It has been just over six months since I hit the rock-bottom point in my experience of burnout: when I had a panic attack… because a programming task came back with a list of small things that needed tweaking. I have made a lot of changes since then, and am—as I wrote earlier this year—not recovered but recovering. I am trying to write about this part of the process too: burnout itself is under-discussed in many ways, but the process of recovering from burnout is not something I have seen discussed at all.
Signs of recovery
So… what does recovery look like so far? And how does it compare with when I was not recovering?
1. I am sleeping my normal amount again.
For much of late last year I simply had to turn my alarm off and sleep as much as I slept… and that was a good 8½–9 hours. That was pretty unusual: as an adult, I have normally only needed 7–7½ hours. I tried setting an alarm for a bit earlier this year, but found I wasn’t ready for it yet. I kept finding myself unable to drag myself into consciousness most days. Other times, I would manage it, but then find myself exhausted the rest of the week. The tradeoff wasn’t worth it, so I went back to sleeping till I woke up—no alarm.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been returning to that previous baseline naturally. Still setting no alarm, I have been awakening after 7–7½ hours normally. Some of that is no doubt helped by the early sunrises of late spring, but I have also not been tired at all—I’m ready to go as soon as I wake up, and have the energy to get through the rest of the day and indeed the rest of the week.
This is a relatively quiet change, but it feels rather significant. When people have asked me about my productivity over the years, this is one of the things I’ve pointed to. It is far easier to get a lot done if you only need 7–7½ hours of sleep than if you need 8½–9. That’s an extra 7–14 hours a week!1 I honestly wasn’t sure if those hours were ever coming back. That they have is a huge relief, and it has been a huge boon to my ability to do the things I want to do.
2. I am reading again
One of the earliest signs that I was dealing with burnout was that I largely stopped reading books on theology, culture, ethics, etc. I didn’t stop completely, mind—but my pace slowed to a crawl, and I had a hard time maintaining momentum. From roughly June 2016 until the last month or so, reading anything more than popcorn-level fiction just felt like really hard work. I could rarely make myself get through anything longer than an essay.
I made myself do some anyway. With friends, I worked through Evolution and the Fall in 2017, and over the course of 2017 and 2018 I read most of Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order and a good chunk of each of Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn and Theology and the Mirror of Scripture by Kevin Vanhoozer and Daniel Treier. I started working through Augustine’s City of God with friends in 2018… and dropped out because I couldn’t make myself get to it.
I read roughly an order of magnitude less than what’s normal for me over those years. To describe this as “out of character” for me is to understate things rather a lot. By the same token, the return of my appetite for books means feeling normal and healthy again in a way that I can hardly put into words. This week I ordered three books—having dug into the first a fair bit via the ebook preview!—and read most of one of them the day it arrived.
3. I am excited about projects again
Keeping up any kind of momentum on personal projects over the course of 2018 was difficult at best. I mostly managed to keep New Rustacean going; Winning Slowly took a worse beating; and Mass Affection, sadly, stopped basically entirely. (Curiously, I’ve observed that my interest in playing video games at all seems to have waned and waxed in fairly direct proportion to my burnout.) My other outside interests all ground to a halt as well. I did no writing other than blogging, and a good deal of the blogging I did was publicly reflecting on burnout itself. My open-source software contributions were minimal: only what was absolutely necessary to keep those projects moving.
In the last 6 weeks, my interest in those projects has been reviving. I actually started working on in earnest a project I have been planning for ages—including by doing some work to clear the deck for it in my schedule. I’ll probably play a session of Mass Effect with Jaimie tonight and we’ll record and publish the corresponding another day this week. I’m more excited by and engaged with Winning Slowly than I have been since late 2016.2 I am, as you can see, blogging again (though, as promised, I intend to keep a relatively tight limit on this for the sake of actually making good progress on other projects).
Signs I’m Still Recovering
The net of all these steps forward is that I feel a good deal more myself than I have in a very long time. But there are also signs that I am not yet recovered. In particular, I continue to have less emotional reserves is normal for me. Grief comes bursting out at unexpected times—and, unfortunately, also in unhelpful ways. I find myself fighting hard not to let little annoyances blow up into big frustration or anger. I sometimes get hit by whole days of deep inability to think or concentrate. One day last week I simply had to take a sick day and spent a good chunk of it napping. (And I. do. not. take. naps.)
One aspect of this is that the original triggering stressors that pushed me from deeply (but not consciously) emotionally fatigued to burned out are largely out of the way. This means I have the mental and emotional space to decompress a bit. But when you’re as compressed as I was, decompressing means little bursts of emotional steam come jetting out at surprising moments and in surprising ways. Coupled with all those other symptoms, this is a good sign! It is also a bit hard, but I think that is to be expected.
Another aspect is that the process of unwinding and disentangling the mess that got me here in the first place is ongoing. Identifying, and reckoning with, the pains that I set aside for later until later became right now is a slow process. I had intended to block out some Saturday mornings this spring to go sit with a journal and work through some of those; I found myself too busy to do so. This has to change! It’s no good at all if I let even those good things keep me from dealing with these deeper-seated problems. Letting them go so long un-dealt-with is a major part of what got me here in the first place. I have bumped that up in priority for the months ahead, and have told people close to me so they can hold me to it.
More soon. (But not too soon! I have things to do that aren’t blogging! I have to keep reminding myself of this…)