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.

Rejection Burnout–A Guest Post by Kaitlin Springmier

Today’s guest post from Kaitlin Springmier offers helpful and practical tips for dealing with the burnout that can result from rejection in the workplace. These suggestions really resonate with me! Kaitlin Springmier is the first Resident Librarian at the University of Chicago. She’s still trying to understand the twitter-verse @kaitlinspring.


 

As the information environment is rapidly evolving, librarians have opportunities to dramatically alter what they teach, how they define themselves, and how they embrace change. However, it seems new members in the profession struggle with getting some of their more experienced colleagues to agree to new and innovative ideas. I say this because, as a member of the New Members’ Round Table listserv, this week’s discussion topic was, “How to respond to common ways of shutting down ideas.”

Currently, I work for an institution that steeped in a history of traditional intellectual pursuit. The library is branded as a place for serious intellectual inquiry. Students are prompted to wander through the massive stacks to encourage ‘serendipitous discovery.’ When the main library hit capacity, the institution decided to spend $81 million in order to keep collections on campus.

This perception means that sometimes my proposals for new ‘fun’ outreach events can be shut down with a ‘we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work,’ or ‘that’s not welcome on this campus.’ And hearing ‘no’ can be hard. It can make you feel like your ideas are not welcome, and after so many ‘no’s, you can feel discouraged and give up.

However, my past experiences in the workforce have prepared me to work with the nos that I hear. I now have a toolbox to work within the outright rejection which can sometimes eventually turn into a ‘yes.’ I’d like to share my experiences, in hopes to help my fellow new librarians be the best change agent that they can be.

So first- a little history. Before I decided on library school, I worked for a chain of used bookstores. I started as a part-time bookseller and within a year had climbed my way up to a position of assistant manager. My promotion came with a change in location, which meant new coworkers, new responsibilities, and a new boss. Most notably, though, the location change also meant a new culture.

In my 2 years as an assistant manager, I proposed a lot of ideas, and was shut down a lot. I went from working in a place I loved with friends who cared for me to dreading walking into the store everyday. I was not accepted, appreciated, or respected. When I put in my two week notice, I had turned into a person that was jaded, discouraged and unsure of my ideas. In hindsight, my presence impacted the store immensely. Employees interactions with customers improved, sales went up, and the store started buying used product smarter. It’s only in reflecting on what worked and what didn’t that I can give recommendations on how to approach and innovate in a culture resistant to change. Here’s 5 tips I’ve learned that can greatly reduce the rejection of new ideas or the burnout you feel after hearing ‘no.’

  1. Find your wolfpack

The hardest thing to do is to change a culture all by yourself.

When starting in a new place, find people (or groups of people) who have the similar ideas who can support you and your endeavors. When I started in my new position, this meant asking people out for coffee, dropping in on committee meetings, or just sitting next to strangers at staff meetings. Once you’ve found a great support system, see if they’ll help you propose new ideas. If your superiors see that there is a group of people interested in supporting a new idea, they are more apt to say yes. And if they still say no, at least you’ll have a group to commiserate with.

  1. Ask why

Don’t let someone tell you no without an explanation.

Learn what it is about your idea that’s getting the no, and tweak it. Personally, my proposals tend to be rejected because they’re too lofty. When I hear why my superiors have said no, I can come back with a more manageable, cheaper, or smaller idea that is more likely to get a yes. Asking why also begins a conversation with your superior. You’ll be able to learn more about your library’s culture, and what types of proposals are more welcome.

  1. Work within the system

Propose in a way that that seems to benefit them more than you.

If you’ve ever gone to a workshop on writing cover letters, you’ll know that one of the most recommended techniques is to speak directly to the expressed needs in the job ad. This is the same for proposing ideas. When crafting your proposal, ask questions like:

  • “How does this align with the library’s strategic directions?”
  • “What benefit would my supervisor find in this?”

Find your answers, and explicitly speak to them in your proposal. In doing so, you are acknowledging that your ideas are inspired by the directives that your superiors have labored over.

  1. Make it an extracurricular

Keep that work-life balance

Sometimes, no matter how great your idea is, your library won’t have the time, resources, or support you need to make it happen. When this is the case, see what you can do to make it happen in your own life. Maria previously wrote about the importance of maintaining a consciousness of who you are outside of work. Being a librarian is a job. Make sure you keep it that way.

  1. Find a new job

When your job is toxic, it’s time to get out.

By the end of my time at the bookstore, I knew that my only relief would be to leave the job, and move on. And while I miss my bookstore job everyday (so much so that I’ve begun to volunteer at my local bookstore), I know that I’m now in a work environment that fosters creativity, innovation, and happiness. Make sure you find the same.

I hope this is helpful in mediating the burnout you might be feeling. But I’m sure that you, dear reader, have discovered other ways to overcome the “no”s in your professional life. Please share!

For the lucky librarian about to go on sabbatical, especially @donnarosemary

If you are a librarian about to go on sabbatical, I probably don’t need to tell you how lucky you are. I’m pretty sure you already know how luxurious it is to have extended paid time off to think and write and read as much as you want. But even if you are fully aware of how fortunate you are to have this opportunity and are eagerly awaiting the day your leave begins, you still might have some anxiety about what’s to come. Having experienced, enjoyed, and returned from a semester sabbatical leave, I have some words to share that may be wisdom or may be useless. Do with this what you will, keeping in mind that your mileage may vary, etc.

  1. Do what you need to do to tie up loose ends before you leave, but try not to stress too much about it. Do the minimum required to be a good and respectful departmental citizen and move on. Don’t kill yourself over it. You don’t have to leave your office, your desk, your inbox, or your anything in a perfect, pristine state. The library and the university will go on without you.

This image is a screen shot of a tweet to @donnarosemary that reads: "You do not need to be the valedictorian of pre-sabb-loose-end-tying-up" followed by a spiderweb and thunderbolt emojis.
This image is a screen shot of a tweet to @donnarosemary that reads: “You do not need to be the valedictorian of pre-sabb-loose-end-tying-up” followed by a spiderweb and thunderbolt emojis.
2. Do not listen to the grumblings of resentful colleagues who want you to know how inconvenienced they are going to be by your absence. If your institution is anything like mine, your sabbatical would not have been approved if there wasn’t a way to do without you for awhile. The solution may not perfect, and yes, people will be inconvenienced, but that is for your boss/dean/director/etc. to figure out, not you. Your job is to take the leave and do the work you proposed to do to the best of your ability, so do not feel guilty.

3. When you start your leave, you may feel unmoored by the sudden lack of structure in your day. You will likely need a routine of some kind to help you make the most of your time and not feel like you’re just frittering the time away. I urge you to experiment with developing a structure and schedule that works for you so you don’t feel completely untethered. However, make your schedule flexible, because life happens, and and there’s no point in beating yourself up if you don’t read X number of pages or write X words per day. For example, I abandoned my schedule and read all 800-plus pages of Anna Karenina in great big gulps over three days, because I could, and because I wanted to, and it was awesome. Sure, I didn’t get anything else done, but I got back to work when I was done, and it was fine.

4. Read and write stuff unrelated to your project. You’ll need breaks from the intellectual labor of your sabbatical project, so try doing some exercises with a creative writing workbook. It may help stir things up and ideas will click into place when you’re concentrating on other matters. Also, read for pleasure, if you can. See Anna Karenina above.

5. You do have an obligation to do or begin to do whatever you proposed in your sabbatical application, but you also have an obligation to tend to more than just your mind. Your physical/emotional/mental/spiritual health need attention as well. You have probably applied for sabbatical after the long, arduous, emotionally-fraught tenure process. You need a rest, so take one. Sleep in for as long as you need to when you start your leave and get it out of your system, because let’s be real: you can’t sleep your sabbatical away. Go to a daytime movie on a Tuesday. Explore the wonders of daytime television. (I recommend General Hospital. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t watch it growing up like I did. You’ll catch up.) Take naps. Start meditating. Learn how to bake bread. If you are able and interested, incorporate physical activity into your routine. Go for regular walks, or get a yoga CD or DVD. Just whatever you enjoy and brings you energy and pleasure and satisfaction.

6. Don’t feel like you need a special, dedicated space to do your work. When I was on my sabbatical, I did not have a study or an office or private space. I mostly read and wrote at my kitchen table while listening to the local classical music station. It worked just fine. (Also, because apparently no one else listens to my local classical music station during the day, I kept being the lucky caller who won tickets to things. I went to the opera and the ballet!)

7. After you’ve had some quiet time to yourself and the chatter in your mind has quieted down, you might find yourself feeling lonely. This is normal. I was surprised by how isolated and lonely I felt. Reach out to people and connect with your friends. If you know other people who are available during the day, have weekday lunch dates with them. This will refresh you and help you get focused back on your work.

8. Avoid going to your campus if you can help it. Check out all of the books you think you’ll need ahead of time. (I brought home two suitcases full.) Set up an out-of-office message for your voicemail and email directing people elsewhere if they need something, and try not to check your voice or email if at all possible. I personally checked my email maybe every other week, mostly to delete stuff, just to keep things from getting out of control.

9. And since you’re avoiding campus, this is a good time to become an avid user of your local public library, if you aren’t already, and if your local public library is a good one.

I come from immigrant people. My great-grandfather was a carusu and had a second grade education. So believe me, I understand my good fortune to have had a sabbatical, and I’m sure you do as well. Your sabbatical will end before you know it, and then you have to figure out how to reintegrate yourself into your workplace and worklife. But that’s to worry about later. For now, just enjoy your time, and your space, and the quiet, and your books, and revel in the luxury of being paid to not go to work. :hearteyes:

 

Zinemaking My Burnout–Guest Post by Donna Witek

I am delighted to present this guest post that describes a creative way of dealing with burnout. Donna Witek is an Associate Professor and academic instruction librarian in Northeast Pennsylvania. She blogs at Information Constellation and tweets about libraries, parenting, and technology as @donnarosemary. If you’re looking for her, she’s probably in her office coloring.


 

Under this blog’s title is a tagline and an invitation: “what we talk about when we talk about burnout”.

So, let’s talk.

I’m burnt out on assessment.

Many who read this particular blog will likely see that statement and say, “Oh yes, indeed, been there (and maybe still am).” This helps me, because believe it or not, I am not in the mood to use words to analyze why I’m burnt out on assessment. Most of it feels too self-evident for me to do that productively.

But even for the parts that aren’t self-evident, writing words about why assessment, as it is structurally and institutionally handed down to librarians like me (which may not be the ‘ideal’ of what assessment could be, but is still my present reality)…writing words about this isn’t going to help me right now, because at the end of all those potential words, I still need to do assessment.

Words can be powerful. The act of naming things helps us understand them better. And by understanding them, we may* have the capability of doing something about them (i.e., reflection into action).

But the words I have inside me, in reference to assessment, are a mess that I’m not ready to shape into something fit for public consumption.

So I made a zine instead.

This is the part I’m excited to talk about in this post about what we talk about when we talk about burnout. (Try saying that three times fast!)

I took a thing I feel, in ways that are pretty big and overwhelming, and I turned it into a tangible thing that tells a small part of the story of what’s happening inside me in reference to assessment. And it helped.

There are of course words in my zine–including what can only be described as bad (but satisfying!) poetry, written by yours truly. So words certainly helped me along here. But zinemaking also involved cutting with scissors, writing things out in pen, drawing pictures with highlighters, and shaping the space that falls between the boundaries of the zine template I chose to use to tell the story I need it to tell.

The specific aspect of assessment I’m burnt out on right now is rubrics–writing them, teaching with them, and scoring them.

So I turned my burnout about rubrics into a zine.

This process challenged me to shape my burnout into something others can see and engage with, and my feelings about this one part of assessment have now been named, not through a detailed text-based analysis, but through and in a zine. Which I made out of my burnout.

It’s the best act of self care I’ve done this summer (with a close second going to taking up coloring). And Maria has encouraged me to share it with all of you.

My zine is called Outside the Lines, and over in my little corner of the internet you can access it, trade for it, or buy it at cost. Here’s the tagline I wrote for it:

A zine about the liminal spots on the page where learning / understanding / living / loving / making / doing / being must sprawl outside the lines in order to actually happen.

And here’s a sneak peak at the cover (scanned in color for digital viewing):

Using that red highlighter was sooooo satisfying.

There are so many things in my life, both professional and personal, to which this idea–this tension between order and sprawl–applies. Rubrics are the topic of volume 1, issue 1. I’m hoping to create a new issue twice a year on a different topic each time.

I want to make zinemaking a part of my praxis as an academic instruction librarian (to bring this back around to the project of this blog). I learned this summer that taking my burnout, and turning it into something material that tells at least a small part of the story going on inside me, helps me see it clearer, understand it better, and shifts my feelings toward it from burneverythingdownrightnowrageragerage, to “hey, look at this rad thing I made out of that crappy feeling”.

It’s hard to explain why this shift matters, but it does. It makes it so I can face fall semester, during which I know I will have to write, teach with, or score at least one new rubric. It also makes it so I can go through fall semester keeping an eye out for other things about which I have that ragey feeling, so I can target those things as topics for future zines, transforming my feelings about them into something satisfying and tangible to share with others.

It’s like I have a new twice-a-year therapist, made out of paper, post-its, pens, scissors, glue, and highlighters. So even when I can’t write out in detailed language what my burnout is like, I’ll now be able to talk about my burnout through the regular act of zinemaking.

And knowing this makes facing my next task involving (effing) rubrics palatable.

 

*I say “may” because, even if analysis leads to deeper understanding about a problem, and even if that in turn leads to ideas for how to change the situation to make it better, so often there are structural barriers in place that make putting these ideas into action impossible or close to it.

“If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you.”

I don’t think it is unusual to encounter a guitar-strumming dude singing folky tunes at an outdoor Saturday farmers’ market. This is just part of the atmosphere, as normal and expected as the people selling local organic honey produced by lesbian separatist bees. But it is probably unusual to find that the guitar-strumming folk-singing dude is your boss, as in the director of your library. But that is what has happened to me a number of times over the past year. My library director is a musician and a writer as well as a librarian. He used to be the dining critic for our local paper. Now he plays guitar and sings in his own band, while also occasionally penning theater reviews for the local alternative weekly paper. He has a rich and interesting life outside of his job, which is something I desperately want to cultivate.

As I’ve been emerging from the numbness of burnout and depression and trying to reconnect with what brings meaning and purpose to my life, I’ve been experiencing these creative impulses and urges that I’m trying to figure out what to do with. I want to create things and have ideas and daydream. I’ve tried learning how to sew for a while now, but I can barely sew a straight line (see: my kitchen curtains). I’m pretty good at crocheting, but I haven’t made anything in ages. I’ve always wanted to learn how to paint, or draw, or play a proper musical instrument (the recorder in the fifth grade doesn’t count), but time and resources are a challenge. So mostly I’ve been expressing my creative urges through writing.

Writing my book a few years ago allowed a new voice to emerge from me, a voice that was a sort of hybrid of personal narrative and a more professional, scholarly voice. Writing in this voice was immensely satisfying for me, but I’ve also found recent satisfaction in other forms of writing. I attended the How-To Festival at the Louisville Free Public Library a few weeks ago, and I went to a session about how to write a sonnet. It was surprising to me how much information and knowledge I had retained about Shakespearean sonnets from high school English, but there it was, just sitting in my head, waiting to be drawn out. We wrote a sonnet in our little group session, and then later, I wrote some more. I’ve written a bunch of them since then, with rhyme schemes and iambic pentameter and everything. There’s something very satisfying and paradoxically liberating about working through an idea in the confined space and structure of a sonnet.

When I read over the sonnets I’ve written so far, there are many recurring themes: a desire to fly, a wish to be free, wanting to embrace what is true and real, a longing for calmness and peace, the yearning to be closer to something that is divine. And these feelings are emerging in other areas of my life. I find myself increasingly distressed and disgusted by my reading habits, my difficulty in focusing on things of substance, and my mindless internet browsing habits. I recently read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and I was startled and transfixed by her assertion: “If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you.” I want good books, good ideas, good creations to come out of me so very very much in every possible way, so ultimately I need to feed myself with better stuff.

While I was on sabbatical last year, I entertained lots of fantasies about quitting everything and being a writer of some kind and somehow making a living in this way. This is obviously not going to happen, but I talked about it with my boss last fall. We met for coffee about halfway through my sabbatical and I told him that I felt creatively frustrated and that I wasn’t sure if I could be a librarian forever and what was I going to do with my life and HEEELLLLLP. And he talked to me about cultivating a rich and interesting life outside of my job, how I might find personal fulfillment in doing other things than being a librarian, and while being a librarian can still be satisfying, it can also be the means to support more creative pursuits. And given his regular guitar-playing presence at Saturday farmers’ markets and the like, he knows of which he speaks.

This was revelatory for me. To think of librarianship as a thing I do, a thing that I mostly pretty much like, but also a thing to subsidize other interests and dreams—this was disconcerting but also kind of exciting. For basically my whole career thus far, being a librarian has been central to my identity. So, obviously, having moments of doubt about my future in the profession was very disorienting and confusing. If I’m not a librarian, then who am I? And how did I become someone who anchored my sense of self in my professional identity? If what I do is who I am, then it’s really no wonder that I’ve been struggling with burnout.

You’re not going to find me playing the guitar and singing at farmers’ markets or local stages any time soon, and you probably aren’t going to see me publishing my poems either. But you can find me here, in this space, trying to work through what it means to have meaning outside of my work, trying to feed myself with real food, and jiggling my creative limbs, which were previously asleep, but are now pin-prickingly awake.