a field that never lays fallow will produce poor harvests
To work through burnout, stop working.
It turns out — to no one’s surprise, I bet — that the remedy for self-inflicted burnout is to do the opposite of what your brain is telling you to do.
When I feel burned out and overwhelmed by too much work, my brain keeps telling me I need to work harder, longer, take fewer breaks. But the more I try to keep myself on task and ‘online’ constantly, the more likely I am to descend deeper into a spiral of burnout and self-recrimination.
It’s a very painful and unproductive process, but I’m very stubborn.
Here’s how the cycle works for me: the more burned out I get, the harder it is to keep myself on task. Instead of taking a break when I hit a wall, I keep myself chained to my computer, try to muscle through my brain’s resistance and just force myself to do the work. I get less done, because I don’t have the capacity to focus or the mental acuity to work at normal speeds — plus I’m fighting with myself to keep myself there. So I have to work longer hours to complete the same task, and that means less time to truly, fully relax and unplug — which amps up the burnout again. It’s a vicious cycle!
Stubbornness isn’t the same as true, clear focus, no matter what all the thinkpieces about ‘grit’ and ‘willpower’ tell us.
Really stop, though. Fully and completely.
For me, getting into ‘offline’ mode is key to breaking this cycle. And it’s not always easy to do, when the work feels urgent and overwhelming! But in these moments it’s extra important to get away from work, productivity, and the to-do list. This can be tricky, of course — I can be so stuck in ‘staying productive’ mode that even without the computer, I catch myself holding a drawing pad that I’ve covered in to-do lists instead of drawings.
I default to looking at my laptop or phone if I have unscheduled or unstructured bits of time (#relatable; what millennial doesn’t?). And so even in my non-work time I find myself accidentally ‘working’ but not really working: reading vaguely work-related blogs; reorganizing my to-do lists; opening tabs and then saving them for later.
But in order for my brain to truly recharge, I need to do something useless, or marginally useful, not on the laptop — offline. A task that’s repetitive and physical is best; it should require no critical thinking but should need some careful doing. For me, the most effective offline practice is a crafting practice: sewing, repairing household objects, woodworking, even just organizing things into tidy piles.
Anything that requires three-dimensional thinking helps with repairing my brain. It activates an under-utilized area, doesn’t require language processing and lets the (overworked) two-dimensional-design section of my brain have a rest.
You know it’s rest because it feels restful.
In my scheme, chores around the house, like doing the dishes, can count as offline. But it all depends on how they make you feel: whether you feel like you must do them, or you’re choosing to.
If you feel like you must do something, you’re just doing a different type of work. If you feel like you don’t have to, it’s a thing that you just want to do because it’ll make you feel good right now, that’s offline.
I find that the rest comes as much from the emotional decompression as the nature of the activity itself. So everyone will have a different activity that gets them into the offline recovery space that’s essential for working through burnout.
100% on, 100% off.
I hope to get better at switching from work mode to offline mode. I want to be more actively engaged in my work when I’m working, and more actively disengaged from it when I’m not. If I can get to a spot where I can more clearly notice the difference between these two states, and be more intentional about moving between them, I believe it will help prevent focus burn-out.
Spending time doing offline stuff means that I can recover from the focus burn-out and bring quality focus back to my work when I’m ready. So when I’m working, I’ll be more effective and more clear-headed, and when I’m not working, I’ll be more relaxed.
My challenge now is to put this into practice every day: next time I notice myself getting overwhelmed by work deadlines and headed for focus burnout, I need to have the self control to put down my work and walk away.