I was in New York this week, spending some time in the office for the first time in nearly a year. Like most people who’ve left New York, I have such ambivalent feelings about it: each trip is a mix of a rush of adrenaline (The city! I’m so cosmopolitan! I walk fast on crowded streets! I love the subway! CENTRAL PARK! There are such good snacks in the office!) mixed with profound reminders of what pushed me to leave in the first place: the $14 beer, the crush of people, the busy-ness of it all. Get home at 10, fall into bed, wake up and repeat.
Of course, part of the busy-ness of this particular trip was a factor of absence: I had to pack as many meetings and drink and lunches into one week, plus try to do my job. I was coming off five exhausting days of reporting down in Waco, and all of my carefully maintained anti-burnout habits went to shit. I’d re-installed Twitter on my phone for reasons that seemed justified at the time but I can’t even remember. I didn’t have room to bring a book, which I’d been reading instead of aimlessly scrolling, but that was bullshit, too: I could’ve made room. At work, I spent hours doing what tech writer Casey Newton describes below:
Some of it was aimless, but some of it was actually responding to emails, setting up appointments, making sure things were order so that the rest of the week wouldn’t collapse on top of me. But that didn’t mean it was efficient, or calming, or a great use of my time. The problem with thinking as much as I do about burnout is I know exactly what I should be doing to alleviate the symptoms — yet the pressures of the things causing those symptoms are so great that I can only gaze, pitifully, at the solutions from afar. By Thursday, I felt like I’d been hit by a garbage truck. My brain stunk. Friday, I flew home, refused to get internet on the plane, and spent six hours writing and staring blankly ahead as seemingly everyone else on the plane finished the last third of A Star is Born. It was glorious.
Describing this reminds me of the rhetoric around healthy weight loss: it’s not about a diet. It’s about lifestyle change. Taking Twitter off my phone helps me feel like less of an robot on the to-do treadmill but it doesn’t take entirely off that treadmill. I have to willfully hop off myself — which requires a reorientation not just towards my mobile device, but “work” and its overarching place in my life.
A few months ago I met someone here in Montana who’d moved from a high powered job in a coastal city. He still did that job, with the same office, still got paid about the same — but he worked significantly fewer hours, in part because he was completing the same tasks, only on his own timeline, without the compulsion to “perform” work by being in the office for long hours. But he’d also reoriented his life away from his job. “No one moves to Missoula to work,” he said.
But I had. Theoretically, I moved to be away from the city — from that feeling that’d returned to me this past week, a squeezing of the heart, a heaviness of the chest, the fear that your ability to keep your chin just above water will one day fail. But moving to Montana allowed me to work more — I wasn’t commuting, which meant more time to work. Moving away from a city won’t change your relationship to work. Neither will meditating, or facials, or any of the other solutions to burnout that are actually about focusing you just enough to make you a better worker, instead of admitting that trying to work more — and focusing all of your self-bettering energy on that goal — is the problem itself.
On Thursday, I walked a mile through the spitting rain to a recording studio to go on Seattle public radio with a rabbi and a pastor to talk about burnout. I’ve been thinking a lot about religion’s place and potential within the burnout schema — in part because some of the writers I respect most on the topic have been working through these ideas. It’s not that faith, or God, will take away your burnout; rather, community, and reorienting oneself away from the American god of capitalism, might.
We spent time talking about the gift of the Sabbath, and the actual aim of Lent — which isn’t to give up something you love, but give up something that you grasp in times of turmoil or indecision or boring, as a coping mechanism, instead of confronting what’s actually going on. You don’t give up chocolate cake because God doesn’t want you have things that you love. You give up chocolate cake if it’s what you turn towards instead of God.
Even outside of Christianity, it’s a valuable framework — and reminds me of what Kevin Roose described in his piece about ditching his phone and “unbreaking his brain.” He enrolled in a program that “focuses on addressing the root causes of phone addiction, including the emotional triggers that cause you to reach for your phone in the first place. The point isn’t to get you off the internet, or even off social media — you’re still allowed to use Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms on a desktop or laptop, and there’s no hard-and-fast time limit. It’s simply about unhooking your brain from the harmful routines it has adopted around this particular device, and hooking it to better things.”
It’s all about what you do when your mind wanders and grasps. Do you give it the quick and easiest fix? Do you sit with the discomfort and name it for what it is? Do you push yourself towards another, more nourishing activity? Do you double down on more work because it’s the thing you know you’re good at, and will restore your sense of value? It’s going to take me a very long time to unlearn the idea that I’m only as valuable as my ability to work more than everyone around me. But I’m trying.
In interviews, people keep asking me if I’ve cured my burnout. Of course fucking not. These past two weeks made that very clear to me. It took years for me to internalize the idea that “everything bad is good, everything good is bad”; it’ll take years to unlearn it. Which sucks! I would very much like to unbreak my brain right now. But listen: it sucks so much less than slowly and ambivalently drowning in my to-do list, passing out as a I click from inbox to inbox.
This Week’s Things I Read and Loved:
Why does it feel like everyone has more money than you?
I loved the answer to the question about entitled millennials in the workplace
An interview with one of the women I respect and cherish the most
No one is better at elucidating American ideological pathologies (that’s a lot of big words to communicate this is very fucking good)
This week’s “just trust me”
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