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Burnout (and what to do about it) by Chris Peterson SM '13

learning how to recharge a low battery

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

a) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

b) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and

c) reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

– 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (WHO 2019)

I’ve been a bit absent from the blogs lately. It’s not from a lack of ideas of things to blog about: my “blog backlog” in Trello is stacked deep with important things to write about. And, with the summer, I have more time: not spare time, but enough time that I should, in principle, be able to post more without working over time. The problem seems to be a lack of executive functioning: a (relative) inability to follow-through on the idea, i.e. to do what I’m doing right now,01 So how am I able to write this blog post, the one you're reading at the moment? It appears that blogging about not being able to blog somehow sidesteps the paralytic loop. I'm not sure how that works, but I'm just grateful it's working. which is just open WordPress and write.

If you read my blog on decision fatigue last November, you know that my metacognitive battery has been depleted for several months. There’s a lot of reasons, professional and personal, why that’s been the case. At this point, I’ve been able to recognize my symptoms as consistent with a mild case of burnout, felt most acutely along the definitional dimensions of a) and c) above. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt burned out in a (metaphorically) clinical way, so it’s easier to tell what’s happening and know what I need to do (and what I need to stop doing, which I’ll get to in a bit).

One thing I’ve learned about burnout is that it’s as much emotionally challenging as anything else. Like many of my colleagues, and like many students/faculty/staff at MIT, I take pride in my own high capacity and drive for work. Being able to work hard, at a high volume, over sustained periods of time, is part of my identity; admitting, even to myself,02 Fortunately, the general degradation of my metacognitive skills includes the prudence to not admit to this publicly, to your benefit, dear reader. that there is a limit to that is rough. But it’s also important.

In my decision fatigue post, I wrote:

The thing is, it’s usually easier to tell when your body is injured or exhausted, because it hurts and it can’t do things it usually can. When I went to the gym this morning and couldn’t finish my warmups because I was so physically tired from the last week, that was a sign that I shouldn’t do any more deadlifts, because my body was too tired to do them safely or well. After some difficulty with overtraining, I’ve learned to become better at listening to my body; I’m trying to become better about listening to my brain when it, too, hurts or can’t do things it usually can.

When I’m burned out, what it ‘sounds like’ to my brain and my body is that I have a hard time getting started on work-related[/note] tasks, projects, initiatives,03 And, if it's really bad, non-work-related, which sometimes happens too. even those that I genuinely am excited about and interested in. Everyone has problems with the drudgery of work, but burnout, for me, is when there are things you really want to do but can’t bring yourself to begin. Again, not because you don’t have the time, but because, as my grandpa likes to say, your get-up-and-go has got-up-and-went.

The last time I felt like this was summer 2017. I had been working too hard for too long, drinking too much caffeine for too long, and had a nasty, weeks-long mystery-bout of heartburn-style symptoms that had left me underslept and underfed. So, at the relative last-minute, I took 8 days off and flew west, traveling without my laptop for maybe the first time in my working life. I landed in Utah, drove through Idaho into Wyoming and Yellowstone, then up to Montana to visit Ceri, back to Idaho to see the eclipse, out to Glacier for a day hike, out to Manson, WA to visit my friend Kate, then down to Portland to see my old roommate and fly home.

As I write it, it sounds exhausting, but it was one of the most restful experiences of my life because I didn’t do any work. I brought a bunch of books and didn’t drink any caffeine. I spent every day basically trying to bore myself silly: I would get up and read until I was bored of reading, then wander around aimlessly, maybe practice spinning with my LED dragon staff. The eclipse and the hiking and the visits were basically spur-of-the-moment: little jagged edges of my executive functioning reasserting itself as an active force in my life; an ability to initiate things waking up from a deep coma. Basically, turning the router off and on again, but for my ability to do things.

My goal over the next few weeks is to do that again. Right now, I’m at nerd camp, which isn’t exactly restful (and I’m still working remotely, this blog post included), but is re-centering, and a good change of activity. Next week, I’ll try to take a good solid week of hard vacation. Later in July, I’ll replicate that pattern, with a week at IMO, and then some time in Europe and back home where my goal will be to become as bored as possible — to restore my battery to full capacity.


One reason I’m blogging this, beyond just the desire to blog something, anything, after what feels like a long time away, is I hope to illustrate and validate what some of you reading this may be feeling without the same words or framework for understanding it. Last night, I was talking with one of the junior counselors at my nerd camp, who just finished her freshman year at Taco Bell Architecture University in Palo Alto. She was describing a very similar set of symptoms: the same intellectual curiosity and excitement they’d always had, but a decreased ability to follow through. We talked a lot about my own experience with burnout and the ways her symptoms were similar or different from my own.

I can’t emphasize this enough: you are not a brain in a vat put on the earth to do math at things in economically productive ways. That may be one of the things you choose to do with your time, and if you do, then go for it! But don’t forget to take the time you need to rest and recover, both for your own future productivity (as in the case of a narrow professional condition like burnout), and, more importantly, for the rest of your life.

That’s it. That’s the blog post. Here’s a double rainbow:

  1. So how am I able to write this blog post, the one you're reading at the moment? It appears that blogging about not being able to blog somehow sidesteps the paralytic loop. I'm not sure how that works, but I'm just grateful it's working. back to text
  2. Fortunately, the general degradation of my metacognitive skills includes the prudence to not admit to this publicly, to your benefit, dear reader. back to text
  3. And, if it's really bad, non-work-related, which sometimes happens too. back to text