I didn’t take any time off during spring break. I’m paying the price. I took two days off a few weeks ago and it felt like a decadent, selfish act. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t enough and I’m sufferin’ big time. My project rolled right into a summer grant program two days after graduation and while pomp and circumstance was playing, I was prepping myself for a new batch of summer researchers to begin.
I’m staring at myself in the mirror and I can smell burnt toast. Yes folks, I believe the proper term here is: burn out. I pushed too hard this spring and while I’m being rewarded with a personal record number of publications this year so far (six), I couldn’t be more exhausted professionally. I feel the need to discuss work/life balance to myself, not you right now.
Instead of pushing through and ignoring my smoldering smell, I’ve decided to take it easy this week. The summer project started out slowly, training and reviewing articles with the new researchers and it was a nice reminder that my team could handle some more of the work. I took the hint, backed off, and have worked at a more leisurely pace ‘brain-wise’ and have carved out more time to finish a bit earlier and read a few books for enjoyment. You might not think it’s a big deal (super slackers unite), but to me, it is. I was brought up getting up, getting to work, and falling into bed. While it serves me well on the farm, it’s not serving my brain. She’s tired and droopy. I saw an article about the natural process of burn out and it got me thinking: it’s ok for me to be exhausted and a bit crispy around the edges from the frenetic pace of my life and I need to start embracing it, listening to it, and being more proactive about it.
It also gives me a pregnant pause to re-visit my goals for myself this year:
I used to think it was a compliment when people would say how available I was, how easy it was to schedule with me, but I’m learning slowly that it’s my best and worst characteristic. I used to greet my students questions with, “how can i help you?” and my supervisors with, “what do you need?” and that is getting me into trouble. I give until I bleed. Perhaps not literally bleeding, although I’m clumsy, but I give until there’s nothing left. It’s a fine line….
I cannot keep up this pace. I’m at the ‘slow burn’ stage and if I keep this up, I’ll be as crispy as some bacon on a Saturday morning before too long. Does it mean I should quit, find a new direction, and move to a communal living camp in TX? No. But it does mean I need to stop ignoring it and ante up. Change up. Re-work what I’ve been doing. Find a new pattern that might work. I admit, I got into a bit of a professional lag this spring. I was downright Debbie Downer for a few weeks about it. Then, I began to think about why I was bored, why I was lagging, and I realized, it was my inability to challenge my brain. I needed a new challenge. I needed to confront what was in front of me as a professional academic and start assessing my direction and where I wanted to steer it. I let it get ‘boring’ and I let my brain get ‘bored’ and since it’s merely a state of mind, I had the control to change it.
As June begins to melt us like popsicles on the Fourth of July, I urge you to embrace some burn out in your life. Don’t ignore it. Instead, embrace it and use it as time to evaluate why you’re burned out and where you can afford to tame your life down to keep the crispiness of burn out at bay.
What advice would you give to a young faculty member to help them avoid burn out? How would you help them cope with burn out?