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Running On Empty

I have known this for many years, but I reaffirmed my assessment this past week.

I am a creative. I seriously enjoy making things.

As I've previously noted over the last few months, for a number of reasons I've been inundated with what I would classify as 'non-creative' work and other business over the last few years. The past three months have been exceptionally difficult and progressively over- or front-loaded with non-creative activity. Some activities are within my direct control (I should say "no" more often), but many fall outside that circle. To the point where I experience death by a thousand cuts—leading to inadequate attention or detail to anything for need to work on everything. While these sorts of issues are often things with which I enjoy assisting, I discovered that my ongoing lack of personal, meaningful creative activity was leading me dangerously close, or even at times directly to the "B word:"


I could go on and on about the typical symptoms of burnout, how I often recognized them for what they were, and how I'd adequately resign myself to just dealing with it (it'll get better [tomorrow/next[week/month/quarter/year]]), but it really came to a head shortly before MMS.

I had lost the enjoyment of my regular job for the consistent lack of working on my own creative stuff or needs.

That's a painful statement to write.

I love helping people. I love my organization. I am a social creature. Empowering and teaching folks is awesome.

But that's all I've been doing for the last six months, and with obviously-decreasing effectiveness. You know it's getting bad when folks you encounter on the sidewalk start 'casually' bringing up their ticket/problem/situtaion in passing, only to respond with an in-kind apology akin to "correct—we have not forgotten about you." And they have a right to be frustrated and upset about the problem they brought up three or more months ago. I'd be pissed, too.

I have a lengthy backlog of projects of my own, including some client projects, which never receive the (or any) proper love and feeding they require. These are the sort of things to help make my life more simple (automation or continuous improvement projects). Any time I even started to think about working on them, someone else's problem became more important than my own. Rinse, repeat. I don't dare take some time off to just do nothing or something for myself. I only took the time required to stay below my max accrual; after all, it'll be better tomorrow, right?

I don't intend to write much about mental health here (or now), but I know one thing: by early- to mid-April, I could recognize symptoms of something much gnarlier brewing within my being. Interestingly enough, I also discovered my primary trigger: the drive to work. Halfway there, every day, I would "feel" it. I don't know how to adequately describe it as it's likely different for everyone, but you know it when it happens.

As I prepared to be out of the office for the week of MMS, I discovered that I would roll-over my max vacation and would have to take a full day to prevent the rollover. Due to existing commitments there was no way I could sneak in a full day before the end of the administrative pay period. Consequently, this led to a one-off arrangement to accommodate. But at the end of the day it all points to a lack of "self-care," or prioritizing some of my own needs over that of everyone else.

So I took that day off, would be gone for a week for a conference, back for part of a week, and arranged for a full week off just before a long holiday weekend. For the month of May I'll only be in the office for a third of it.

As noted, MMS was amazing and totally refreshing. A real battery charger. Super inspiring and honestly probably more of a personal lifesaver than I admit. My partial week back in the office was during a relatively quiet time—finals week. I chose deliberately what I could adequately accomplish (or where to spend my focus), though my own projects were out of scope for that time (in part due to the full-administrative-network block of RDP which made the last two days in office particularly...challenging).

Since leaving the office that Friday Beth and I went on a mini "date" Saturday evening (short shopping trip to Menards and a nice supper without the girls), and I haven't left the ranch since. I have spent all of my time sleeping in, drinking coffee and reading (mornings), working on personal/side/client projects during the bulk of the day—actually making stuff—and enjoying the run of PBS/Masterpiece's Les Misérables and other varied series in the evenings. Beer, cooking, and other household activities are obviously interspersed as appropriate.

It's been amazing. Being able to make stuff just for me has been a real refreshing change—a necessary one at that.

I even carved out a full personal day on Saturday, just for me. I sat outside, under the umbrella, the entire day. Coffee, water, beer, reading, music. I managed to finish the last three chapters of Scandinavians in the State House (~90 pages), which I'd started at Christmas. It was also reaffirming to complete that read at the end of the 2019 Minnesota Legislative Session. The book is a tough, academish-type historical read, but is super insightful. The last few chapters connected with me in ways that I'd not expected (namely around Scandinavian behaviors and attitudes toward public service). On Sunday, I spent a lot of time outside again and started a new, much lighter, read: Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman, which I'd received as a Christmas gift.

As a result of this time of reflection and personal creativity, when I return to the office on Tuesday after Memorial Day I will be having a frank and candid conversation with my director. It will likely approach the uncomfortable realm at times, but I have to be frank about not crossing that burnout border again. We need to find a new balance of personal creativity (internal process improvements) and external/client demands. We'll create something meaningful, no doubt. I still love my day job and institution. And I'm grateful to have a supportive organization and director.

My tailing words of encouragement for anyone reading this are simple: if you recognize the symptoms, subtle or rational as they may be, try to do something before you go too far down the burnout road. You owe it to yourself, your colleagues, and your users.

Headline image credit to Jay Sprogell via Giphy