4 min read

Burnout recovery, and the self-care trap

Burnout recovery, and the self-care trap

Most of the advice I've gotten about burnout has been useless-to-actively-harmful.

"Have you tried yoga and meditation?" "Take more time off." "Don't get so worked up about work."

If you've gotten this advice, you know that it is garbage. It doesn't help you solve your problem, and it maybe has made it worse.

The problem with this advice is that the model of burnout its based on is wrong.

That model goes something like this:

"Burnout is caused by too much stress, for too long, without the time and space to recover. So by making our recovery more efficient, we can avoid and recover from burnout."

The first part of that model is correct. The second part isn't even totally wrong. It's just wrong enough to be dangerous.

Consider weight lifting.

If you want to get stronger, you need three things: You need stimulus sufficient to trigger muscle growth– working out. You need material for your body to build muscle out of – protein and calories. And you need time for your body to build that muscle – rest.

In weight lifting, there's a phenomenon that's analogous to burnout called "overtraining." You're sore and tired all the time. You get depressed. You stop progressing your lifts, and may even get worse at them. You start having other health problems, as your body breaks down. Overtraining happens when you train too hard, without sufficient protein and recovery time, and then continue training, instead of backing off.

Translate that burnout model into weight training, and see if you can spot the problem.

"Overtraining is caused by too much stress, for too long, without the time and space to recover. So by making our recovery more efficient, we can avoid and recover from overtraining."

This model is missing two levers. It doesn't even mention nutrition. There's no way to rest your way out of a protein or calorie deficit. There's also only so much good rest can do. It's possible to train so much that no amount of rest is sufficient.

If weight lifters gave each other the advice about overtraining that software engineers give each other about burnout, they'd work out too hard, for too long, without eating enough, and then instead of reducing their training, they'd cut the time they were spending cooking in order to rest more.

(Some of you reading this, who are familiar with weight-lifting culture, are shouting "they do tell each other this!" at your computer right now, and, well, yeah, but Google "overtraining" and you see things like "take at least a 2 week break, and maybe up to 3 months" and "talk to a nutritionist." Google "burnout" and you'll see things like "make friends with your coworkers" and "reframe the way you look at work.")

For me at least, burnout came from doing more cognitively demanding work than it was possible to recover from. I was "training" too hard, and I wasn't getting enough nutrition. The recovery and stress-management advice made my problem worse. "Recovery" became a second job. Work took over my whole life.

If you've been reading for a bit you'll know that "training too hard" in this case wasn't raw hours. Working out – whether that's physical exertion, or coding and other cognitively demanding tasks – too many hours is an easy and common way to overtrain, but if your training is intense enough you can overtrain with a very efficient allocation of hours.

To start recovering, I had to start resting more. A lot more.

This has been tough for me. I went on leave, and then came back, quit my job, and then started a new one, quit my job again, and then tried to do a bunch of other things that I had to then scale back from because, whoops, still pretty burnt out. The week after I got my second COVID vaccination, I felt better than I had in months, because the vaccine symptoms gave me permission to actually rest for two days, without thinking constantly about how I "should be" being productive or "relaxing effectively" somehow. I just sat, and slept, and sat some more.

Lately, I take a two hour nap most days, and that seems necessary. I'm working on changing my internal definition of a "good day" from "a day I spent most my time Being Productive" to "a day where I felt good most of the day." That's meant scaling back my productivity expectations to "I get one, maybe two things done."

I don't mean this as advice, because the honest version of that advice is something like, "get a partner who hasn't burnt out on their own six figure tech job yet, and credits their own happiness and life success to the weird high school they went to that let kids do nothing but play Halo for years."

But let me be one more voice saying, "Our society's expectations for productivity are weird and inhuman." It's worth spending more time doing nothing.

The "nutrition" part of this story is a little trickier. Rest is rest, but what is protein for the brain? (Besides, well, protein?)

I suspect the answer to this is different for different people, but after a lot of thinking about what I need over the past year or so, these are the answers I've come up with for myself:

  • Sharing food with people I know and trust
  • Exposure to new ideas, that crackle and snap of a Good Conversation
  • Making things, with my hands, for myself
  • Doing things for the pure joy of doing them, not for any instrumental reason but just, "because I like it"

Does this model resonate? What is "nutrition" for you? Sign up and write in.