On burning out

As I sit here, tapping away on my keyboard, I feel like a fraud. A charlatan. An imposter. I feel like what I’ve been through isn’t that bad. Like what I’m about to say is over-dramatic. Like my experience isn’t worth sharing.

But we all feel this way, right?

Mental health is hard to talk about. Sharing what lurks in the deep, dark recesses of our mind requires a vulnerability that most of us have grown up resisting. We worry that if people knew what we know, they’d judge us. Or it would affect our relationships. It feels easier to keep things locked up.

That’s what I really like about Geek Mental Help Week: it sparks conversation and encourages us to share our own experiences with the darker side of our psyche. Things we’d normally keep to ourselves.

When we’re going through those dark periods, we feel alone. We feel like we’re the only one who has ever felt this way. As if we’re uniquely broken. But the truth is life will give us hardships. We’ll be misunderstood. We’ll be rejected or unfairly criticised. We’ll lose people that are close to us. Unfortunately, it’s inevitable that dark times will creep up on us. It’s just part of what it is to be human.

As Matt Haig in his excellent book Reasons to Stay Alive put it:

We humans might have evolved too far. The price for being intelligent enough to be the first species to be fully aware of the cosmos might just be a capacity to feel a whole universe’s worth of darkness.

We know ourselves. We’re acutely aware of our own faults and failings. But we’re too close. We forget that many of the things we suffer from are common between us. Geek Mental Help Week offers some solace in the fact that everyone, regardless of how successful or wonderful their lives appear from the outside, will too travel to those same places of darkness.

You are not alone.

It was roughly two years ago that I went self-employed. It was a leap into the unknown. I had savings, and I’d planned as much as possible, but it was still a leap. The first year of business was good. Surprisingly good. In fact, I wish it had been less good, because it set me with false expectations for what was to come.

In a way, I was just lucky. Work was arriving in my inbox at just the time I needed it. I rode that wave of luck as far as I could, until eventually I found myself trying to surf on a flat ocean.

The start of this year was slow. Since I’m new to self-employment, and the roller-coaster ride that comes along with it, that was an unnerving place to be. Using the spare time I had, I worked on a side project called “The 30 Day Writing Challenge”. I wanted to encourage people to write and to help them build a habit of writing daily. It took place in April earlier this year, which is when things started to boil over.

April was, without a doubt, the most productive month of my life. Work had picked up, and I had a full schedule for the month. I worked on client projects for 8 hours a day. I also ran the writing challenge, offering advice and encouragement on writing daily. On top of that, I set myself the ambitious goal of writing a blog post per day.

The result was working 12-14 hours per day, every day. At the time, I felt good. I was waking at 5.30am and writing for 2 hours every morning. I found a rhythm and pushed myself. If I’m being completely honest, I wanted to be a workaholic. I took pride in the fact that I was burning the candle at both ends. I’d adopted a simple yet damaging attitude: I might not be the smartest, but I’ll damn well work the hardest.

Deep down, I knew I had looked up to the workaholics that the media so loves to portray as heroes – the Elon Musk’s and Gary Vaynerchuk’s of the world who survive on 6 hours of sleep. So here I was, trying to do just that. Hustling, as one might say.

In the tech industry, there’s an often repeated axiom on work-life balance: if you do what you love, you won’t have to work a day of your life again. This is a trap. I was doing what I love, but it was absolutely work. And it will drain you if you don’t treat your work with the respect it deserves.

And then May happened, and my productivity fell through the floor. I stopped waking up at 5.30am. I stopped going to bed at a reasonable time and I wasn’t sleeping well. Normally when I can’t sleep, it’s because my brain won’t switch off. But it wasn’t that my brain wouldn’t stop working; more that I couldn’t really get it started. I struggled to focus. I started procrastinating. My diet took a turn for the worse and I started snacking, putting on a little weight. Even the smallest, most trivial task became a chore.

And worse, projects began to slip and I started letting some of my clients down. Nothing major – they’re still clients, thankfully – but I wasn’t living up to my own standards. This leads a perceptual cycle of guilt and angst; things slip, so you feel bad and demotivated, then more things slip, and you feel worse, and so on. Before you know it, you’re running on a hamster wheel; not getting anywhere and with no idea how you’ll get off.

I’d never felt like this before. I love running my business, love working with my clients, love coding and designing and writing. And despite wanting to do all those things, I couldn’t engage my brain. I couldn’t understand what I was experiencing, so I turned on myself.

What followed was incessant, brutal self-talk. I’m f**king lazy, I’d tell myself. I thought I was just being lazy, and I had to shake myself out of it.

A bad day, turned into a bad week, turned into a bad month. My mind was grey. Days blurred together. I was going through the motions, but I wasn’t fully present. I wasn’t my normal self. I didn’t feel depressed, but then I didn’t feel much of anything.

This is when I realised, probably far later than I should have, what my mind was trying to tell me: it needed rest. I had burned out. Burn out, coupled with the stress from a slow start to the year, was quite the cocktail.

The thing is, burn out is invisible. The same is true for the myriad of other mental health issues. It’s all under the surface. On the outside, I gave the impression of normality. On the inside, I felt exhausted, easily irritated, and occasionally close to tears.

I learnt a lesson. We’re told to look after our bodies. We’re told to exercise and to eat healthy food and to not overindulge on the booze. But no one ever told me that my mind needed looking after too. Or perhaps they did, and I just didn’t listen. I think too few of us give our brains the adequate support and rest it needs.

Losing weight, at a fundamental level, is quite simple: eat less, exercise more. But caring for your own mind? That seems ever so more complex.

This isn’t something you ever really figure out. It’s an on-going journey. Life will always be a roller coaster of emotions. That said, I have found a few things that have helped me:

Have a routine. I’m not suggesting you have an elaborate morning or evening ritual, but I do think it’s helpful to start and end your day in a consistent way. Small things like making the bed, brewing a good coffee, writing a journal entry, or going for a run can help set the day off on the right foot.

Take a step back from social media. Although social media has its merits, it can be a place full of negativity. I’m starting to treat social media like alcohol: use it, but not too much. Avoid getting in arguments; nothing good ever comes from it. Use the mute button often.

Stop comparing yourself to others. Another problem with social media: you see glimpses of everyone else’s perfectly curated lives. You don’t see the bad days. It’s easy to get the impression that everyone else has things under control, that things are just right, and it’s only you that’s suffering.

Stop setting unattainable goals. Many of us are goal driven. I know I am. But goals are often dangerous because we set ourselves up for failure. If you’re going to set goals, set them low. Make them achievable. That way, you’re less likely to fail and more likely to surpass your goal. Rig the game in your favour.

Reduce the size of your daily todo list. There’s nothing worse than feeling overwhelmed in a mountain of todos. Tim Ferriss, in his book The Four Hour Work Week, suggests asking the following question about each item on your todo list: If this were the only thing I accomplished today, would I be satisfied with my day? Find that item, and make that your priority for the day. Once you’ve done that, the day is a success. Anything else you complete is a bonus.

Stop reading self-help books. When I’m in a dark place, I try to avoid self-help books. It makes me feel worse, because I end up focusing on what I should/could be doing. I’m also usually incapable of putting the advice to work. Read self-help books when your mind is in a state to do something with them.

Read fiction. Nothing beats a good novel. It’s a place to hide, to be someone else. A way of escaping my own head.

Take regular breaks. Get outside. Take a walk.

Write a journal entry. Opening up and talking helps, but often it’s the last thing I feel like doing. I keep things to myself (which, I know, is bad). But writing in private is a great way to open up. Just by putting how I’m feeling down on paper, I feel like it’s a way of acknowledging what’s going on. It helps me become more self-aware. Hard to explain, but I find it helps.

Know that bad days are inevitable.

I’m always happy to chat, if you feel like it. I’m on Twitter, @marcjenkins, or I can be reached via email.