A millennial's guide to overcoming burnout
I recently came across this tweet from someone on Twitter who expressed a core frustration I’ve felt throughout 2019:
I always wake up on Saturday morning with the best intentions. Gonna write that thing. Read that book. Start that project.— Kyle Shevlin (@kyleshevlin) November 9, 2019
Almost inevitably I spend hours binging YouTube and video games instead. Sometimes I can’t tell if it’s because I need a break or it’s self sabotage. 🤔
In the replies, most everyone encouraged Kyle to take a break, take care of himself, etc.
But there is an element of self-sabotage that Kyle is expressing in his original tweet. He knows that it is going to take some hard work outside of his day job to accomplish personal goals, but he regularly avoids engaging in these tasks. He even acknowledges that fear of failure is a likely culprit blocking his path to success:
It’s surprising to me that so few have taken notice of the “self sabotage” part. I meant it.— Kyle Shevlin (@kyleshevlin) November 10, 2019
I know what I need to do to take my work/life to the next level, but it is a _lot_ of work, and maybe my subconscious sees never starting as better/easier than failing.
Like Kyle, I enjoy working on projects outside of my day job. So why has this year been such a struggle? I have a lot of ideas, but my creative energy comes and goes in fits and starts. I overthink the task at hand or struggle to clearly define it in the first place. This causes anxiety, circling thoughts, and before I know it I’m sucked into a 3-hour YouTube binge spiral.
Sarah Von Bargain, the blogger behind Yes and Yes sums it up nicely:
The term 'self-care' has given us a sneaky, clever umbrella term to huddle under while we engage in some of our least-healthy tendencies.
I personally chalked it up to “creative burnout” and even wrote a post about how I’m working through it. But as I've done some more introspection, I realized my problem is more existential in nature.
“The hustle” and “self-care” #
Let’s begin by exploring our cultural obsession with these two seemingly opposite concepts: the hustle and self-care.
The hustle is a cultural phenomenon that glorifies work and ambition as a lifestyle. Hustle culture is especially popular among millennials and technology professionals, who have grown up amidst the rise of the gig economy and Facebook's "move fast and break things" mentality.
In 2014, I started pursuing my own side hustle, aka earning money by working on projects outside my main source of income. For two years, I provided graphic design services outside of my 9-5 job. My side hustle felt amazing; it provided me with a sense of purpose when I needed it most. And by all definitions, it was successful. In 2018 I landed a full-time position as a designer and software developer at a tech startup. My side hustle catapulted me into a high-paying, in-demand career.
And then there is the other side of the same coin: self-care. Self-care is any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health. Rowena Tsai is a YouTuber who makes videos on the topic of self-care. She encourages viewers to take care of themselves through tidying up, cooking healthy meals, reading, meditating, etc. by sharing her own self-care routines within the context of her life as a millennial woman living in New York City.
But despite Rowena's focus on self-care, she is not immune to hustle culture. In addition to the content she makes for her personal YouTube channel, she also works full-time for Beauty Within, another channel that makes skincare and beauty-related content. She regularly admits to going into the office early in the morning and leaving after 7 pm. Rowena appears to be a prime example of someone who has found her creative groove and can navigate the tricky balance between self-care and the hustle. With this careful balance, she consistently posts a video every Thursday to her 200,000+ subscribers.
This isn’t working for me #
On the surface, it appears the solution to Kyle and mine’s self-sabotaging behavior would be to learn how to balance hard work and ambition with nourishing self-care activities, i.e. “The key to the hustle is self-care.” Logically, by substituting our unproductive YouTube binge-sessions with exercise and deleting instagram from our phone to keep ourselves from the mindless scrolling, our problem will be solved.
But what if I told you that I’ve mostly eliminated bad habits from my life? Because I have. I exercise vigorously 3-4 times each week. I cook healthy food. I volunteer. I listen to audio books instead of scrolling social media. I pretty much stopped drinking. And even though I could be the poster-child for type-A millennials addicted to productivity porn, for the past year I’ve found myself at a standstill, unable to make any meaningful progress on creative projects I care about.
And I’m frustrated. I’m also angry. Angry because I believed all of the over-simplified bullshit about how working hard and taking care of myself would be the key to happiness. For a full year I worked and made goals and did face masks and drank water, all the while thinking to myself “this is the path to fulfillment.” I thought I could be the woman who hustles and self-cares her way into the most balanced and wildly successful existence.
Instead, I’m ending the year barely hanging on, drained and exhausted. It seems my flavor of burnout is a symptom of my sheer frustration with the never-ending hamster wheel that is capitalism and the hyper-techno bubble I’ve surrounded myself with in recent years. Ultimately, I’m tired of measuring my value as a person against my work output.
Productivity is a Cult #
When I started digging deeper into my burnout, I realized that much of my frustration stems from the exhaustion I feel from always trying to be productive. I read a lot of articles about how to be more productive, i.e. how to get more done in less time without multitasking, tips to to be more efficient etc. In many ways, this content fits within my minimalist philosophy on life and work—focus on what matters and eliminate the rest.
But at a certain point, I started to feel a diminishing return from all the time I spent fussing over efficiency.
In fact, I began to see all of my “hustle” and “self-care” related activities as nothing more than items on my to-do list that I demanded of myself to satiate an unsatisfiable status-monster.
This exact phenomenon was the topic of discussion in one of my favorite articles of 2019, which attempts to untangle the millennial obsession with work through an analysis of the Protestant influence on capitalism. I deeply resonate with author Will Hana's of the word 'adulting':
This would suggest that adulthood is not a state, but rather a list of tasks and responsibilities. It’s not that I am an adult, instead, to qualify for the descriptor, I must constantly be doing certain things.
Hana goes on to describe the implications of this type of means-end reasoning.
Means-ends reasoning has me conclude that when I meditate, do my groceries or even register to vote, I am doing so only to satisfy some distant goal other than the gratifying qualities contained within the processes themselves. It is not my duty to self-care, nutrition or civic engagement that compels me to engage in those activities, but rather my duty to success in all its obscurity.
This article helped me to see productivity and many of its self-help cousins for what they really are — a cult, or rather "a secular religion of efficiency."
A secular religion of efficiency has emerged out of the annals of modern thought and instilled an ascetic behaviour to our productive social lives. The extent to which one submits to the worship of this religion is a crucial question in the reflective process necessary in developing self-constructed agency. One’s life is their time, so the way we choose to define that time is crucial. A quiet rejection of the demands of efficient productivity for the sake of developing our more human traits may be a good point of departure.
This final statement offers us, me, a different path forward. That by rejecting the demands of productivity and focusing on compassion, spirituality, we are making the choice to be free from the tyranny of efficiency.
Productivity does not equal creativity #
After making a conscious decision to reject productivity, an unwelcome barrage of questions entered my psyche: Does this mean I'm a lazy and unambitious person now? Have I lost my edge? Is working toward personal goals a distraction from developing more human traits?
The answer to all of those questions is... no. Not at all. I realized that I have a tendency to conflate productivity with creativity. They are not the same! Writer David Kadavy notes the difference:
Open loops are all of those things that you’ve been thinking about, but that you haven’t done anything about.
With traditional productivity, open loops are a big problem. You can’t think about the important things in life if you’re busy thinking about the unimportant things.
If you’re thinking to yourself that you need to buy cat food, but you aren’t doing it, you have an open loop.
Open loops are a problem in traditional productivity, but creative productivity is a different story.
Gem of a thought from a convo with @kadavy I can’t get out of my head:— Tiago Forte (@fortelabs) September 17, 2019
With productivity, open loops are the enemy and should be closed ASAP
With creativity, open loops are precious gifts, incubating solutions to creative problems in the background
It doesn’t do you any good to have an open loop about buying cat food. It does a lot of good to have open loops for your toughest creative problems.
You put a question in your mind, and your subconscious mind starts working on it. The process is called incubation.
So, I’m trying this new thing where I don’t force productivity and efficiency into every aspect of my life. Usually, I rush writing an article like this. But this time, I let the ideas marinate. I wrote this article over the course of several weeks, coming back to the page every few days with more clarity and substance. In addition, for the time being, I replaced my non-fiction books with fiction titles. Thus far, I’m enjoying sinking into this distant but familiar space of wonder and inspiration.
Jocelyn K Glei, host of the podcast Hurry Slowly, has taken a similar approach. She recently removed the word “productivity” from her podcast intro and description, opting to focus on a more spiritual and wholehearted approach to work and creativity.
What I’ve learned in 2019 is that being productive doesn’t add up to a meaningful or happy life. Who cares if you’ve reached “Inbox Zero” every day if you are haunted by the feeling that life is passing you by?
Ryan Holiday, author of Stillness is the Key, puts it another way:
Most people are way too obsessed with productivity and optimization. They want to know all the tools a successful writer or an artist uses because they think this is what makes these individuals so great. In reality, they are great because they love what they do and they have something they’re trying to say.
Ah, thank you Ryan Holiday. Now, comes the hard part: what do I love and what am I trying to say? Which brings me to my next point.
Becoming a Second Mountain Person #
I recently read an article by David Brooks, author of the book The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, which describes the kind of people who have climbed two mountains. The first being the mountain that we grow up thinking we are supposed to climb—the mountain of status and societally-accepted ambition, such as getting an education, finding a good job, buying a house, and raising a family. But once one has reached the peak of the first mountain, there is inevitably a valley of hardship, suffering, and pain. The valley can take different forms—a death, a layoff, an existential crisis. At this point, some people in the valley become bitter and hardened. But there are the people who pick themselves up and decide to climb another mountain.
If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second is about shedding the ego and dissolving the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution.
I find myself noticing and admiring people who have climbed the second mountain. And I’d like to be one myself. In some ways, I think that I’ve already started down the path of climbing this moral second mountain, but I also feel myself working through an existential valley of despair, searching for a new truth. Brooks offers two key actions to put us on the path toward climbing the second mountain:
A period of solitude were self-reflection can occur.
Contact with the heart and soul—through prayer, meditation, writing, whatever it is that puts you in contact with your deepest desires.
Becoming a Second Mountain person sounds daunting at first glance, but with these two steps I feel comfortable moving forward into a place of deeper introspection. Which brings me to my next point—building a creative writing habit.
Building a creative habit #
Five weeks ago I committed to the Artist’s Way program, which involves sitting down every morning and writing three pages, stream-of-consciousness style without worrying about content or quality. Author Julia Cameron coined this habit Morning Pages, and creative people across the globe swear by it.
Anne Lammot, author of Bird by Bird describes Morning Pages as a cognitive centering device:
Like scribbly meditation. It’s sort of like how manicurists put smooth pebbles in the warm soaking water, so your fingers have something to do, and you don’t climb the walls.
In a few short weeks, Morning Pages have become my daily meditation and cornerstone creative habit. Some days my thoughts are annoying and petty, and that’s ok. In my Morning Pages, I am allowed to be a big adult baby. Usually once I’ve finished complaining, I end up uncovering something new or interesting about myself and the world around me.
While this creative habit is new to me, I realize I’m pretty good at developing healthy habits in other areas of my life. For example, I started lifting weights earlier this year. After consistently going to the gym 3-4 times each week for an intense hourly session, I’m now able to do one pull-up. This is a big accomplishment, and I’m proud of how strong I’ve become. But what’s more shocking is that I didn’t have to do anything extreme to accomplish this goal. I simply drove myself to the gym and followed the coach’s instructions each week.
Ryan Holiday recently wrote about the same phenomenon:
Professional dancer Twyla Tharp has written about how every morning she gets up early, dresses, and takes a cab to the same gym, where she works out for several hours. This is how she trains and keeps herself fit. Her workouts are tough and exhausting, and you’d think she would need a lot of discipline to commit to showing up each morning. But, as she writes in The Creative Habit, she just has to get herself to the cab. That’s it. The rest takes care of itself. The ritual takes over.
Engaging with the creative process #
Not only do Morning Pages act as a meditation, they also provide a non-judgmental space to actively engage with the creative process. What do I mean when I say “engage with the creative process”? Writer Nicole Peeler argues that trusting the creative process isn’t enough, not until you’ve actively wrestled with it and proven to yourself that it’s working. Peeler illustrates the difference by describing a meeting she had with her supervisor a few months into her rigorous PhD program. The supervisor provided this advice:
Yes, this is shit. But there’s some good stuff there. So take it home, pick that good stuff out, and get rid of the rest. Add some more words. Some of it will be also be shit. But some of it will be okay. We keep repeating that until you have something that will pass. That’s the process… Just keep polishing the turd.
“Polishing the turd” is now how I refer to the way I engage with the creative process. It’s not pretty, and I like it.
Instead of putting so much pressure on myself to do creative work on the weekend when I knew I only had a few hours to make meaningful progress, I’ve opted for a daily practice with lower stakes. This reduces the likelihood that I’ll enter a scarcity mindset, i.e. where creativity goes to die. In order for me to engage with the creative process, I need more open loops and lots of breathing room to churn out a shitty first draft.
Artist Dates: The new self-care #
Another core tenant of the Artist Way program is the Artist Date, a two-hour solitary excursion with the sole purpose of “getting inspired” and giving oneself space to nurture their inner artist. Basically, an Artist Date is Julia Cameron’s version of self-care. I’m not good at self-care, as we know. But Artist Dates have been a refreshing way to reframe the concept. My Artist Dates thus far have consisted of writing my 10 Year Plan, a hot mineral soak at a local day spa, and an afternoon spent thrifting.
These Artist Dates have sparked inspiration. I find myself “noticing the pennies,” which writer and entrepreneur Dan Shipper describes as “invisible surprises and sources of delight even in the most mundane places.” Ever since I’ve begun the Artist Way program, I’ve started remembering my dreams (and writing them down!). These dreams are usually silly or seemingly meaningless, but I’ve accepted them as tiny gifts from an infinitely creative Universe.
Letting go #
For me, another step in becoming a Second Mountain Person is letting go. Letting go of dreams that make me feel trapped and obligations that no longer feed me spiritually or creatively.
In a recent episode of the Hurry Slowly podcast, host Jocelyn K. Glei describes the freedom she felt from letting go of her lifelong dream to write a screenplay. You might be thinking, but these are lifelong dreams we are talking about?! This doesn’t sound like progress it sounds like admitting defeat! But for Glei, she realized that the screenplay dream was actually blocking her from opening up to other exciting creative opportunities.
I have similar creative blocks. And I’ve spent the past two months shedding them. In my Morning Pages, I write down all of my thoughts, feelings, dreams, and ambitions and then I spend time differentiating between the ones make me feel excited and which ones make me feel blocked.
Art as the starting point #
So, what has all of this introspection yielded thus far? Well, it’s only been a few weeks! But I can say I’ve had a breakthrough in terms of where I am focusing my attention for the time being, and it’s on art. Why art?
One of my favorite bloggers, Autotransluscence, recently wrote about art as the starting point in her journey toward living wholeheartedly. I found her reasoning strikingly similar to my own:
Nowadays, what I aim at is wholeheartedness—in the sense of having the whole of my heart pointing in roughly the same direction. So many of us are split and fragmented by our many allegiances and we never quite realise how fully this fucks over our ability to take any action at all. Being (or becoming) sane requires a constant and rapid re-knitting of new and upcoming parts of ourselves into something always approaching but never exactly becoming a coherent whole. And this brings me back to art.
In a bookstore in the Haight, I picked up a book on a whim called ‘Art & Fear – Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking’. The authors took as a given – as an obvious and not-even-worth-questioning assumption – that you would direct your time and attention towards expressing what was most important and true for you, that that would likely happen through making art, and that this was at least -a- way of orienting a deeply meaningful life. This sounds obvious on the outside, but from nestled deep within the optimisatron techno-scale cult of the Bay Area, where people use spiritual practices as a way of improving their productivity to get better at their jobs, this orientation was one that in my life has been undervalued and sorely lacking.
In Art & Fear, the authors frame the act of artistic creation as aligning with the deepest needs and desires of your self and who you are as a person, and then turning those desires into something manifested in the world. Humans have a lot of need and desire for beauty, and for connection, so it isn’t surprising that when we listen to this part of us that we want to make beautiful or loving things, and experience beauty and love.
Lessons from women in their 70s #
In my Morning Pages, I’ve been reflecting on all this. On slowing down, on paying attention to the Universe’s tiny gifts, resisting productivity, and developing more human traits like compassion and community. In therapy I’ve started turning the shame I feel about not working hard enough into a more positive emotion, like hope. I don’t know when I’ll feel better. But in some ways, writing this post has already helped me find clarity, which does feel better. I’ll leave you with this snippet from a 2019 NYT opinion article, The Joy of Being a Woman in Her 70s, which I’ve read a dozen times in the last year and always helps put these things into perspective.
We may not have control, but we have choices. With intention and focused attention, we can always find a forward path. We discover what we are looking for. If we look for evidence of love in the universe, we will find it. If we seek beauty, it will spill into our lives any moment we wish. If we search for events to appreciate, we discover them to be abundant.