As I’ve mentioned an untold number of times on this blog, I’m struggling with burnout. The problem with burnout is that it isn’t solved by a simple vacation. Or even several simple vacations. It is a process of years to recover from the constant exhaustion, the anxiety, and the need to continue the grind. A process that frequently doesn’t ever play out for people in my society, much less for those who are less privileged than I. After all, I’m not going to be able to escape the burnout until I don’t need to work extra hours to make ends meet in a way that doesn’t involve bargain shopping, penny-pinching, or denying myself anything I don’t strictly need with a few exceptions here or there. Even then, I’d have to find either a new job or a way to fundamentally alter the relationship I have with my job and the way I feel obligated to continue laboring as I have in the past. So, while it is definitely possible (and even probable, given enough time) that I’ll eventually escape this cycle of constant burnout, I find myself focusing on ways that I can continue to live with it, at least for now.
Like any attempt to cope with stress or trauma, the main question isn’t whether or not I’ll cope but whether or not I’ll learn to cope in a healthy manner. Complicating matters is that I have to do all that while I’m still dealing with the on-going problem and anything that requires significant effort on my part is only going to make it worse. For example, one of my favorite coping mechanism for high anxiety is buying myself a new building or life simulator game. There’s nothing like having complete control over my environment to sooth my frantic mind. When it comes to burnout, though, this stragety will frequently backfire on me because all I’m doing is spending money I could have put toward my student loans and assigning myself another new bit of work to do every day. Even if I’m having fun initially, feeling obligated to play a game every day to keep up with it is a sure-fire way to make my burnout worse in a measureable way from one day to another (which is why my pre-bed video game is Stardew Valley rather than Animal Crossing).
Luckily, I’ve been coping since I was a child, am a fairly clever person when it comes to tracking patterns and habits, have spent my entire life engaged in introspection, and have developed the organizational skills to put all of this together. It has unfortunately taken a decent amount of work to organize and turn into a set of reliable habits, but I’m finally hitting the point where that work is paying off. All I need now is a period of time where nothing terrible or extra stressful happens. Originally, that was going to be the latter half of August, but that went out the window the instant my other eye started acting up. Now, though, with only one more week of appointments left before this period of my life is hopefully behind me for good, I’m starting to feel hopeful that I’ll finally get my chance to see if my efforts were successful.
To remove the ambiguity, what I’m talking about is a method of managing the work, enjoyment, and fulfillment in my life so I can keep them in balance to prevent my burnout from getting any worse while I continue the years-long work of digging myself out of this pit of exhaustion. It’s taken a lot of time and effort to assemble and is hardly fool-proof, but it provides me with the tools to know when I can take a break, to manage my spoons every day without costing spoons, and to lessen the impact of any sudden stressors that might appear. I want to stress that this isn’t a fix for burnout or something that I think will definitely work for other people since I built it with my unique situation and proclivities in mind, but I’m pretty impressed with the results I’ve seen so far.
The core of this system and what has let this turn into a success I’ve been able to maintain and refine for almost nine months now, is a series of lists. Daily to-do lists, short-term project lists, long-term project lists, work project lists, household project lists, and even an ambiguous “adulting” project list. I’d use Self-Care here, as this is the proper context for it, but I use self-care in a more broad sense elsewhere in my system and don’t want to double-dip on terms. I have a time every day for updating new lists, a system for noting what things NEED to get done today versus what I WANT to get done on top of that, a bunch of shorthand for denoting if something should be completely done today or just worked on today, and a slew of specific markings that represent things like an amount of progress made or even as granular as something I wanted to do today but couldn’t do versus something I wanted to do today but chose not to do. All of which adds up to a HUGE decrease in how much mental effort it takes to get through my day. This system is so thorough and ingrained in my mind now that I’ve managed to successfully stick to it even during a week where I slept an average of three hours a night and could barely form coherent sentences the day before I finally got a full night’s rest.
Other than that, it’s mostly just the results of learning to manage my mental and physical health over the past decade. Walks, types of stretches, comfortable clothes, the right kind of environmental control, and so on. It is a thousand tiny things that I’ve managed to collect and apply to my day-to-day in a way that truly reduces the mental load of simply living life. No matter how burned out I feel at any given time, I know exactly where to go if I need something to do (fun, productive, or fulfilling) but don’t have the spoons to figure out what I want.
If you’re reading through all this and it doesn’t sound like all that much for me to be ranting and raving about, then I would like to say that you have arrived at exactly the point. It took years of work to figure out how to make this feel effortless not just in talking about it to other people but to me as well. I can make writing daily blog posts look effortless most of the time, but I’ve never felt like it was effortless. I’ve spent too many hours staying at a blank page without ever having a single idea worth exploring to ever call this process simple and easy, but I’ve fooled even myself into feeling like my self-management system is simple and easy. I just had to spend months working through the times when it felt like it wasn’t and reminding myself that it would all be worth it in the end when I could go on a fun, relaxing vacation and actually not have all of that rest and recovery disappear within three days of returning home.
There will still be burrs to remove as time passes. I will mess up, the system will fail, I’ll have days when even this minor maintenance feels like too much, but it will be a fleeting moment. I’ve even built the whole thing to explicitly eliminate any way I could make myself feel bad about not doing “enough” on a prior day, so I can start at neutral with my system every morning.