My First Burnout of 2021

... And what I'm going to do about it.

Hello, how’s it going?
The last week of January was a really tough one for me. Not for any particular reason, I just couldn’t find the will to do most of the things that I wanted to be doing. I would finish work and want nothing more than to just stop, I had no desire at all to write, learn or even play- I felt as though I wanted to shut myself away for a bit. I tried to push myself on but my efforts were pretty ineffective, and that made me feel like I was failing which led me to spiral further downwards.
I found that I was disgusted with myself for falling off the horse, but I didn’t have the energy or even the desire to get back on it. I started to get uncharacteristically irritable, too. One distinct example is when I was recording the latest episode of Top Deck Insight, the Magic: The Gathering podcast which I host, and I snapped more than once at my co-hosts for no good reason. I’d even receive IM’s at work and my first reaction would be anger and annoyance at having been disturbed.
“I’d be able to focus and catch up on everything, if everyone would just leave me alone!” I thought, passing the buck and blaming the people around me for what I was perceiving to be my lack of discipline.
I had burned out. It’s a feeling that I think we’re all familiar with. In fact, I’m all too familiar with burnout myself, and I’m surprised that it took me so long to figure out that that’s what was happening to me. The moment that the penny dropped for me was when I was watching this YouTube video by HeyShadyLady about ‘How to Get Started on Twitch in 2021’ (which is something that I’m considering) and she gave some advice about recognising and dealing with burnout. Only then did I realise that her list of signs of burnout perfectly aligned with my recent behaviour.
I spent the rest of last week resting and recuperating, and also talking to my mentors, leaders and peers exploring the topic of burnout. Over the course of the week I went through a real journey, and I learned a lot about how to avoid burnout, but also how to deal with it if it does hit you. I want to share that journey with you today. I drew insight from a lot of different sources of wisdom, and so I’m sure that there will be something thought-provoking for you in this story.

Chapter One — Killing It

I was killing it in January. It was the best month that I’ve had in a long time. I woke up on time, studied, meditated, wrote and did more yoga than any other month last year. I also started a podcast and started getting interested in Chess. My typical day would look something like this:
  • Wake up at 7am, do morning yoga, get ready, write journal entry.
  • 1 hour of web development learning while eating breakfast.
  • 1 hour to focus on the most important thing on my work to-do list that day.
  • grab coffee, process emails, take a break to meditate.
  • work until lunch, then during my lunch break I’d work out, then eat.
  • work until 5. After that, write for 60–90 minutes
  • Shut down my laptop, get up and do chores around the flat until about 7pm when I’d make dinner, listening to an audiobook all the while.
  • After dinner, get ready for bed.
  • By 8.30pm I’m ready for bed, sitting in the living room reading Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere. I do this until I’m tired, and then I go to sleep.
At the end of a day like this, sitting on the sofa reading fantasy, having had a really productive day… I would feel so great. At weekends I would play Magic: The Gathering. Chess kind of just slotted into the gaps of my weekdays. I felt like I was really on a roll, I was making a little bit of progress towards each of my goals, every day. I had a good mix of work, learning, fitness and play. Balance is the recipe for avoiding burnout, right? So all I need to do is sit back, enjoy the process of day after day after day, and over time I’ll move closer to my goals. It’s simple, right?

Chapter Two — Too Close to the Sun

Like foolish Icarus of Greek Mythology, who flew too close to the sun with wings made of feather and wax and was surprised when he found himself falling instead of flying, I too could not immediately see the error in my ways as I plummeted towards my (figurative, in my case) doom. However, having reflected upon it, I’m able to identify a number of inaccuracies in my master plan- let’s go through them and criticise what I thought was the best month I’d ever had, so that you might learn from my mistakes.
First off, I believed that by having a similar structure to each day, it would be easier for me to turn my entire day into a chain of habits, which I didn’t have to think about doing, and didn’t require willpower to start. Even now I can see the sound logic in this, but I didn’t take into account the one thing that spoils this idea. The thing that eats away at the sanity of all. The destroyer of wills.
Pandemic Lockdown.
Where I live in the UK, I can only go outside to exercise or to get groceries. Since I’m pretty on top of my monthly grocery requirements and I have a set of cables at home that I use to exercise, I don’t have much reason to go outside… well, ever…
Speaking to one of my mentors, I realised that with things the way that they are, we have no ‘landmarks’ as the months go by. No major events, big birthdays, get-togethers, unmissable new movies. The months homogenise into one big lockdown blur, and this erodes our sanity for reasons that I can’t fully define but I’m sure that you understand and have probably felt yourself. Well, structuring my days to be more or less the same, every day, makes this effect so much worse. The lack of variety in my life was sucking the energy out of me. There was less to think about, true. But there was also less to think about. Less to get excited about.
My second error seems quite obvious in hindsight. Two of the activities that I tried to do a little bit of, every day, were software development and writing. Doing these two things in 30–60 minute chunks is really inefficient. On the one hand, I am making a little progress every day and that will add up, but on the other hand I’m doing so much context switching that the amount of actual progress that I make on each of these projects takes more time that it would if I just did it all in one chunk. Let me illustrate further: Let’s say I do 60 minutes of coding for 5 days a week. That’s 5 hours of coding. Now, having spoken to my software-dev mentor, I think it’s reasonable to assume that you could make the same progress in one 3 and a half hour chunk of coding, than in 5 1-hour chunks. This is because by spending longer amounts of time on one thing, you’re able to induce a state of flow, where you’re at your most productive and your energy levels aren’t even being depleted- in my experience, a few hours of non-stop working in the flow state is energising, and fires you up for your next to-do.
You’ve probably felt it too, you know that feeling when you get really into cleaning something? That’s flow. Writing, coding, cleaning, exercise. These are all activities that can induce flow, and switching away from an activity just as you’re getting into it means that you miss out on your peak performance. Case in point- I’ve just written 1400 words in 70 minutes. Usually, I can output 800 words worth of good writing in 60 minutes, so this is a marked improvement. Thanks, flow-state.
And now we move on to my final fatal error, playing too hard. My late evenings mostly comprised of Magic: The Gathering or Chess, and I thought that since these are games, they count as “winding down” and that’s not incorrect, they can be a tool for relaxation… but not the way that I was doing them.
When I play MTG, I’m constantly assessing my play for weaknesses, taking careful note of mistakes, recording my matchups to identify what tactics I struggle against. I watch MTG content on Twitch and YouTube but I approach this content the same way that I’d approach a training course on web development, or a webinar on improving your writing. I do the same thing with Chess. Being a newer player I spend my play-time memorising new openings, analysing my past games with a chess engine to see where I went wrong. Yes, they’re games, but I treat them like they’re work. I thought that I was winding down by engaging in these hobbies but in fact I was piling on more mental exhaustion. The lesson here is that it’s not about what you do, but how you do it. Just because you love what you’re doing doesn’t mean that you can’t get burned out doing it.
“Just because you love what you’re doing doesn’t mean that you can’t get burned out doing it.”

Chapter Three — Not Insane

Memes are without doubt the greatest source of wisdom in the 21st century, so let’s turn to one now to help us decide what to do now that we’ve identified the many things that I was doing wrong.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” — Albert Einstein
I’ll be honest about the fact that I considered just doing the same thing again after I recovered from my burnout. “It was working” I thought “So I’ll try it again and if I burn out again, I’ll pick myself up and keep trying. Eventually I’ll get better, stronger, more resilient- and I won’t burn out”.
We all suffer from ‘protagonist syndrome’, and because we’re the main character of our own story, it’s very common for us to over-estimate our strength. I bet you’ve done it, even if you don’t want to admit it. I won’t put it delicately- this is foolish. You’re throwing yourself against a brick wall and eventually the wall will give, yes, but at what cost? Take a step back, reassess the situation, make a new plan then try again. I’m all for picking yourself back up and trying again when you fail, but doing the same thing over and over is doing it the unnecessarily hard way, and it’s completely lacking in compassion for yourself.
The most common piece of advice that you’ll receive when you’re burning out is “make a list of all of your projects, rank them in order of importance, and eliminate a number at the bottom” and you know what? I understand this. This is the simplest, most effective way to reduce the amount of work on your plate. It forces you to make hard decisions about what’s most important to you and it helps you to define where your priorities really are. The extra time that you recoup from this activity is to be spent on purposeful, meaningful, guilt-free rest- so that you don’t burn out again.
I really do understand the power behind that idea. But I don’t accept it.
“I don’t want to reduce my workload, I want to increase my capacity.”
I don’t want to give up on any of my projects, I want to have the strength and the discipline to do them all without burning out. I don’t want to reduce my workload, I want to increase my capacity. So, to model the problem, I have x amount of things to do already, 0 additional time, and now I have to find space in my schedule to add proper rest and recuperation in, to avoid burning out again. It was a real puzzler for me to begin with but I think that I found an elegant, simple solution that works.

Chapter Four — A New Hope

Context. Themed. Days.
Hear me out.
Rather than trying to do a little bit of everything, each day, my plan going forward is going to be to map out a “context-theme” for each day. For example, the theme of today’s context is writing. I’ve written in the morning, and the evening, and I’ve focused on tasks at work that keep me in this context, like mentoring sessions, attending webinars, any task that lets me write in prose in some way. On another day, the context-theme will be coding and data analysis, so I’ll do web dev stuff in the morning and evening, and focus on tasks at work that are data-analysis heavy. Other days will be focused on organisation (of mind, body, household and workload). One day might be MTG and Chess themed, and on those days I might also schedule podcast planning and prep, and consider streaming or filming videos. “Content creation” themed days, I guess you could say.
I’m excited about this plan because it ticks so many boxes. By staying in a context-theme all day I’m hoping that I’ll be able to induce the flow state more frequently and for longer stretches of time. I’ll also feel, on a day-to-day basis, that my life has more variety because each day will be different than the last. My hope is that by using this new system, I’ll be able to make the same amount of (if not more) progress in less actual time because I’ll be working more efficiently if I’m not switching context constantly. That will allow me to have an entire day of my week where my “context-theme” is winding down, resting, recuperating. I’ll be able to do all of the things that I want to do whilst also making time for purposeful rest, so I won’t run myself into the ground.
Well, that’s the plan, at least. I’ll make another honest assessment of how it’s gone some time soon, and I am prepared to “slash the ranks” of my projects if I’m still feeling burned out, but I do feel very optimistic about this new method. It feels to me like a solution that’s compassionate to myself, without having to give up something that I love.
If you have any thoughts on burnout, you need help figuring it out or you have ideas that I’ve missed, please let me know!