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.

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.