Burnout

A couple weeks ago, I burned out pretty hard. I know this is a blog about privacy and security, but the fact is that burnout is something that is pretty common in today’s world no matter your socioeconomic status, lifestyle, interests, job, or whatever. And in fact, it seems to be that burnout is even more prevalent in the tech and privacy communities. There’s always more to do, and if we’re being honest privacy can sometimes seem impossible, which only exacerbates the burnout. So this week, I want to take a few minutes to address burnout.

What is Burnout?

Most of us instinctively know what burnout feels like. We feel tired, overwhelmed, beat down, like we just don’t want to do anything. My personal favorite, Merriam-Webster, defines burnout as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” Most of us are used to dealing with bursts of stress: traffic, running late somewhere, the store being out of your favorite coffee, so forth. But long-term stress can really wear us down. A project at work that demands overtime, a prolonged illness of a loved one, or really any negative event that just drags on can wear you down and chip away at you. And before you know it, you’re burned out.

Burnout presents in many ways. Exhaustion, lack of motivation, frustration, irritability to name some of the more common and mild ones. It could also include slipping job performance, increased drinking or use of sleeping aids, and even declining health. It’s not fun. In my own case, it resulted in me being unable to focus on The New Oil work, snapping at my partner a lot, and just feeling emotionally numb and exhausted. Your exact combination of symptoms may vary.

How to Handle Burnout

I am an incredibly busy person and I like it that way. Maybe I’m a workaholic or maybe I’m brainwashed by capitalism, but I seriously do like to be productive and do stuff. My whole life I’ve always felt like if I slept in past 9 am I was wasting the day. One time in college, I had a class cancel and two social commitments cancel, freeing up a massive five-hour block in my afternoon. I almost had a panic attack at first. I don’t do “free time.” Even my free time is planned on what game I’ll be playing or movie I’ll be watching.

This past week, Techlore shut down their communities in honor of Data Privacy Day. They encouraged people to step away, unwind, take a holiday, and not to fall for the marketing of other companies were capitalizing on the day. And honestly, I think they’re really onto something. The best way to handle burnout is to not get it in the first place. One way I’m able to sustain my own lifestyle of constant sprinting is because I’ve learned how to pace it and how to relax. I’m very careful to schedule time each night to unwind and watch mindless TV with a drink, and I’m also very good at recognizing when I’ve pushed too hard and my brain just can’t take anymore. An important thing I do that I would recommend to anyone is that I’ve build margin into my schedule: if I push too hard today and I don’t get something done, I have time to do it tomorrow. It might stress me out and get in the way of some free time, but it can still get done if it’s an emergency. And if it’s not, it slides off to the next available time slot.

Of course, I don’t expect everyone to go as much as I do. I’m able to sustain my pace because I love what I do and I never get tired of doing it. Tired? Yes. Tired of what I’m doing? Rarely. We can’t all be so lucky and even when we are we don’t all have the same capacity for stress or activity. However I do think it’s important for everyone to learn themselves and what their rhythm is. Learn to recognize when you’re getting too stressed, and learn how to find a rhythm that lets you sustain your lifestyle rather than doing a bunch at once, getting burned out, and then needing to crash and recover. And for the record, that doesn’t mean “learn how to go every single day.” Some people need their weekends. Some people need their cheat days. I can get by with about one total day off every few weeks. Not everyone is like that. “Finding your rhythm” isn’t about working every single day, it’s about finding a way to get what you need to get done without going through cycles of burnout and recovery. If you’re constantly burning out and using time off to recover, you’re doing it wrong. It shouldn’t be a flood followed by a drought, it should be a cycle of moderate rain and sunshine.

Having said that, burnout still sometimes happens. Over the Christmas week, we had an emergency project that was too good to pass up for our small, struggling business at work. We put in almost 40 hours in three days to make this project happen and get paid. I spent the next three days playing video games. Sometimes you have no choice but to push and deal with what’s in front of you and burnout is inevitable. But it shouldn’t be the norm.

When burnout strikes, the methods of dealing with it are as numerous as there are people, but I think I can sum it up into four words: take care of yourself. For some people that means making time to go for a walk or exercise. For some people that means meditation or a quiet night at home reading. For others that means binging video games or The Office. The point is to identify what de-stresses you and makes you happy and helps you unwind. I’m not a meditation person. It’s great, but getting me to sit still and clear my mind for any amount of time is rough. Meditation is not a de-stress for me, it just makes me feel like I’m wasting time when I could be tackling whatever thing is stressing me out. Video games are one of my hobbies. I can do that. Podcasts. I can do that. Watching Futurama for the ten millionth time. Definitely can do that. These are things I do when I need to unwind. And communication. I tell my partner that I’m burned out and I need some space to unwind by myself.

I wish I had something more concrete. As a data privacy educator, I’m used to being able to say “these are objective things.” “This solution is better here and that one is better there.” “Here’s the strengths and weaknesses of something.” But people don’t always function as cleanly as apps. And just as threat models vary from person to person, burnout threshold and coping mechanisms also vary. But I hope that this post has at least given you something to think about and helped you recognize some patterns and potential solutions in your own life. Things are not hopeless. But the battle is very much uphill. Be sure to take it one step at a time and give yourself plenty of margin to handle it all. You’re of no use to anyone else if you can’t take care of yourself.

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