The natural phases of recovery from burnout

In January 1, 2020, I was in a bit of a frenzy. The month before, I had quit my job. I explicitly didn’t line up another job after it. Instead, the plan was to reset my relationship with time, and with workism. This was difficult.

I think I did a pretty good job, though. And people have found it useful to hear, over the last year or so. So now I’m sharing it publicly.

In my experience, embracing the identity of “not having or wanting a job right now” comes in waves.

In the first wave, I kept the attitude that powered me at work. Everything was about tasks to be done, checklists to be completed, and general industriousness. In that vein — I renewed my drivers license (hard, because it was lost somewhere in Mexico and also I had moved states in the meantime), got some healthcare balls rolling, and cleared out many lingering email tasks. I started using Roam, audited a couple classes in Harvard, and became a coach for volunteers for Bernie Sanders.

In wave two, I could finally start getting down to the serious business of thumbing my nose at productivity. I wasn’t perfect at it: for one thing, Sarah would often nag me to “stop doing chores and start working in the Skyrim mines”. But I spent weeks mostly playing video games and reading magazines like Jewish Currents in cute cafes.

The idea here was to burn time, extravagantly and flagrantly. Show my body that productivity is not a core value by ostentaniously doing nothing of consequence. Get all the napping and mind-resetting out of the way.

I did end up doing some work-ish things. I was honored to be a coach for victory captains for the Bernie campaign. I audited a class on Milton (my fave) and another on Indian Philosophy. But mostly I toiled in the Skyrim mines.

In wave three, I thought I was ready for projects. I was wrong. I took on an enthusiastic, almost frantic searching for meaning.

I was blogging, running a book club, reading magazines, light coding, community organizing, rock climbing, tabletop roleplaying, learning about coffee, matchmaking, writing to friends, and more. Suddenly, I had too many commitments.

The feeling of “wow I’m so happy and empowered, the world is my oyster, I can do PROJECTS” turned into “oh god I took on too much why am I so stressed this whole adventure was about avoiding burnout”.

In wave four, I cut back on projects substantially. I experimented with adding and removing commitments, so that I could figure out something sustainable. It’s about curiousity and testing. What actually feels fun? What feels like a chore? What do you want your life to look like? (I slipped back into some phase two thinking for a while, which is fine).

By the end, I had begun to remember how to enjoy life more fully. I made time for walks in the outdoors, friends, and projects I actually wanted to do. Things were not great, but much better than they used to be.

(That is, until I decided to throw away all that newfound balance, and dive head-first into the 2020 election. But that’s a story for another day)

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