I’ve had burnout on the brain lately, because the topic is everywhere: in my inbox, in the books I’m reading, in conversations with friends.
A few days ago, I recorded a podcast with Elizabeth Foss for her Restore Workshop, which begins today. When I say I want to be Elizabeth when I grow up, I’m only kind of kidding—even though our lives are decidedly different. She’s Catholic; I am not. She’s devoted to homeschooling; I’m ambivalent; She has ten kids (and a grandchild!); I only have four. But she is so wise, and I hope to grow into that kind of wisdom one day.
The Restore Workshop focuses on burnout, or more precisely, recovering from it. Elizabeth began by asking about a time where I felt burnt out, depleted, and overwhelmed. She said she assumed I’d had a time like that. Of course I have—haven’t we all?
I’ve experienced circumstantial burnout: I’ve gone to bed a weepy mess because I didn’t want to face another impossible day at work. I’ve had whole seasons when the intense mothering was just too much. There have been whole years when I felt pushed to the very edge—when I consistently lacked the rest I needed.
And there have been times I brought burnout on myself: when I pushed too hard, took on too much; when I literally made myself sick with my own unrelenting drive.
Just a few weeks ago, I was flirting with burnout of my own making: I pushed myself a little too hard, and I felt myself teetering on the edge between normal tired and I-need-to-read-for-5-days-straight-to-get-over-this tired. I recognized this in time (that wasn’t always the case) and pulled back, and fast.
I don’t love using the word balance in the work/life conversation because it implies that things should be equal, like on a see-saw, or a scale. That’s not the kind of balance most people seek. But I do need to stay balanced in another sense: I need to stay on my feet, metaphorically speaking. Burning out is like falling down, and it’s a lot easier to just stay upright than it is to get back up after you wipe out.
For me, wiping out looks like overwhelmed in every possible way. I’m hurried, frantic, snappish. Things that usually don’t bother me (like cluttered kitchen counters, or the sound of a kid raking through the LEGO bucket) make me crazy. I have no grace for myself or anyone else.
When I fall down, I can’t just bounce back up. It takes days to recover.
I’ve finally internalized the obvious lesson: the easiest way to deal with burnout is to avoid it in the first place.
I just finished reading The Fringe Hours, which was just released yesterday. I know Jessica from her blog and a little bit from real life, and I enjoyed getting her perspective in book-length form. The book’s subtitle is making time for you: its focus is how and why to create “me time” in your life. The “fringe” hours are those limited pieces of time that appear on the margins of a day, but that’s not all. Fringe is also used to make a garment more beautiful, and fringe hour pursuits do the same for life.
I imagine two types of people will read this book: the kind to whom the hows and whys of “me time” are a revelation, and the kind who don’t need any convincing because they’re already making plenty of time for themselves.
Many of Jessica’s tips and insights are second nature to me now, but that wasn’t always the case. It took me a long time—and a lot of falling down—to finally absorb the important lesson that I am not last. My hope is that The Fringe Hours will smooth the path for other women. This isn’t a lesson anyone wants to learn the hard way!
I don’t flirt with burnout much anymore. I’ve learned how to keep clear of the edge, even if my biggest challenge remains actually doing those things.
When Elizabeth and I talked, she asked for my go-to practices that bring a sense of calm and rest to days—or a season—that might leave me prone to burnout and depletion. After years of honing, these are my essential practices to avoid burnout in an age of busyness:
• Embrace routine. I’ve built regular rhythms of work and rest into my days, weeks, seasons. I stop to read every day at 2:00 (which, admittedly, is often work-related—but it doesn’t feel like it) and at bedtime. I walk the dog to the park. Will and I drink tea or wine and debrief the day after bedtime.
• Take the long view. Because my schedules for work and play vary so much from day to day, I need to plan in weeks, not hours.
• Get out of my head. I often feel overwhelmed … until I get my to-do list out of my head and down on paper. It’s much more manageable when it’s written down.
• Work hard, rest well. I work when I’m supposed to be working, and I rest when I’m supposed to be resting.
• Screen-free rest. It took me a long time to come to this personal rule. Because so much of my work takes place behind a screen, I need a clean break when it’s time to rest. When I’m behind the computer, it’s too easy for me to pop open my email to do one more thing. My eyes need the break, too.
• Plan to relax. I have a standing monthly massage appointment. It’s already paid for; I just need to show up. This felt really indulgent when I first signed up last year, but since I have an old sports injury and I type too much, it makes a huge difference to how I feel.
• Simplify. If I have a tough week, or a busy month, we eat really simple foods. We schedule extra nights at home. We might even skip a few kids’ activities.
• Real food matters. I’m a grouch when I don’t eat protein, and sugar is always bad news for me.
• Consider opportunity cost. When I’m thinking about staying up late to finish a project, or writing when I’m supposed to be resting, I ask myself what it’s going to cost me. Then I may go ahead and stay up late anyway—but I usually don’t.
• Get help. If we have a busy season, we book our regular sitter for more hours (and have her do the grocery shopping), or get someone to clean the house. Sometimes I need a different kind of “help,” like making the time to catch up with an old friend even though I feel like I don’t have the time.
Am I the only one who has a history of flirting with burnout, or just plain falling down? What are your strategies for avoiding it? How do you step back from the edge?