound you lose is making you a better, more well-rounded person. And that’s the kind of payoff that you can only get from investing time in yourself.

Setting Boundaries Before You’re Swamped

We’re at the tail end of 2020 and things are hopeful for 2021. People are looking at the way IT has pulled together to enable working from anywhere and moving resources to the cloud and enabling users to get their jobs done. It’s a testament to the resilience of a group of sanitation workers behind the scenes whose job it is to clean up after management and sales and do the jobs no one else wants to do.

The cynic in me is worried about what the future is going to hold now that we’ve managed to transform the way we work. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I was checking out this Reddit thread from last week. The top rant had an interesting perspective on the way that 2021 is going to go for workers and I couldn’t agree more. My dread has a name, and it’s Overwork.

Harder, Not Smarter

If anything, 2020 proved that we can do amazing things with the right motivation. The superhero mentality of IT paid off handsomely as we stood up remote access servers and found ways to get access to resources for people that couldn’t come into the office and needed to get things done. We proved invaluable to the company in terms of support and project execution.

However, that superhuman effort also makes us valuable because we can do the impossible. Which means individual workers are great at tasks that are a stretch to get done. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? Now, think back on the number of times over your career that you’ve jumped on something that you’ve seen as hard or challenging and gotten it done. Is that number more than one or two? It probably is.

Now, look at it from the perspective of management and the people that make the hiring decisions. You’ve never failed, or at least you’ve failed so infrequently as to be unimportant. You always get the job done no matter what. If we only had a team of you sitting around we could get so much done! Sound familiar?

Let’s look at it from the finance part of the equation. Revenue is down. Expenses are down too, but we could still trim a bit and save money. Where should we cut? Can’t get rid of sales or marketing because they’re working to bring in money. Can’t get rid of executives (for some reason) because they serve some purpose. IT? Support staff? They’ve never failed us before. If we give them a little extra work and don’t fill that open position or cut someone that’s underperforming they’ll come through for us, right?

It’s a tale that’s as old as any in business. Why pay someone to do the work in a role when we can split it up and pass it out to the rest of the team. An extra job won’t hurt anyone, right? Funny how that never happens to the CFO or the CMO. But the networking/storage/security/wireless/server/cloud teams? They’re rockstars!

Know When to Fold Em

In 2021, you are going to need to set boundaries and stand up for yourself when it comes to work. Every role not filled with a person drawing a salary is directly impacting the bottom line of the company. Which means either you should be getting paid more for doing more work or the executives and stockholders are going to get paid more because the company made higher profits. Who deserves that extra money more? The people doing the work? Or the people parking assets in your company until they recover their position and jump to greener pastures?

You need to draw the line and advocate for yourself. Don’t just blindly accept new responsibilities without some sort of future resolution. Are they going to hire someone to fill that role eventually? If not, what are they going to do with the salary? If you and someone else on your team are doing that role permanently you should both be compensated for it. If the executive team gives you pushback, just remind them that they can forgo their next raise or set of stock options to cover things. You’d never see them doing any more without some form of compensation, right?

Drawing boundaries is going to cause friction because superheroes have never had them before. Superman and Spider Man don’t negotiate about saving people on a train. However, you aren’t a radioactive Kryptonian vigilante either. You’re doing a job that you get paid to do. Adding more to your plate is either worthy of additional money or it’s something that needs to be pushed back. If this was AWS and they wanted to upgrade their server instances to a faster CPU, do you think they could persuade Amazon to give it to them for free? Not on your life.

Take the time in 2021 to set yourself up for success. You may be worried that people are going to fire you because they think you want too much money or because you need to be happy to have a job right now. You also need to realize that no one can do your job better than you right now and they know that too. Have a frank and honest discussion about why you feel it’s unfair to pile more work on you without treating you fairly. Make sure they know you’ll help where you can but if they aren’t going to fill the role you need to get the resources they would dedicate to the person doing it. Chances are they’ll realize they do need to hire someone to take the work or they’ll find a way to do without those responsibilities.


Tom’s Take

You are a valuable resource. But you are not infinite. If you burn yourself out then you are spent. The business will likely look for someone to replace you and get them up to speed on your job. You? You’re going to be a shell of the person you were. 2020 has been a roller coaster that has pushed us all hard. We need to find a balance. And if you don’t let people know that you need to find balance in your work and your compensation you may find yourself with no boundaries, no balance, and knee deep in the swamp.