The question of burnout

Burnout can be a huge issue for many of us: I joke, at times, with other people doing things, about the problem of Witches Who Do Too Much, but there’s definitely a group of us out there. A recent discussion on an email list about this got me thinking about some things I do.

Now, anyone who’s read some of my ‘day in the life’ posts has the idea that I’m insanely busy. It’s gotten better this year. This year, I’m working full time, actively job hunting, starting a new coven, and trying to have a social life. This time last year, I was working full time, taking two graduate classes, actively involved in my Pagan group’s leadership (rituals, some teaching, and meetings/initiate work one night a week.) Oh, yes. And trying to have a social life/some down time. Both years, I’ve been part of our Pagan Pride Day board, which has some variable time commitments (for most of the year, monthly meetings and in-between work I can do at home.)

So. How to do that?

1) Be aware.

What is burnout? What does it look like for me? Am I doing too much? Am I too frustrated with what I’m doing? Do I feel like what I’m doing isn’t making any difference?
What has helped before at those times? What helps short-term? When do I need to look at long-term changes? If I’m feeling burned out, is the problem what I’m doing, who I’m doing it with, or how it’s getting done?

I try to take time informally every month or two (and definitely when there’s any significant change in my time/energy/focus) to think through these things. Tools that have helped:

  • Regular journaling: if I read through my journal and notice a month or two of frustration, misery, or just discontentment, that’s important (especially if there’s no other obvious cause.)
  • Friends who notice when I am repeatedly unhappy and stressed (as opposed to really busy, but happy with that, and coping well).
  • Awareness of different ways of doing things, and which ones seem to be a better fit for me (both roles and things like meeting and organisational methods, productivity techniques, etc.) This way, if something is frustrating me, I stand a chance of making changes that might help.

The last point has to do with which tasks I take on in the first place. I look for things that use my skills and talents, and that play to them or my interests. For example, if I have no interest in fundraising, and dislike phone calls, there are some community roles that so aren’t a good fit. If (as happens to be true), I like lists, and organising people, and sorting out details, and doing most of my communication by email, something like my current Programming role for Pagan Pride is ideal.

The other part of this is challenge – most of us don’t like doing the same thing we know how to do already for extended periods. Having new goals or challenges can really help in keeping you from burning out (if you’ve otherwise picked a general role that’s a good fit.)

2) Keep an eye on the basics:

I’m so not the poster child for this one: I try to cram at least 36 hours of activity into many days. But in general, I work hard to schedule a night or two of down time each week, I get enough sleep, and my home is a place I enjoy being in (chores done, etc.)

If those things go wonky, burnout is pretty likely to occur.

Basics also matter when we’re talking about both what I’m doing and what skills it calls on. For example, I dislike talking on the phone to people I don’t know well, and I’m not good at fundraising. Taking a role that involves these things is more likely to burn me out than a role that involves organisation (something I love) and can mostly be handled through email or face to face meetings.

3) Why am I doing X task?

Am I afraid the task will disappear if I stop doing it? Some kinds of roles have a natural life cycle. When we tie up our identity with the task, it can feel immensely painful to drop it – because we get scared that if it disappears, we weren’t really important in the first place.

Thing is, though, as a witch, as a priestess – never mind as a mature human being – I should be able to see that for what it is. My identity, my sense of self come from far more than if I do or don’t do one specific task in the community – or even five or ten tasks!

There’s also another, more logical part. If I do a task for 5 years, and then stop (and the group in question stops having someone do that task after me), that doesn’t mean that the task was unimportant while I was doing it.

If you spend a year building a house, and then stop (because the house is done), your work was still meaningful, and you (and others) benefit from it. Treating our community interactions in the same way, recognising that sometimes a task is needed, and then isn’t, helps with a healthier perspective. Maybe I did such good work with something that it’s no longer needed as a specific task, or can be split up in new ways. Or maybe the community or need has changed or shifted. These are good things, not bad.

All of these things help…

But they’re not always enough. A future post will talk about what I do when I hit that point, and how to handle it.

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