November 2nd, 2008
For about the past two weeks I’ve been feeling funky. You know that feeling of unspecific, background anxiety that you can have, but that doesn’t have a clear source or cause? That’s what I mean by funky. Sort of an ongoing buzz of low-level anxiety and reduced motivation.
I don’t have anything particularly evident to point to as a cause. Even the economic junk hasn’t directly personally affected me as much as many other people; it affects me more through family and friends. Perhaps I’m absorbing it from the environment?
Actually, writing this post helped me clarify where I feel it comes from, a light form of burnout…keep readin’…
The irritation of trying to fix it & traditional self-help wisdom
As a good ol’ American problem solver, I’ve been trying to fix this “problem” (in parentheses, because it might not be a problem). I’ve been doing yoga, running, prioritizing, meditating, sharing with people, blah blah blah blah…and I’m still feeling funky. In fact, it I just get more irritated because although those activities do help for a few minutes, or an hour…nothing’s really changed!
Also, traditional wisdom in the self-help/empowerment world is that you need to “get into action! Live life every day! If you’re not living powerfully today then you suck!” (Gah, sounds exhausting.) Anyway, that traditional thinking just adds to my irritation. Also, I do now have a theory about my funkiness, including why, ironically, the harder I try to “do stuff to fix it” the more it persists (heard the phrase “what you resist, persists”?)
Overdoing it as a well-trained capitalist; a natural action-recovery cycle
I also went through a similar funky anxious/demotivated period early in the summer, and now realize it’s happened regularly in the past, although I wasn’t paying as much attention at the time to myself and my moods, so I wasn’t as aware of it.
Now, I feel that it’s part of a regular action-recovery cycle. I, as a good as-yet-unreformed American capitalist, overdo my ‘action’ for long periods of time without enough mental or physical rest, and I always pay for it at some point with periods of that background anxiety and lower motivation. Like now. Theoretically, if I could perfectly tune my daily action and rest, I’d never have the funky downtime, but perfection’s a journey, not a destination.
The low energy, funkiness, was a way for my body and unconscious mind to try to slow myself down and force myself to rest, recover and re-energize.
My natural inclination, i.e. cultural training, is to be ‘in action’ for months or years without enough daily or weekly rest. I remember days that I’d work 8-12 hours straight through (by choice, including when working for myself), forgetting even to take a lunch break, leaving me “brain-fried” at the end of the day. Nights or weekends often became more about dead-rest (uncreative, just plain tired) than active-rest (being creative, ‘nice tired’ or going out & having fun).
At some point the intense exertion at work over several months catches up with me, and I’d get tired or funky for a couple of weeks as a recovery period (if I let myself recover). I didn’t notice it at the time, but now it’s clearer, looking back.
A clue from Ironman training
Another clue that led me to my current thinking comes from my time training for an Ironman triathlon in 2002, during which we’d sometimes swim/bike/run for 15-20 hours per week. About every six weeks, I’d wake up to some day totally physically exhausted. I’d stay in bed for a day, and then would feel ok again – so I thought – and would keep going. Until six weeks later. And after the Ironman race, I was wiped out for a month+, as the year of training and the race all caught up with me.
At an even higher level, I used to work intensely for 2-3 years and then would need to take a year off before I was ready and excited to commit to a full-time, long-term career move again. I think there’s something to that ratio. Maybe I need to spend about as much time recovering as I do working (including during each day, week, month, year, decade…) That’d imply several hours of space-creating time per day, meditating, drawing, napping, seeing friends and the like, which is a routine I’m working on now.
It’s like fractals. I’d bet people with enough decades could see a decade-ish cycle too.
I have been paying attention to this in more carefully in a rough way for more than a year, and keep sporadic notes on my pebblestorm wiki at “Healthy Hyperproductivity“. It’s a search for a sustainable (as in decades, not years) productivity-health-energy pace and routine. I’m not anal enough to measure my daily or weekly activity levels, energy and moods, to see if there’s some sort of regularity or seasonality to my periodic funk cycle, but it’d be an interesting experiment I’d volunteer for if someone else ran it!
I’m testing out a rest routine to see if it fits within a yearly cycle. On November 12 I head out for a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat in North Fork, CA, which will be an interesting adventure! No talking for 10 days…“Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow students, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., is prohibited.” Now that they have cel and internet even in the small towns of Africa, It’ll be the first time in years that I’ll be totally without phone/email, since I did a 28 day survival trip in the Utah desert with the Boulder Outdoor Survival School. Cool.
Just be with it – sometimes there’s nothing to fix
So, sometimes when you’re feeling down or low energy, it’s actually a sign to pay attention to that you should slow down and rest. Do less. And it’s not just resting for an hour, it might be for two weeks. Or a year :) Everyone’s different, but fundamentally, the more intense and longer your work, the longer the recovery you’ll need.
There’s a judgment call here as to whether you need to be active or rest during these periods. I do agree that smiling, getting into action, taking charge, etc. can be very valuable when you’re in a rut. But getting into action all the time can distract you from being aware of what you really need – such as rest!
How do you know what to do? There’s no ‘answer’ – start with awareness
Practice awareness. Pay attention to yourself, listen. First let go of what you “should” be doing, so that you can get a better sense of what you need to be doing – or not. What’s your intuition say? Also, activities like meditation, writing, play or sketching could help your discernment.
Three lessons in avoiding burnout
1. SLOW DOWN: it’s impossible to be self-aware if you’re rushing around all the time.
2. CREATE SPACE: Before immediately reacting to a feeling or state of energy such as tiredness, sit with it first. Do you feel like it’s something to move through, or something to be with? Create some room for this in time and space, either through meditation, play, creative activities, travel…
3. FOCUS ON SUSTAINABILITY: Pay attention to the longer cycles of your energy and productivity / lack thereof. What is a sustainable pace or routine you can establish keep up your energy and creativity? Which will be different for your than for others.