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How I've Changed My Thinking About Burnout
One (Not So Easy) Trick
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Earlier this week I was talking to someone about the challenge of dealing with burnout — and, specifically, managing a team in a way that doesn’t produce burnout. Our conversation helped me understand something I don’t think I’ve ever really clarified for myself — or in my writing — despite circling it extensively.
In short: burnout is caused by 1) problems on the societal level (lack of social safety net, precarity, dealing with being a person in your particular body with your particular identity in the world); 2) problems at the level of the workplace (policies, norms, work culture, productivity expectations); but also 3) problems on the level of the individual (self-value derived exclusively through work, inability to adhere to guardrails against overwork set by yourself and others, obsession with micro-management).
All of these are, of course, interrelated: the individual habits and mindsets, for example, are developed as coping mechanisms for the societal and workplace realities. They might be taught to you — or modeled for you — by your parents, your advisors, your bosses, or your peers. But if you don’t grapple with the way your brain functions when it comes to work, no number of societal and workplace changes are going to really “fix” burnout.
In my work, I haven’t ignored so much as detoured around the question of individual agency in burnout. Not because I don’t think it exists, but because focusing on “fixing” the self — instead of looking to larger, systemic causes — was the paradigm that landed so many people in a state of burnout so normalized they didn’t have language to describe it. It was just the way things were.
Within this paradigm, burnout is a personal problem with personal solutions. With bath bombs, most infamously, but also: just take a little vacation. Download a meditation app. Buy a face mask. Practice some “self-care.” All of them infuriating because 1) they put the impetus for change wholly on the individual (and, in most cases, consumerism in some form) and 2) they did so little to actually address or even begin to solve the problem.
Which is why, when I wrote the article on burnout that changed my life (and then the book), I primarily sought to historicize and contextualize: here’s what was happening to our parents’ generation that influenced the way we were raised; here’s how burnout worked differently depending on where you grew up and your class position and your race and when and how your parents came to the states and your family’s relationship to higher education; here’s how social media and student loans and the financial crisis and intensive parenting norms intersected with our identity formation. Basically: how did our brains get like this?
It was an incredibly useful exercise for me. Just thinking through it, recognizing its shape and character, finding words to express the feeling that I must work all the time but also I feel like a fading smudge of grey on the wall of my own life. And I think it was useful for others who found themselves in a similar place. The contributors and contours might have been different, but there was something valuable about having words to describe the feeling. It reminds me of the idea of sociology as a form of “un-gaslighting”: it helps you understand that if your problems are the result of structural forces, then you’re not the only one dealing with them. And, moreover, it’s not your fault.
At least, well, not entirely. Maybe not even mostly. And that — that was powerful. I had been blaming myself for my own struggles within the system for so long, thinking it was a failure of spirit, of work ethic, of tenacity, whatever — every day I came with a new way I wasn’t doing enough and could do more. So writing about burnout in the way I did, essentially avoiding the self-help model entirely, gave me the permission structure to chill out, to take stock, and to stop trying so damn hard. At least for a second, a minute, a day.
For a while, that beginning step was all I could take. Because the truth, which I repeated jokingly in interviews around the publication of Can’t Even, was that I was still burning myself out. Writing about burnout, sure, but still working all the time. Of course I was! My brain was still broken! Just because I could understand how it was broken didn’t mean I had the means, at least at that moment, to fix it. I was still working at the same place with the same imperatives for production and the same understanding of good work. But more importantly, and I’ve realized this only recently, I didn’t have anywhere to put all this ambition, all that attention, all my time. In other words: apart from my ability to work all the time, I had little idea who I was.
A good partner, sure. A decent cook. A person who exercised (largely to discipline the body) and walked and loved their dogs and made time to go visit her friends but had very little time to actually make any where I was. A person without community and effectively without hobbies. I slowly started to take up a few — returning to skiing, which I hadn’t done since college, and vegetable gardening, which I hadn’t done since my early days of grad school. But it wasn’t until the pandemic forced me to stop traveling for stories and speaking — and, as a result, added a whole bunch of time back into my days — that I was able to slowly develop an engaged interest in something that wasn’t my work.
At first it was just more attention to vegetable gardening. Then, when we moved to the island, it was all matter of gardening. And hanging out with my friends’ kids. And my friends! Without really realizing it, I had developed other things, as the great Rainesford Stauffer puts it, to be ambitious about. Losing myself in the gentle tedium of working in the yard, going skiing (by myself, with others), investing more in friendships….but most of all, there was the garden. That might sound ridiculous to you, or it might make total sense, but the exact thing matters less than what it’s facilitated: developing several axes, instead of just one, for my life to rotate around.
Back when I first wrote the burnout piece, an accomplished journalist DMed me to say: the only thing that cured my burnout was having a kid. Now, depending on your current parenting situation, you might be cackling at the very notion. But I also understood what she was saying: the only way to stop working the way that she worked was to have something that effectively forced her to live her life differently. For some people, that’s getting sick, or becoming disabled — which can hold a very different valance. For her, that thing was kids.
At the time, I remember thinking to myself: since I’m not having kids, what will cure me? I couldn’t even conceive of having something in my life with as much gravity as my work. But gradually, one month at a time, I began to develop something, several things, that began to take up space in my mind and my day. It’s honestly one of the things that’s made it easy to say goodbye to Twitter (and, at least at this point, to not consistently engage with Threads or Blue Sky).
Before Elon Musk bought Twitter, I could never quite bring myself to quit the platform, despite knowing how much better it would be for my mental health. I understood its promotional power, of course, and didn’t want to leave that behind. But more than anything — and, frankly, this is embarrassing to write — I didn’t have anything better to do with the hours I’d regain. Twitter was (sometimes) fun. The alternative, at least at that point in my life, was just a different sort of work.
So here’s what I’ve taken to heart. We can try to change society to make it less burnout-inducing. We can and absolutely should vote and advocate and agitate for it. We can also do all of those things when it comes to our workplaces, whether through collective action or management training or any number of other tactics I’ve written about here (and in Out of Office) to make it less of a burnout factory. (You can also, of course, look for a workplace that’s less of a burnout factory). But for people like me, with the sort of attitude towards work that I had — we have to do some personal work as well.
Usually, that labor is some combination of 1) therapy; 2) finding or recultivating strong friendships; 3) discovering real and engaging ambitions outside of work. I originally had “hobbies” in place of “ambitions” right there, but I replaced it, because hobby holds a connotation of frivolity. And maybe your thing is frivolous, but frivolous in the best sort of way. Maybe it’s something you can be really shitty at and not care, because it’s for you and you alone. Maybe it scratches that itch to keep learning about things, or returns you — the way skiing does for me — to airy, childhood joy. Maybe it’s a conduit for all your portal energy.
Whatever it is, it takes time for an action to become a practice. After all, it took decades to hone my attitude (I’ll say it: addiction) to work. So it makes sense that it’s taken real time for me to figure out how best to diffuse it. A better or richer or more enlightened person might be able to dismantle it entirely, but right now, I’m settling for diffusion. And I realize, at least for myself, that to truly turn away from work I had to have something to turn towards.
I am doing less. I am lowering the bar. I am loosening my schedule. But I also have a fuller life, with so many places to direct my attention and time. It’s both less busy (with work) and more busy (with other life) than ever before.
I used to say that I could always tell I was nearing or inside a period of burnout when I couldn’t bring myself to read fiction at night. My brain was too focused on one thing — work! — and wearied by it. I couldn’t bear the thought of entering into another world. These days, I’m reading more than ever. About dahlias, sure. But also about so much else: so many other lives, so many other wonders. I have space for them now. Some of that can be attributed to quitting my job and starting this newsletter. Some of it was moving to this island. But some of it, so much of it, maybe nearly all of it — I had to do that glorious, discombobulating work myself. ●
If you found yourself in a similarly unhealthy relationship to work, I’d love to hear what mix of thinking and action and understanding and life events ultimately helped you move away from it (or, like me, just diffuse that work-all-the-time energy). And if you’ve never dealt with this particular problem and find it hard to relate to or weird: I get it. But don’t be butts about it.
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