Making choices to keep burnout at bay

The spring semester is usually not as hectic for me, and this spring has seemed even calmer than usual. My mood is better; I feel consistently happier. This morning I was trying to figure out why this semester feels better than previous springs, and I realized: BECAUSE I AM DELIBERATELY MAKING CHOICES TO KEEP IT THAT WAY. I’m sorry/not sorry for the all caps, but it is important for me to realize, and to document, the ongoing impact of deliberate self-care: my life feels better. This isn’t an accident of fate or circumstance. It is, for the most part, ME.

Here are some things that I’ve been doing to care for myself and keep burnout at bay.

  1. Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). Originally designed for people with borderline personality disorder, which I do not have, this is an approach to therapy that involves learning and applying various skills, and the mindfulness skills have been especially invaluable to me. The realization that I don’t have to judge my feelings, or judge any kind of event, was liberating. You mean I don’t actually have to freak out and panic when something goes wrong, or when a stressor is getting me down, or when I can’t find a parking spot in front of my house, or when my wife emails me a grocery list to shop for on my way home and it has 79 items on it? I actually don’t! It’s amazing! These things that cause stress or worsen my mood are just things. I try to observe and describe them as though I were a scientist conducting a study instead of attaching myself to them and getting all worked up.
  2. Saying no to things. This something I’ve been working on continually, and I’m seeing the results. For example: for the past few years, I’ve taught as an adjunct in various departments on campus, in addition to my actual full-time job. This counts as overload pay, which is certainly very helpful, but it is very, very tiring and taxing on multiple levels. Last fall, I taught 200-level research writing, and the stress of this, on top of everything else, made me realize that the extra money was not worth the heartache and despair. I was fortunate that my domestic life was in a place where I could say no to extra teaching, and the extra income, in the future, and so that’s what I decided. The relief is amazing. I have more room in my life and in my head for other things, things that feed me more.
  3. Praying the Daily Office. I started doing this on Dec. 31 of last year, because you don’t actually have to wait until Jan. 1 to start a new habit, as it turns out. I use this little book, excerpted from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I do morning prayer and compline (bedtime) without fail daily. I do noonday prayer 95 percent of the time. Evening prayer is hit or miss, because it’s at a challenging time of day for me. Sometimes for noonday prayer I use the New Zealand version, because their Anglican prayer book is gorgeous. The Daily Office feels like this little nimbus of protection that follows me around and holds my day together.
  4. 30 minute daily walks, five days a week, weather permitting. The liberating stress-relief of walking cannot be understated. I do a lot of my walking during the day as a part of my lunch break. (Oh, yes, actually taking lunch breaks, prioritizing that time and protecting it, and not just scarfing down my lunch at my desk–this matters, too.). I listen to podcasts, and I know I’m probably the last person to realize this, but y’all, podcasts are SO COOL. I’m obsessed with Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast as of late. I’m also a big fan of The History Chicks. I feel purposeful and alive when I walk. I find myself unconsciously improving my posture when I walk, holding myself straighter, head held higher. I feel like I am a real person in the world and it is a fantastic feeling.
  5. Quiet time. In the morning, after waking up and saying morning prayer with my wife, I spend about 30 minutes writing in my journal, reading, or listening to music. To me, this is a self-care variation of the idea of paying yourself first; not only do I contribute to my retirement account, but I also contribute to my ME account. (Million dollar idea: put this on a bumper sticker and sell it.) Instead of jumping out of bed and rushing to begin my day and get to work, I move more slowly, deliberately. My time is mine, and I am going to feed myself before giving my time to work. I try to do quiet time in the evening, too, with dim lighting and soothing music and more journal writing (which includes gratitude journaling), to help me wind down and mentally prepare to end the day and sleep, although sometimes evening TV watching gets in the way of evening quiet time. Working on it!

These have been regular practices and habits since the beginning of the new year, and they are working. And I know that my life privileged enough so that I can do a lot of these things. I don’t have to figure out child care; my work-life is very flexible and I have a lot of freedom. I recognize the privilege I have that allows me to structure my life in this way. And I should note that my life isn’t perfect; I’m not super happy 100 percent of the time. I still have stress and worry and anxiety. But the difference is that these things don’t rule me as much as they used to. I feel more in charge of my life; I feel more steady and even. I find myself singing to myself one of my favorite lines from Hamilton, in “The Schuyler Sisters.” “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” I feel less dread; I feel more distant from burnout. I feel powerful, and this is a very, very good feeling indeed.

Here and Now: Buddhism, Mindfulness, and Burnout–A Guest Post from Jessica Olin

Mishka The Buddhist
source

Today’s guest post is from Jessica OlinJessica Olin is a Buddhist. She is also the Director of the Robert H. Parker Library at Wesley College in Dover, DE. Her professional interests include building communities at liberal arts college libraries, bringing the lessons of intersectional feminism to bear in professional settings, and helping others bridge the gap between library science graduate programs and professional practice. She blogs regularly at Letters to a Young Librarian and tweets (somewhat obsessively) at @olinj.


 

Last year, I wrote a post on my blog about the routines I’ve built to avoid burning out professionally. Shortly afterward, Maria approached me about writing a guest post. In her invitation, she said something that struck me as particularly apt:

“I would to love publish something by you on my burnout blog that is a closer look at the role meditation and Buddhism plays in your life as it relates to burnout prevention and/or recovery. My hunch is that there is a spiritual dimension to burnout that people don’t really talk about that much, so I’m eager to shine some light on that.”

A lot of things got in the way of me following up on my promise to write that post, such as a crushingly busy Fall semester, but I think the biggest hurdle for me was my uncertainty about how to approach the topic. I tried multiple times, from a lot of different angles, before I finally realized there is a slight disconnect between how Maria phrased her request and my actual religious practice.

You see, for me, Buddhism isn’t spirituality. At least not my personal definition of that word, which in my mind gets at mysticism and deities and following dictates handed down from long long ago. That isn’t how I practice Buddhism. For me, Buddhism is practical. It’s almost like a coastal map that helps me avoid shoals and reefs. If you’re really interested in a history lesson about the evolution of this religion, I can recommend some books and/or websites. But the important thing to know here is that Buddhism is much more about the here and now than about any kind of hereafter.

In the interests of sharing the practical aspects, here are three ideas/practices that I think can help you avoid or even recover from burnout:

  1. Non-attachment. Try to avoid getting attached to ideas or people or things or places. Attachment makes us afraid to lose those ideas or people or things or places, and that’s the root of suffering and anxiety – that fear. I’m still kind of crap at non-attachment, but not getting too upset about not being good about this yet is itself an example of non-attachment. No matter how hard we try, pretty much all of us are still going to get attached to people, places, things, ideas, but we need to keep working towards non-attachment without getting wrapped up in (attached to) the results.
  2. Mindfulness. This is the idea of being in the moment instead of somewhere in the past or somewhere in the future. Try doing only one thing at a time, and really concentrating on that one thing. Another way to practice being present is to take a couple of minutes each day and concentrate solely on your breathing. I’ve got an Android app that I use to help me, but you really just need to count your breath.
  3. Daily meditation. Don’t think of meditation as quieting your mind. It’s letting the thoughts rise and fall without attaching significance (non-attachment again) to any of them. If I’m sitting with others, I can meditate for a lot longer, but in my daily practice I sit for 10-15 minutes. Even five minutes a day can help you. (This LifeHacker post has a good rundown of the science.) Also, even if you don’t sit in a lotus position on your fancy meditation pillow, just being still for 5-10 minutes can be beneficial. I read once that our minds are like ponds, and the events of our lives are like wind or pebbles or even boulders that disturb the surface. Meditation allows you to stop the input for those few minutes, and the surface clears a bit. No other explanation of the benefits of meditation has ever felt truer to me.

I know that Buddhism isn’t the right fit for everyone, but the benefits of meditation are proven. Give it a try, even if you just sit still for a couple of minutes per day. And if what I’ve said about Buddhism intrigues you, let me know? I’ve got about a bazillion books I can recommend.