In hindsight, it was arrogant to believe that I’d somehow know what “too much” was before I took on too much. See, the thing about spinning plates is that the first spin will always be the best: you can easily start every new task with excitement, passion, and motivation that seems infinite. And for a moment you have a perfect line of spinning plates that seem to be going on forever. Until they start to slow down…
My final semester in school I was faced with this problem all at once and I was starting to seriously burn out. Without responsible consideration I had bitten off way more than I could chew. At the time, I was the sound editor for two independent feature films, studying a double major at Berklee College of Music, writing/recording/producing/managing a new electronic band (Sleeping Lion), while also being president of Berklee’s Sound Design Network, and doing a part-time workstudy job. I also attempted to have some semblance of a social life. At first, each new responsibility on its own felt exciting, but as it got added to the juggle of everything else they all became overwhelming. At first I tried to take shortcuts to make things easier, but all that did was hurt the quality of the work. I kept thinking about that line in Breaking Bad- “No Half-Measures”- and how everything, from the work to my personal life, was suffering because I was giving everything a fraction of my effort.
So I tried to give everything my all. And that was worse, because then I no longer had time to be a real person. I wasn’t eating or sleeping or showering or interacting like a normal human anymore. I was a greasy robot and I’d get dramatically worried that if my room got too quiet I’d hear ticking cogs. I was synching footsteps across two feature films until the sun came up, barely blinking. I’d write verses for Sleeping Lion from the head without any heart. I’d talk to people on autopilot and not even remember what I had just said. I wasn’t sleeping in class, but I could barely focus.
All the while, I still couldn’t admit that this was a bad thing. I thought it was “hustle” and “hard-work”. I thought this is what people meant when they said, “if it was easy, everyone would do it.” I kind of glorified “the struggle” despite how it affected my health, work, and life. But once people I cared about started worrying about me, saying that I looked sick and acted differently, I started to reconsider this notion. I looked at peers and professors that I admired and noticed that they were pretty consistently healthy, functioning human beings. They got normal amounts of sleep, spent time with their friends and family, and loved the work they did. They weren’t working any less than me, if anything their deadlines were sharper and their stakes (rent, family, professional reputation, film studios, labels, etc.) were much higher than mine. I tried to figure out how they did that and why, to me, being a healthy hard worker seemed like an oxymoron.
I realized that, consciously or unconsciously, a symptom of burnout is resentment. Despite the fact that I was the one enthusiastically who took on these projects, I felt unjustly robbed of a normal life by these responsibilities. I was in college- I wanted to party, I wanted to date, I wanted to call old friends, and watch TV. I resented the work I was doing for what I lost doing it. The vicious cycle here is that resentment is remarkably time consuming! It’s too small to see, but it’s the extra time it takes to “get in the zone”, it’s the constant sighs, the mindless phone-scrolling, and the fifth repeat of a section because you spaced out the first four times. When you’re motivated to do work, you can take breaks, you can focus, you can get excited & creative, and you can be efficient. But when you resent your work, everything is a distraction, and every break risks a total loss of focus. I thought I was “busy”, but when I was mindful of how I spent my time, I noticed how much of that time I spent getting over mental hurdles to just do simple tasks. I made unnecessary checklists like a kid in the backseat yelling “are we there yet?” and I’d continue to work without “risking” a break despite ear fatigue making everything sound the same. It became clear that to find that love for the work again that would motivate a stronger drive, I had to regain some part of what I thought I had to give up and balance personal happiness with the responsibilities I had. I needed a system to help improve my work & my wellbeing. I needed to be a person again so I could approach my work with the passion of a human & not the resentment of a robot.
I went to my favorite café and I wrote in my journal:
Personal Daily Goals-
- Do one good thing for you today
- Do one thing to make tomorrow easier
- Do one thing you’ll remember (at least) a year from now
The first point was simple, but important. You can’t ignore things that make you happy and, especially when you get in the weeds of your work, you need to find the small things that make you feel good. Hot chocolate, coffee with a friend, a nice phone call, going to the movies, reading a book, etc.- taking the time to feel happy and grateful for small joys boosted my appreciation for my life and work. Also taking a moment away to reflect on a project or problem actually helped find solutions I couldn’t see while in the middle of working on it.
The second point was an attempt at being a responsible recent-adult. Cleaning my room/desk, doing the laundry/dishes, exercise, handling emails, going outside your comfort zone, reading articles, finding better organizational tools, etc.- taking the time to take baby steps in an intended direction, or to clean up yesterday’s mess so tomorrow is clearer added order (and hygiene) to my life. It’s easier to care about your work when your task management is organized and you don’t feel like you’re letting personal things pile up.
The third point is the most important to me. It’s also more abstract. Above all, I hated how much my work made my life a blur. I was in college, a time when I should be experiencing things that would shape who am I, and yet I couldn’t remember or differentiate one day staring at my computer from the next. I wanted the highs and lows that came from living a full life. Sometimes memorable moments are thrown at you (for better or worse) without warning. Sometimes memorable moments (like a subtle feeling or a chance encounter) are only memorable in retrospect. With that said, my roommate once jokingly exclaimed “things happen when you go outside!” and I think that’s a start. “Luck” is just probability and life is just a series of events. When you open yourself up to living memorably- whether it’s just being mindful of how you’re feeling, walking around ready for any interaction, or proactively changing your life- you realize how every day is a significant chapter in your overall story. It made every day feel special and meaningful, which made getting up to greet the day a welcomed mystery rather than a disheartening obligation.
These daily challenges helped me get out of the rut I was in so I could work efficiently and passionately. Eventually the workload lessened as each project was completed and I finally figured out my own threshold. There is such a thing as “too much”. While sometimes, if you’re lucky, you might be faced with the Sophie’s Choice of projects and opportunities, I realized that I’d much rather do extraordinarily well on one project I consistently care about than do a passable job on four I’d grow to resent.
At the end of the day, you come first. Take it from me: your work is better when a human does it.
Thanks to Nate for submitting this piece for this month’s theme of “Burnout”. If you’re interested in contributing, you can do so by reaching out to richard [at] this site.