Burnout is intense and overwhelming, and it often consumes your life before you realize what has happened. It affects people at work and in homes across the country, and it is usually driven by an obsession with productivity at the expense of actually enjoying your life. In other words, living to work, not working to live. The problem at first seems overwhelming, but combating burnout is surprisingly simple. I’ve learned (the hard way) that all it takes is consistently carving out moments of “me time.”
Serenity Not Now
I can’t quite figure out at what point between childhood and adulthood I lost the ability to devote quality time to myself. As a homeschooler in the late 1990s and early 2000s in a house that was often TV-free due to my mother’s frequent back-to-basics proclamations, I was exceptionally good at quality leisure time. Boredom is the real mother of invention. I could happily devote hours to reading or to learning a craft I was curious about. When other friends were available, we dropped everything to spend time together—in the early days of homeschooling, friends often lived up to an hour away, so you didn’t miss an opportunity once it presented itself.
Once college introduced me to adulthood—deadlines, bills, and work that was necessary to pay for living expenses, not just an opportunity to leave the house—I defined my worth and success on my grades and then later my work production. I started to feel guilty doing things I enjoyed just because I enjoyed them.
If something didn’t directly contribute to my grades or earning some extra spending money, what was the point? I went from reading voraciously for pleasure to only reading what I had to because spending time reading didn’t actually accomplish anything. I dropped most of my hobbies entirely, unless I could earn money from them. Even time with friends occasionally suffered by being over-scheduled or utilitarian, or the evenings just involved melting into the couch while watching TV because we were too exhausted to do anything else.
A few years into my loss of leisure, I was experiencing a constant white noise of distraction that was drowning out me and my own thoughts: “Distracted from distraction by distraction,” as T. S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, felt like my norm. For the first time in my life, I started playing out a “running away from it all” fantasy in my head. My daydream involved joining the artisans of a Renaissance fair and traveling the country while doing some unspecified artsy trade. When your solution to daily frustrations is some variation of running away and joining the circus, that is a strong indicator that you need to get your life in order.
It took me a few more years to figure it out, but a huge part of the problem was my total disconnect from the things that made me happy and connected me to my best self. What I found out was that I needed to learn how to integrate the joys of my childhood with the responsibilities of my adulthood. It is not an either/or choice.
What counselors call self-care and philosophers call leisure is simply a conscious and intentional effort to care for your body, mind, and spirit. It sounds so simple, right? Yet therapists, spiritual advisers, and support fellowships have to spend a lot of time explaining the importance of a little thing called self-care. Author and professor Brené Brown discusses the importance of play in living a wholehearted life. Without allowing yourself the time to play—which Brown defines as “doing things just because they’re fun and not because they’ll help achieve a goal”—you could be heading toward a burnout and not even notice the signs. Turns out that quality leisure time is not just a nice option to take every so often; it is essential to a well-lived life, and its absence can result in internal chaos.
Keeping Your Paddle Now Helps You Up a Creek Later
So, experts tell us that we need to devote time to ourselves to live balanced and fulfilled lives. Great. How do we do that? If I were to tell you that it was necessary to devote one day a week to quality leisure—meaning that Netflix or other screen time doesn’t count—would you know what to do? My personal challenge to engage in more quality leisure time at first ended with frozen bafflement and a lot of time wasted indulging in my technology addiction. Leisure? Shouldn’t I be doing something productive? Why doesn’t Facebook stalking or TV binge watching count as leisure? We are often reluctant to consciously devote time to leisure because we aren’t really sure what leisure is.
When I brought this up among friends, a lot of them confided that they also are terrified of being (or perceived as being) selfish or lazy if they devote time to themselves. We spend hours on others’ needs but neglect our own needs and wants out of guilt. We take work with us when we go on vacation and busy ourselves from dawn to dusk with tasks and chores. We are never really off the clock because we must be hardworking and productive above all else. Right?
Let’s first talk about what leisure isn’t. Can it be selfish? Yes, I have known people who invoked their right to “me time” when what they were really doing was demanding carte blanche to skirt their responsibilities, flake out on commitments, and neglect people who needed them. Healthy self-care is not part of a zero-sum game where your duties and the people who need you are dismissed while you lie around self-indulgently.
What you do with your quality leisure time depends on what brings you the most joy; psychologists note that the key is in making the time for it on a regular basis. Meditate, do daily reading, or go for a walk or run every morning to get centered before the business of the day begins. Allow yourself quality, guilt-free time with a friend when you start to feel lonely or disconnected. Keep up on hobbies that make you feel great about yourself. Reconnect with your joy.
After I’d spent a few months trying to get this self-care concept down, primarily wrestling with guilt about selfishness and productivity, I had a very raw experience that proved how caring for yourself is caring for others. A family member was in the hospital with a traumatic injury. Past Me would have gone into immediate freak-out mode. First, a panicky feeling of helplessness repressed behind a blank mask of calmness. Next, self-denial from emotional support, food, drink, and rest for myself. Finally, fretting over worst-case scenario options until I was so hungry, sick, and exhausted that my faux calm finally gave way to irritable emotional catatonia. Self-Care Me stepped away at the ER for a couple minutes to reach out to a friend I knew would be able to give me calming advice so that I could focus on the present reality rather than freaking out over future what-ifs. As I was aware of my own basic needs such as water and snacks, I was able to offer attention to my family who needed me rather than becoming an additional source of stress. Fortunately ER visits are rare, but it was a good reminder of why self-care works in all situations. For people especially resistant to the concept of caring for your own needs, there is always the airline safety reminder: You need to put your own oxygen mask on first before you help anyone else.
It’s always a work in progress, and your needs will change as your life changes, but living with leisure can help you stop careening from one crisis to the next and instead live your life with joy and purpose.