Posted by Jonathan Perron-Clow
The Buzz About YEF: Learning how to do less
After 10 months of traveling the country, our Fellows are sharing their final thoughts on the YEF program, energy issues and leadership in this The Buzz About YEF blog. This week, Lindsay Colley shares an honest reflection on getting burnt out and how to change.
Participating in the Action Canada Your Energy Future Fellowship was transformative for me in many ways. One of the most influential workshops I attended was a session in Toronto on work-life balance. While I have been to many similar workshops before, this was the first honest and open discussion I had encountered on the subject.
During the evening, we spoke about making intentional personal sacrifices to achieve career success, the importance of having strong support networks, mental health issues, the definition of happiness, and how to value an individual. It was an incredibly open and raw conversation that touched on difficult questions. This session inspired the following words:
While many of the stereotypes about my generation are nonsense, there are two truths about millennials that ring true: we place greater value on positive social impact and technology is integrated into our lives. As a result, for many of us, burnout is a real danger.
In the Economist 1843 article “Minds Turned to Ash”, Josh Cohen explains that burnout is characterized by a feeling of exhaustion accompanied by a compulsion to continue to going on regardless. It is often accompanied by chronic indecision and the inability to relax.
A few months ago I noticed something odd about myself. I had stopped caring. I didn’t care to initiate new projects at work. I didn’t care about the causes I volunteered with. I had no interest in current affairs. I didn’t even want to talk to my family or friends. Every task required a huge amount of mental effort. If it wasn’t for the clambering needs of my three small boys, I probably wouldn’t have gotten out of bed.
I was burnt out.
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this. Most people would suggest taking a break or going on vacation – but for me at least, that would be like treating the symptoms, not the disease.
In the true form of a compulsive over-achiever, I embarked on a journey to figure out the root cause of my burnout. Through reading stacks of articles (like this, and this and this), having discussions and engaging in self-reflection, I came to learn three problematic things about myself. I am sharing what I learned because maybe some of it will resonate with you too.
I am paralyzed by choice
Technology has enabled us to have virtually unlimited information at our fingertips. ‘Thinking about going back to school? Check out these 80 different Masters programs!’ ‘Want to volunteer? Here are 465 opportunities near you!’ But unlimited choice debilitates far more than it liberates. Research tells us that more choice actually makes us unhappier because it leads to selection regret and self-blame. Worse, it reinforces a dissatisfaction with our present life.
The promise of a better outcome frequently leaves me paralyzed by indecision. I know that I need to make a career change, yet remain stuck because I cannot decide what I should focus on next. I have so many ideas about ways to improve my community (A community garden! Financial literacy workshops for new immigrants! A centralized donation depot!) but have not moved forward with one because every day, I hear about a new initiative which may be more deserving.
I live in a state of limbo; unsatisfied where I am, and feeling guilty for being unable to move forward.
I can now see that my obsession to make “the best” choice has been a futile effort and that what is important is not the choice that is made, but rather my attitude towards it. I am learning that I need to manage the amount information I take in and focus more on the present.
I have an unhealthy obsession with productivity
We live in the era of personal optimization. Why just sleep when you can have a higher quality sleep? Why just eat when you can be eating to prevent cancer? Why waste a second when you can be working towards a healthier, happier and more successful you? Unsure how? Read one of the 163 million Google search results on “How to live your best life”.
I admit that I have bought into this mentality. I have read Tim Ferris’ Tools of Titans. I recently downloaded an app to help me meditate while walking and another to learn a new language on the subway. My husband often comments on how I cannot even sit down to just watch TV: I’m always folding laundry or sorting through our mail at the same time.
Our cultural obsession with productivity is exhausting and in my own state of exhaustion, I realized that in trying to live my best life, I forgot how to enjoy that life. “Doing nothing” should not seem like a ludicrous proposition. I am learning that in addition to slowing down and relaxing, I need to decrease my expectations for myself.
I measure my self-worth based on what I have done, and not who I am
This past fall, I was asked to provide input into the development of a new leadership program my alma mater was developing. “Make sure participants have an output that can be easily shared on social media” I suggested. Obviously, I thought. We live in the age of LinkedIn. What’s the point of doing something if you have nothing to show for it?
It is now not enough to simply accomplish a task; instead, each of our accomplishments must be named, verifiable, externally reportable and accompanied by a peer-review. Networking is now being driven by algorithms, resumes may become extinct and head-hunters are now being replaced by AI. My generation has complied with this pressure by ensuring that our public profiles are as rich and full as possible: guest writing for blogs, consenting to have our presentations posted on YouTube, applying for awards so that we can list the ones we win and ensuring that every project we work on gets posted online.
Unconsciously, this focus on external achievement has been motivating me to make choices that helped me rack up those points – for years. I can now see that I had internalized those external forces. I too bought into the idea that I was worth only what I had accomplished.
I am finally taking the time to take stock of my life. I no longer want to wonder whose life I am living. I will have to sort out what I want from what society tells me I should want, and as a people pleaser, this will be difficult. But untangling this mess is important. As a wise friend told me, I need to be able to look at myself in the mirror and see that I have inherent worth, and that my worth is not determined by others.
The path forward
The path out of burnout is tricky and uncertain. While exact solutions will differ for each person, they typically include both slowing down the pace of life and changing some perspectives. Some of the small steps I am taking now include dropping activities, reducing my participation in social media, reading more, and working on right-sizing my expectations.
Society will always continue to encourage us to know more, do more and be more. The biggest challenge for my generation might be learning how to do less.