Be Unproductive: Taking a Hard Corner After Burnout

A hallmark of being in your twenties is driving a series of unreliable, questionable vehicles. A friend of mine had one car in particular that was little more than a street-legal golf cart. It was held together by equal parts luck and necessity. Her muffler fell off on the freeway, her windows would periodically drop into her doors with a sharp thud, and you had to crawl through the driver’s side because the passenger door was held shut with a series of bungee cords. That car was legendary among our friends. At one point, her tires were having problems. Severe problems. As evident by the rest of the car’s condition, she always waited until it was an emergency. One of our friends took a look. He was a car guy from a family of car guys but even he’d never seen anything like it. Not only had she driven her tires bald: she’d worn away the entire outer layer of rubber exposing the wire structure underneath. 

It’s easy to be on the other end and wonder why she waited so long. The warning signs were obvious to everyone, including her, but she kept holding out until her tires were literally falling off the wheel. While I’ve never driven a car to the ground, I’ve run myself more ragged than the thrift shop in the sketch part of town on way too many occasions. The worst of it was in my teens and early twenties. If I committed to something, it was one hundred and ten percent always and I almost never turned down commitments. I’d push forward until I’d completely disconnect with my driving passion. It’s happened with career choices, ministries, schooling and, of course, writing.

The process of burning out is surprisingly addictive. It’s like taking on a couple enemies, then a mini-boss, and before you know it, you’re staring down an entire swarm. Of course I’d feel intimidated, but I’d also get this sick rush of adrenaline that’d help me burn through fight after fight with record speed. Each accomplishment gave me another hit of serotonin until I was addicted to being productive. There were other weird benefits to being over-committed.  I could say no to other commitments without feeling guilty. I could hold up a poster that declared, “I’m busy” and the world would nod respectfully and keep moving. It worsened until I genuinely felt guilty if I wasn’t doing something my brain labeled as “productive.” Empty blocks on my schedule were wasted opportunities instead of much needed time to recharge. Even my relaxation had to be productive. Oh, you want to own a coffee shop? Better watch latte art tutorials and look at every cafe visit as field work. Become a writer? Shouldn’t be playing that video game when you could be reading a book. I still struggle with that mentality. 

Each commitment felt permanent, like I was signing my soul away on a dotted line. As I mentioned earlier, it’s hard for me to do anything half-way. It’s impossible to sustainably give 100% to everything you do. When you pick up extra hours at work, you spend less time with your family. Taking a weekend off for a ministry retreat throws a wrench in your work schedule. Paying for a family vacation funnels money away from your own hobbies. 

Me basking in the sunlight after I’m dead

My go-to areas to cut back on were sleep, time with my husband and time with my friends. Relaxation was for the dead. With each cut-back, I prioritized my outer image over my inner life. It seemed harder to tell Brenda from church I had to step back from volunteering weekly than to wake up exhausted every week and crawl through Sundays. I’d rather say yes to working late and have my husband wait for me to get off work than to disappoint my boss.  I don’t mention hobbies because at my most over-committed, I didn’t have hobbies. Being busy was my hobby. That’s obviously a huge red flag in hindsight, but I was too busy to sit down and actually think about how unhealthy my life was until a surprise medical issue made me take time off from work. 

Writing found me right after I graduate college. It was the first hobby I’d had in years that didn’t carry some sort of obligation. Freeing as that was, I was used to living in a fish tank as opposed to open waters so I built walls of expectations around what I had to write. Expectations aren’t bad by any means, but I was a new writer and my rookie perspective was completely off-base with reality. My biggest trip-up was only working on a piece if I thought it would go somewhere. I never wrote for the sake of writing. Unless it was a part of my carefully plotted out book (a book I’m still working on, by the way), I brushed it aside operating under the notion I only had so much inspiration available per day and I didn’t want to “waste” my words on “useless” side-quests when I had tons of work left on a main quest at hand. Unwittingly, I was smothering my creative ability. My book took a huge hit by just generally being awful- like stilted, predictable plot with cardboard characters, awful- and it’s only been recently that I’ve been able to return to it with a second gush of wind in my sails.

I’d like to say that I’ve grown into being a balanced writer who writes with equal parts passion and discipline. I’d also like an entire pizza to myself but things don’t always turn out how we like, do they? There are moments I’m hit with fabulous inspiration. Yesterday afternoon, for example, I was folding laundry and an idea hit me like a bird on a windshield.  I finished what I was doing, grabbed my journal, and wrote out a first draft to a story I didn’t know I had in me. Then I typed up the second draft, went through some solid edits until I had a shiny new story in hand. Sudden inspiration is one of the sexy parts of writing. If my relationship with writing revolved around inspiration alone, burnout would hardly be an issue. Here’s the daily reality: if you want to improve at a passion, you have to treat it like work at some point. You have to commit to finishing things. Being inspired is great, but it’s the whipped cream topping on pumpkin pie. If I didn’t commit at some point, I would never finish anything. As a burnout addict, you can’t cut productivity from your life completely. Discipline and passion go hand in hand to healthy, sustainable production.

So cue early last week when I knew I had to regurgitate some kind of thought piece to slap on the front page of my blog. Here’s all the things I started writing about before changing my mind:

  • Debunking the idea of being self-made and acknowledging all my accomplishments have been with the help of other people.
  • Latest experience blue-tarp camping and eating tacos reasoned with rain water and a hint of campfire smoke.
  • A memorial post about a local business I love closing it’s doors after five years

Some of these pieces were measured out, mixed up and half-baked before I dropped them while others never made it off the page in the cook book. That’s okay. I might come back to some and I give myself permission to abandon projects if the passion just isn’t there, lest I forget why I’m really writing. When I do care about a piece, I’ll know it’s important enough to trudge forward through all the parts that hurt my brain.  It’s not about constantly producing ready-to-publish work: it’s about creating what matters to me.

Treating burnout requires taking a step back.  It’s so easy to quantify every aspect of you life into productivity if you’re prone to burnout, but it’s harder to quantify time specifically dedicated to recharging and relaxation. There’s a time to put your nose to the grindstone, even with hobbies, but there’s also a time to pull your face back before you no longer have a nose. 

Writing, like any other skill, requires practice to improve. Like any hobby though, writing also requires enjoying what you’re doing. Artist sketch silly doodles on scraps of paper, athletes goof off and play catch, and musicians dink around without any expectation of producing radio-ready material.  If you’re reaching a level of apathy with something you were once passionate about, you’re probably lost touch with producing for enjoyment and began focusing only on producing. Make something silly. Be embarrassing. Learn all the proper techniques and do the opposite just because. Burnouts happen, but you can always get new tires. 

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