Downtime or Burnout? The Organizer’s Dilemma

The Hoagies’ Blog Hop topic for this month sure is timely for me.  Here’s the prompt: Gifted kids [JM comment: and grown-ups!] need variety and challenge, but they need “down time,” too.  How does your family balance that fine line between too many activities and not enough? 

I’m someone who wants to do creative things and feels driven to work for positive change in the world but who has to give the forty best hours every week to a job unrelated to either of those things.  So yeah, I have an acute need for balancing skills.

And as it happens, recently, I upped the balance challenge.  A couple months ago, I was elected to the steering committee of my local DSA chapter after several people asked me to run.  I’d been asked in years past, but didn’t feel up to the challenge at the time; this year, though I was still hesitant, I guess I’ve least gained enough experience to start trying to pay it forward.  Most importantly, I care about the cause, I have ideas, and I actively want to dedicate time to the organization.

I thought I knew what I was in for, but given our organization’s explosive growth since November 2016, it’s even more work this year than it has been in years past.  We had a particularly tough spell about a month ago, which I’d guess made many of us—whether veteran leaders or newly-elected, introverts or extraverts—think about the price we pay when our down time evaporates.

The blog prompt specifically asks about balancing burnout and boredom.  This brought to mind a distinction that first occurred to me when I was a kid: There’s the kind of bored where you have nothing to do, and the kind of bored where you have to do something you don’t want to do.

Truth be told, I don’t really understand what it means to have “nothing to do.”  Even as a kid, I always had a million projects I wanted to work on, and as long as I had a notebook (or even time for pondering, like on a long car ride), I could occupy myself.  It was a bigger burden when homework or extracurricular activities that I had been talked into signing up for got in the way of something I’d prefer to be doing with my time.  And the voice of executive function in my head would keep prodding at me: this isn’t what you should be doing!  There’s a better way to spend your time!

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But it’s hard to refer to it as “boredom” when you’ve freely chosen to dedicate yourself to a few select things—even though you still may hear your internal executive sending you that signal:  This isn’t what you should be doing right now!  Unfortunately for me, with my history of largely solitary endeavors, I didn’t have a lot of experience interpreting that internal executive’s cues.

And this time, what the inner executive was saying was, “If you don’t stop running and rest, you’re not going to be able to think the way you need to.”

Eventually, the few weeks of urgency passed.  I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only person who was exhausted, nor the only new leader who paused to reflect on how to maintain a life of balance—both for my own health and so I can better uphold the responsibility I’ve assumed for the organization.  So when I finally had a weekend day to do mindless stuff for a while (this may be why I don’t mind things like vacuuming, up to a point), I reflected:

I’m an introvert who spends her time willingly on what have largely been autotelic projects.  Now, however, those projects have evolved to lead me to engage in more extraverted activities with concrete goals outside the purely autotelic sphere.  What’s the point of reading all this heavy stuff about economics and political theory if I don’t do something with it?

But!  After a couple weeks of intense extraversion, it has become clear that quiet time to ponder is not merely a nice bonus, but essential to my having anything worthwhile to extravert.  What’s the point of going to all these meetings and reading all these emails if I never have time to do the background work that gives me something to contribute?

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Conclusion: That’s a delicate balance to strike.  And down time is essential to striking it.

This brought to mind a post that had resonated with me when I found it some weeks prior:

I feel like I haven’t fully enjoyed a weekend or time off if I haven’t learned something I chose to learn during that time. […] Having a compulsion to do this on top of the very high levels of work demanded of American workers can be tiring. Yet not doing it, and not pursuing learning of our own choosing, is also tiring.

[…]

In my own experience, there seems to be no easy way to avoid fatigue.  I get energized by doing exactly the gifted habits that can contribute to fatigue and illness and poor immune function. Sometimes when I really enjoy myself, I seem to get more endorphins and enjoyment, but then I might get sick a day or two later, perhaps from sustained stress.  It seems hard for us to get the bliss chemicals we need without also getting stress chemicals.

Ah!  So I’m not the only one!

I will note here that the Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop authors select our topics by vote, so the fact that this one won suggests that many others will relate to the above post.  For many, being burnt out may start to feel normal.

So what can we do about it?  I agree with the author above that it can be tough to avoid fatigue if by nature you’re a driven person.  But I’m not ready to abandon all hope.  It seems to me that the first step is to recognize the role that unscheduled, unstructured time plays in our success—and then protect it.   Schedule it in first.  Move it around if you have to, but know that this is not wasted time, but highly productive time.  If someone questions this, here’s an excellent article that will give you more material to use in defense of occasionally taking yourself off line or declining an external activity.

Of course, sometimes short-term situations demand all that you’ve got.  There were deadlines we had to meet, and I’m not the only one who would have liked more time to ponder them.  Sometimes that’s life!  And you power through when you need to.  But we also should be aware that that if we give that (in)famous 110% one week, we’ll only have 85% to give the next week.  (That includes the five percent interest, which is still cheaper than most student loans.)

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It remains to be seen whether I’ll develop myself as an effective leader.  There are other skills I need to work on, too.  But here’s what I’ve learned so far: the first step toward developing those other skills is making the space and time I need to apply my strengths.  I need time for free thinking, for doing for more of the deep-dive projects that I used to do back before I assumed this role and had “free time.”  It means occasionally disconnecting and recharging so the idea spring can start bubbling back up.  It means doing something completely different, following promising impulses that might lead to inspiration or might “merely” (!) lead to contentment.  It means pausing to see what floats naturally to the top when you have unstructured time.

What it doesn’t merely mean is resting when you’re exhausted, because that’s even more fundamental and you shouldn’t need some blogger to give you permission to do that.  You can’t properly ponder when you’re truly exhausted; quality free time is on top of that.  (Yes, I know, it’s a huge demand.)

It’s well known that dedicated activists and organizers burn out at a pretty high rate, often disappearing from the organization entirely.  So if you’re giving your time to an activity or cause, make sure you give yourself time to pause, reflect, ponder, and disconnect.  This might well enable your greatest contributions of all.

Image credits: castleguard, Chanzj, geralt, RyanMcGuire.

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This post is a part of Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop.
Follow the link for others’ takes on this topic.

9 thoughts on “Downtime or Burnout? The Organizer’s Dilemma

  1. Jessie, I’ll always bring fresh flowers for you. Except when I’m out walking (where I’m just thinking of and smelling fresh flowers — hey, don’t pick the daisies!).
    I’m glad you’ve discovered that the mind is a terrible thing to overburden. Here’s my trick. I take walks.

    No, really I TAKE walks. I mean, I grab them, resist those who want to deny them to me, I wrap my legs around them — and I TAKE them! Walks that is.

    A walk is a wonderful way to work while you wander. To synthesize while you stroll. To digest while you dally. To, well, you get the picture. Schedule a walk? Bah! Just TAKE them. Better yet, grab a friend who is in need of cognitive distraction and TAKE one together.

    And I’d say the most powerful aspect of walking is — aside from a robust constitution and circulation — prioritization. When you get back from a walk, somehow, the thing you should be doing first, comes right to mind. A walk prunes your mind of the detritus of work-worry. What’s important becomes self evident.

    So, TAKE a walk.
    Really, it’s not stealing, in fact it may be just the opposite.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Why thank you! 🙂 Yes, I discovered that a long time ago and guard my free time pretty aggressively. I kept resisting this role because of that, but this year it seemed like the right time. So I’m not surprised it takes some effort to work out a balance, even if I didn’t anticipate particular acute challenges….

      As for walks, oh yes, I do that—at work in particular. Fortunately I have had supportive management who get that if I’m up away from my desk for ten minutes a few times a day, it’s actually GOOD for my overall productivity. Exactly as you said! And I like your emphasis on the word TAKE!

      I also swim when I’m outside work (we moved in to the apartment we have now because of its pool accessibility!), but I run into those issues with scheduling. “Oh, I said I’d swim three times a week, so I’d better go swim now, because I know it will be good for me and I’ll feel better.” But that doesn’t help with the time pressure. So in those times, sometimes I just go for a quick walk instead. Less trouble in terms of being soggy and chlorinated at the end! But one thing I like even when I swim is that I do come up with a lot of good ideas for things. Max does bookbinding and is working on creating a waterproof notebook so I’ll be able to write down ideas while swimming. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jessie, I’ve loved every word of all your recent posts. I don’t always have time to leave a proper comment, but I want you to know how much I appreciate having you articulate something wise from the jumble of thoughts always going round my head! One of the reasons for my lack of time and energy is supporting my daughter with the perennial burnout/downtime issue, funnily enough, so this one was particularly on point. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aww, thanks, Lucinda! That truly means a lot. I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed them. I have more coming on some of the themes I’ve been writing on!

      I wish you and your daughter luck in finding that balance! It’s a perpetual challenge….

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Lucinda I hope you read this because I don’t know how else to contact you. I’ve tried to post on your blog three times but I just get a blank screen and nothing appears. So either they have dissapeared into the aether or three versions of the same thing will suddenly appear.

      Aside from that, is there anything in particular that makes Cordie burn out, or is it just everything? 🙂

      Like

  3. It’s a sad irony of the modern world that it’s necessary to ‘schedule unstructured time’.

    The most obsessive time efficiency I think I’ve seen is high-level athletes. They don’t want any potential training time to go to waste so they organise it so one thing (muscle group, energy system, etc) is being trained while another is resting and recovering. They are always short of time and close to overtraining and exhaustion so they start looking for opportunities for compound rest – doing several restful things at once. These stacks of relaxation get amusing – being bathed in restful light while doing yoga in the sauna. Using a mind machine whilst covered in frequency specific microcurrent electrodes, inside a high pressure tent, while SoSound resonant speakers transmit healing music directly into the body. Just thinking about that level of relaxation is exhausting, but there may be lessons there on making the most of our time and energy.

    I have an interest in human factors, particularly from the perspective of their effects in revolutionary movements. When you ask how much sleep Lenin and Trotsky got in the week before October 25th, the following week makes more sense. It takes a certain level of sleep deprivation to make expelling your closest allies from the Soviet and going to war with the railway union seem like good ideas. The airline industry has written some interesting things about the effects of stress, fatigue and other human factors, but the best single reference I’ve found is an Australian military manual.

    Something that keeps coming up is cycling different types of work, physical, mental, or both, to spread the load (Ernest Hemmingway called it ‘rotating your crops’). But there is always a conflict between sticking at one thing until it is done and possibly becoming stale and exhausted, and switching tasks which may conserve energy and enthusiasm but be distracting and mean nothing gets finished. From your experience, what is the best way round this problem?

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    1. Human factors, yes! People so rarely stop to think that these people in history are actually people and subject to all the messiness of daily life that we in the present use to explain much of our behavior. I skimmed through the Australian military manual and will look over it again — there’s good stuff in there.

      And yes, the fact that we have to schedule unstructured time says to me that we have gone off course in our modern society. If I ever have a kid, I am going to resist “play dates.” There’s something wrong if a kid needs to mark “time to play” in his planner. A certain degree of spontaneity is necessary for health, if you ask me.

      I do find cycling types of work to be a good tactic. For me, the key is to get away from a screen, and if possible, do something that involves moving around. I mix writing blog posts with vacuuming and putting things away on weekend mornings, for instance. Sitting at a desk for eight hours a day at work is extremely unhealthy and limits productivity; I insist on taking periodic walks, as I noted in response to Anony Mole above. And it’s better for my boss, too, since it helps me be more productive! Back to my self-structured, autotelic time, though: since starting this blog, I’ve developed a keen sense of when it’s time to stop. Now that I stop to think about it, I can describe it to you, but the experience is just knowing that I’ve gone as far as I can for now in terms of quality output and that this is the right time to pause and come back later with a fresh outlook on the project. It happens after about 2.5-3 hours of focus on a written project. The key is to stop in such a place where the enthusiasm and energy will immediately resume when I come back to it the next day, so as to waste as little of it as possible. It’s worked for me so far!

      Like

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