On burnout (and bouncing back)

The realisation that lifted me out of the rut

Illustration by Pepper ❤︎

After two months of sadness, sickness, and gloom, I’ve been reflecting a lot on life, the cult of productivity, and why I’ve been in such a rut lately.

I’m sure many of you reading this can relate — the inescapable pang of guilt whenever you’re supposedly relaxing. Reading for pleasure? You should be reading the things on your list. Watching some YouTube? You should be doing that thing you’ve been meaning to do all week.

Last Wednesday I arrived home after work at quarter to eight. I was shoving reheated rice into my mouth while standing in the kitchen, listening to a podcast. Though every sense was occupied in that moment, I couldn’t help but feel restless. Should I be checking something? Should I be writing? Should I be cleaning? What reading do I need to catch up on? What’s on my to-do list? I caught myself thinking and feeling this anxiety while I was struggling to chew through a mouthful of food and thought to myself, what the fuck is wrong with you?

Being productive has become some sort of weird, late-capitalist self-flagellation. We are pious when we work and worthless when we rest. In the words of Anne Helen Petersen, everything good is bad and everything bad is good.

A few weeks ago, Raquel recommended a book called How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. So for a while I embraced the act of Doing Nothing (I kind of had to, I was bedridden by sickness for two whole weeks). In those days, both time and memory blurred into meaninglessness. I laid on the floor and listened to the hum of the city. Felt the strands of our shag rug run through my fingers, a texture uniquely luxurious and fake. My eyes drank in how the sunlight passed through the leaves of the passionfruit plant next to me, how the cells branched off each other, random yet structured.

Doing nothing was necessary for my sickness, but I did not find any deeper meaning in the world around me. If there was some kind of mental restoration to be had with the physical, I’m sad to say I found none. I was bored out of my mind.

It seems we’ve come to an impasse. Doing Nothing is miserable, but Doing Things is an anxiety-ridden hell scape.

In my two-month’s long nothingness experiment, here’s the surprising thing I realised: I really like doing stuff. And by “doing stuff”, I mean, creating stuff. Writing, thinking, making websites, videos, even giving talks. I genuinely enjoyed it. The act of having a thought about something and making it real. So why did I stop enjoying it?

This flip-flopping between boredom and anxiety reminded me of a section in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow (which honestly I found mildly problematic, but whatever). In it he talks about balancing challenge with skill, and how a disturbance in that balance can result in either boredom (high skill, how challenge) or anxiety (high challenge, low skill).

He also talks about the barriers to flow: namely, excessive self-consciousness and self-centeredness. Self-consciousness being the thing where you focus so much about how you’re perceived by others, you become paralysed by stress. Self-centeredness being the thing where everything you do becomes evaluated on how it can benefit you, such that everything becomes joyless.

Could there be a more apt summary of how our socially over-connected, individualistic society expects us to behave?

Our digital interconnectedness compels us all to obsess over our “personal brands”, how we are perceived by the entire world. Our late-capitalist world tells us that we should treat every action and interaction as transactional — if it doesn’t “add value” then it should be worthless to you.

(Gosh, I can’t begin to tell you how much I hate it when you’re at a conference and someone comes up to you, has a two-minute surface-level conversation, then asks if you can “connect”. What am I to you, a collectible?? I actually want to get to know you as a person. I DO NOT WANT TO JOIN YOUR PROFESSIONAL NETWORK ON LINKEDIN.)

I’ve been steeped in this world, every single day, and so have you. No wonder why I can’t enjoy making things anymore. My brain has been trained to obsess selfishly over public reception and “value” by the modern world I live in, cheapening all the activities I once enjoyed by making me focus on things I don’t actually care about.

And you don’t care about these things either. Think about it. Do you really care that some stranger on the internet, in a different continent, who you don’t know — do you really care what they have to say about you? Or have you been trained to care because every time you get a “like”, a little bit of dopamine gets released in your brain?

If my early twenties has taught me anything, it’s that any learned toxic mental framework can be unlearned. With enough vigilance, I can shed myself of old mental pathways, and learn to immerse myself in the act of creation again.

I’m not telling you (or me) to stop using social media. I’m not saying self-promotion is bad, or making professional connections is bad. I think it’s the obsession with these things — specifically, the obsession over the parts that we cannot control — that takes up way too much room in our heads and dooms us to an unwinnable flip-flop between anxiety and boredom.

For now, I’m going back to basics. When I’ve been working on my personal projects, or writing, or whatever, I’ve been taking moments to appreciate the doing, rather than the output. I’m going to enjoy seeing something come to life in front of my eyes, instead of worrying about what people might say about it (which, to be honest, will probably be nothing).

And I have been. Lately I’ve been working on the Kawaiicon website (the CFP is open by the way!! You should submit something!) and I’ve been having so much fun. I jumped back into my podcast, and remembered why I had been doing it for so long (we have good conversations and I love it! Sophia is so smart!!). I even started another YouTube video, not because I felt like I had to, but because I had an idea and I wanted to make it real.

There’s something to be said about the problematic side of all this — how feeling better when being productive distracts from the fact that a society that ties your self-worth to productivity is… bad. It’s all well and good that I happen to enjoy some activities deemed “productive”, but for someone who might not enjoy making websites or videos, the cult of productivity is corrosive, eating into one’s self-worth, especially when taking much needed breaks from work. Heck, it has eaten away at me, too. Even hobbies need to be put on hold sometimes, else you get sick of it! So it bears repeating (and say it with me): your productivity does not determine your self-worth. In fact, it was an obsession with productivity itself that destroyed the joy I once had for the projects I embarked on.

The last two months have been about rediscovering joy in the activities I once loved. In my notebooks sit dozens of pages of journaling; attempts to work out how to feel “right” again. The realisation that it was an excessive, self-conscious, self-centered focus on productivity, was the only thing that made a real difference. And the constant self-reminders of what it was I actually cared about made me feel a lot better. So here I am today, letting you know. Perhaps you’re going through a similar thing? I hope it’s helpful, but if it’s not, I’m putting it out there anyway and jumping fully on board the train of not-obsessing-about-what-others-think! Haha.

Do things. Do things not for the outcome at the end, but because there is inherent joy in the doing.

Things that I have read/enjoyed lately:

  • This inspirational profile of American Flight Attendants’ union leader Sara Nelson. In saying that, did you know that New Zealand has a tech union? You should check it out. Winky face.

  • How the ballpoint killed cursive — a really nice article about the lost art of handwriting, featuring an unlikely foe.

  • I really enjoyed this blog post from an ex-YouTube employee about a conspiracy to kill Internet Explorer 6 back when YouTube had just been acquired by Google. A perfect example of how precedent can take off in a large company.

  • Yascha Mounk reckons political leaders need to stop caring so much about Twitter. I reckon we all need to stop caring so much about Twitter.

  • YouTube and its business model that incentivises extremist and false content. Back in the GamerGate days I used to think, “shit, it’s gonna take someone getting killed before they take online extremism seriously.” And yet here we are.

  • Disgustingly beautiful and beautifully disgusting: I Wanted to Fall in Love With Men. I Also Wanted Men to Leave Me the Hell Alone. Reminds me of that Rose Matafeo standup skit where she introduces herself as a straight woman, the worst of all the gender/sexuality combos.

  • When Did Pop Culture Become Homework? As I’m writing this, my flat is preparing to watch the final episode of Game of Thrones. And even as I’ve been watching the final season, I’ve been thinking to myself, why am I watching this? I drifted away from the show around season two or three, after reading an interview where D&D eagerly await Sophie Turner’s 18th birthday like the sickos they are. I knew it was going to be bad, and yet here I am, doing my pop culture homework like a good denizen of the social age. At least I hope the memes are good.

  • In saying that, I do want to share with you one article about GoT, except it’s not really about GoT, it’s about storytelling. Zeynep Tufekci, whose journalistic work in technology I admire a lot, wrote a piece about psychological vs sociological storytelling. As I watch the trending topics of every social media platform fill up with chatter about GoT, I can’t help but think of where we could be if people thought about, talked about, and wrote as many thinkpieces about climate change as they did a TV series. I think a lot about how we have failed to tell a compelling story about the real struggles of our time, in a way that allows us as a public to understand the challenges we face, and fight them. I think the reason why there has been so little movement in climate action is because of our lack of sociological storytelling, our lack of focus on the world itself as a character. We cannot make real what we cannot first imagine. And we don’t have an epic, globally famous sociological story of success. It’s sad that D&D have turned Season 8 of GoT into a bullet list of plot points that felt unearned and out-of-character. But if the success of the show has revealed anything, it’s that there’s a vacuum for sociological stories, and when told artfully, can make the most compelling TV series in the world. My question for you then, dear reader, is how would you tell the epic of climate change and the modern empire? How would we win?

(My personality on this email seems to consist of ranting inside a single bullet point. Hmm.)

As always, please forgive any typos, bad takes, and overly flowery language that I always seem to be guilty of using. I tried to stick to some kind of schedule, but me and schedules have never gotten along. So these are all written on a whim! The newsletter is dark and full of run-on sentences.

Hope the last month has treated you better than it has treated me! Remember to get your flu shots, stay warm and dry, and wash your hands, you filthy animals.

Love, as always,

— Serena