Burnout: When Something’s Gotta Go…

Over at Surviving and Thriving, proprietor Donna Freedman describes the exhaustion she feels after cramming too much work into too many hours for too many years:

But I’ve been on a dead run for years. I started out tired and the more things I take on, the more tired I become. Too often I meet deadlines at the expense of a personal life. Too often, writing is my life.

Don’t know how that woman does it, but somehow she manages to express exactly what’s crossing my mind, and she does it better than I can. Like Donna, I also am spending altogether too much of my life working (generally for very low pay) and altogether too little of it enjoying life. Last week’s mail meltdown, which led to 42  hours in front of the computer punctuated by a three-hour nap in the middle of the night, really was the watershed moment.

This stuff has gotta stop. I can’t keep on doing it. The overwork and the constant fatigue are starting to make me sick.

Yesterday at choir, just as we started to process up the center aisle at the start of the service, I suddenly had another dizzy spell. It was the third one to visit in a week or ten days, and by far the worst. I could barely walk, to say nothing of walking straight. People must have thought I was drunk! For a minute or so, I thought I was going to have to sit down, berobed, in one of the pews. That would have made a nice spectacle.

But no. Managed to stagger down the side aisle and out the side door with the assembled company, and I even managed to climb back up the steep staircase to the choir loft.  Don’t know whether the cause is stress, migraine (a headache usually ensues and lasts all day), an inner-ear problem, MS, impending stroke, or a brain tumor…though I’m inclined to suspect the first.

Ugh. Whatever’s behind that, the fact is that despite many resolves to quit it, I still spend way, way, way too many hours in front of a computer.

A fair quantity of that time is spent reading the seemingly endless supply of news sources. I do need to be up-to-date with current events, not only to write this blog but to perform the teaching and editorial work I do, and so I consider that activity, though unpaid, to be part of my various jobs. And occasionally, when my brain starts to fry, I’ll take a break at my favorite Mah Jongg site or fill in the USA Today crossword. That time, too, is spent staring into a computer screen—which is to say, rest breaks do not take me away from the computer. Consequently, I can easily spend ten or twelve hours without getting up from my desk. Some days (and nights) I spend a lot more hours than that parked in front of Macintosh hardware.

So it occurred to me that if I rationed the number of hours spent online, I’d be forced to focus on work and not sit on my fanny nonstop. And if the computer were actually turned off, I would get up and do something else. Maybe I’d even leave the house and reacquaint myself with the out of doors.

The most likely day for that is Saturday. There really is no reason for me to have to work on the weekends (except that the magazine writing students have papers due on Fridays…next semester, we’ll be changing that). Another possibility is Wednesday afternoon. I have choir on Wednesday evening. Why can’t I take off the entire afternoon, rather than working through the dinner hour and then chasing out the door like a scared rabbit and arriving at rehearsal barely on time or late? Usually I end up fixing dinner after I get home—around 9:30 at night—which means I don’t get to bed before 11. If I sit back down to the computer after dinner, it’ll be after midnight before I crawl into bed.

Work expands to fill the time available.

But it may shrink to fit time available, if the time available is reduced.

This revelation came to me when I decided to take the dog for a walk at 5:00 a.m. (after dawn in these parts) instead of plopping down in front of the computer, as I habitually do. Walking the dog and then taking even more time to make the bed, shower, and brush my teeth did not cause any less work to happen during the day than I would have accomplished had I started stumbled to the computer the minute I rolled out of the sack. I actually got the same amount of work done—maybe even more. And in the meantime, I got a little bit of exercise and started the day refreshed.

Would the workload compress if a day or a day and a half were taken away from time spent at the computer?

Stay tuned—we shall see! Meanwhile, tell me…what do you do to control malignant work overload?

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frugalscholar April 24, 2012 at 7:46 am

I take walks.

I get on the computer too early, but intend to start later in the day–starting tomorrow!.

I read your comments over on S and T: Wow!

And do you really need to keep up with all the news? It’s a losing battle and stress-inducing.

funny April 25, 2012 at 7:30 am

Well, I’m with Donna: it feels as though at least having an overview of current frolics & fiascos is a key part of what I do as an editor & teacher. Also, I’m a bit of a news junkie…actually read the NY Times in hard copy, if you can imagine. Much of it is, though, admittedly stress-inducing, partly because news media exploit sturm und drang and partly because yellow journalism has gone mainstream.

Yesterday, in fact, my students were talking about that very subject, in discussing whether there’s a qualitative difference between “folk heroes,” among whom our young speaker included sports figures, of the 1930s vs those of the early 21st century. As inexperienced as this bunch is, they actually were able to discern a difference in the nature and content of news reports and opinion coverage of people like, say, Babe Ruth and Jesse Owens, and today’s sports heroes. It’s the nature of the coverage we get today that’s so uniformly angst-inducing.

eemusings April 27, 2012 at 11:08 pm

I too need to keep up with news and media – not just for personal reasons but for work. I enjoy it but at times it’s a chore.

Another Scholar April 24, 2012 at 8:38 am

Also, didn’t you recently start a SECOND blog about your life as a schoolmarm? You could drop that.

funny April 25, 2012 at 7:31 am

Yup. Don’t write there often, though — not nearly often enough. At this point I add a post when I have time…which, as you can see, has not been recently. :roll:

Donna Freedman April 24, 2012 at 9:55 am

Thanks for the link. I too have found that if I have a relatively limited amount of time the job still gets done. That’s because far too much of my computer time is spent reading other blogs and on news sites.
But it *is* necessary, if I am to write topically and also to come up with ideas based on what’s going on in the PF blogosphere. For example, suppose four or five respected bloggers all suddenly confess their inability to max out a Roth IRA — maybe I’ll write about why an IRA is important or some sneaky ways to increase savings to said account.
But too many hours spent in front of the computer exhausts us. We’re so tired that we have trouble finishing the writing we need to do. So we’re up late but wake up with the sun and are tired all day. Or we sleep in, thus getting a late start and must stay up late to finish.
Balance is what I’m seeking, and I may yet find it. Not today, though. Tomorrow’s not looking good either.

Budget Glamorous April 24, 2012 at 4:18 pm

I don’t know. I’m about as good at dealing with it as you are, lol. When I was in grad school I also worked for a nonprofit organization. Between that, the two classes I taught for the university, my own classes and a kid, I ran myself ragged. I dropped the nonprofit for a number of reasons, but the main one was the place was just too toxic. Toxic people, toxic clients, hazardous all the way around. I was really amazed at how much better I felt in the few days after I had left the place!

It sounds like you’ve identified something similar — a toxic client. Any other toxins you can purge?

I’ve also noticed I do better if I purposely set aside even 30 minutes for the things you’ve mentioned — quick tidying of something, reading pieces of the newspaper, watering seedlings, whatever. Something that doesn’t really have anything to do with work, but makes me feel like other normal life stuff can happen.

You’ve also identified something else I’ve noticed but haven’t managed to incorporate for myself — brief exercise, preferably out of doors. A walk around the neighborhood is one of those things that truly can be fit into the day, and as you’ve noted, it does make a difference. I’m going to start doing this for myself and see if I notice even a slight change. After all, motivation tends to snowball, so if this works, maybe I’ll haul my ass into an actual gym next!

Evan April 24, 2012 at 7:53 pm

I deal with it as well as you lol if I have the time I fill it “working” or at least that is what I tell myself (as I checked my various email accounts 3 times between this post and commenting).

I think it is time for both you and I to check out some efficiency books (but who has time to read them…pun intended lol)

funny April 25, 2012 at 7:40 am

@ Donna, Budget Glamorous, & Evan: Amen and yea verily.

It’s the balance part that’s so difficult. Love Evan’s remark…here’s our problem: NONE OF US HAS TIME TO FIGURE OUT HOW THE HECK TO COPE WITH THIS!

Now there’s an insight.

We probably need to find ways to give ourselves vacations from most of the tasks that fill our lives every day. That’s not so easy when you’re self-employed: you don’t get vacation pay. Step away from the computer and everything you’ve built withers, like a potted plant that you forgot to water on a 110-degree day. But…if the issue is that we don’t have time to think through how to get a grip on our lives, then clearly some part of the solution is to take that time, and to do it before stress and overwork make us sick.

@ Budget Glamorous: Good insight about the toxic client. We dumped him yesterday. Tina and I are both feeling a lot better about it. We both went from rage to relief in about an hour.

Firing the guy meant the loss of an $8900 account. However…it was sooo worth it!

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