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