By now, I have been working in the same disciplines for decades. The experience is highlighting previously hidden connections and new patterns start to emerge. One of the things that strike me is the strength and depth of positive thinking and burnout in my own life. I do not want you to repeat my mistakes, so I decide to write yet another article about it, trying to address the issue from a different perspective. From what I know, this perspective has not been discussed before. I suggest reading also here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.
Fractal nature of highs and lows.
While most of the science geeks like me know what the fractals are since they were in the high school, I will provide a short explanation for the cool guys and girls. The most magical property of fractals is so-called self-similarity. With fractals, we can be precise about what self-similarity means: the object contains small pieces that exactly reproduce the whole object when magnified. I quote:
Self-similar object is exactly or approximately similar to a part of itself (i.e. the whole has the same shape as one or more of the parts). Many objects in the real world, such as coastlines, are statistically self-similar: parts of them show the same statistical properties at many scales. For instance, a side of the Koch snowflake can be continually magnified 3x without changing shape. The non-trivial similarity evident in fractals is distinguished by their fine structure, or detail on arbitrarily small scales. As a counterexample, whereas any portion of a straight line may resemble the whole, further detail is not revealed.
Fractals occur quite often in nature. Seashores, mountains, clouds, snowflakes, ferns, lightning tend to be fractal. Many human activities also tend to be fractal. We have a cycle of birth and death, a smaller cycle of seasonal changes, yet a smaller circadian cycle if day and night, and then yet shorter cycles which we sometimes time with Pomodoro clock. So we should not be surprised that we have many different phenomena which also follow the fractal pattern.
What I want to address here is the pattern of positive thinking vs burnout. Let us consider some classical situations.
A boy and a girl meet. They are full of fear and optimism. They learn to know each other, and the emotional connection intensifies. During following in love, they find everything in each other exciting. Then after half a year, they get used to each other. They get tired from one another and consider other options, only to find out that being together is better than the alternatives. They decide to take the relationship to the next level and start living with each other. After the initial issues, everybody finds his place at the common home and they start loving the way they each other in daily activity. But then the small quirks in each other’s behavior start to really nerve the partner. They fight for silly reasons. After a while, they get tired of fighting and decide to get married and have kids. They really love the way they connect with each other, having some shared experiences and history. Marriage and parenthood bring out new challenges. The cycle of highs and downs continues. Some couples break, while others stay together.
A very similar cycle happens when we find a job. At first, everything is new and exciting and we love it. Then we start to notice the bad things in the corporate culture. After a while, we get used to the quirks and become productive in our projects. Our first results are very promising. But then we reach some sort of a challenge we cannot master, and we fail. We get a new project and have a similar cycle of successes and failures until we get tired from our position. So we can get a different position within the company, or there is some sort of reorganization in company’s management. Seemingly we get new jobs with new people, but the company’s culture remains constant. Eventually, most people quit or get fired and find a new job, where the cycle repeats itself.
Similar cycles of positive thinking and excitement followed by disappointment occur on a shorter scale, like a week or a day. I am not sure we can or should do anything about it, as this is a very basic quality of our existence.
Stronger cycles and extraordinary results.
Some people have stronger cyclic behavior. They may be bipolar, ADHD-driven, neurotic or have other contributing traits. Then the up-cycles produce extraordinary performance, and down cycles may result in devastating burnout. Since there are so many different mechanisms involved, I will simply mention several examples.
Bipolar people usually want to leave the diagnosis behind. Since the condition is treatable, they do need to take the pills regularly. There is always a struggle about living close to the people who know you well and can support you in your downs. The other alternative is living far from anyone remembering what your downs look like. In modern times, the lives we live are usually stressful. This means, at some point, the stress overrides the good habits, the sleep and diet are partially discarded, the pills may disappear from the picture. Typically, the first reaction to the heightened stress is mania: unbalanced positive thinking, extreme energy, and very impressive performance, which causes the people around admire you and also delegate more responsibilities. With extra responsibilities the mania becomes unsustainable, and depression or apathy sets in. Things start falling apart. Some people will try to prolong their support remembering the extreme highs of the mania, others would get disappointed and move on. Some projects will get canceled or reassigned. The stress will fall, and good habits take over for a while, until the next episode.
ADHD is triggering a different mechanism of burnout. The characteristic trait of ADHD is the difficulty of controlling the focus. When seeing something interesting, a person with ADHD will typically “lock” on that subject, and learn everything there is to know about it. He will be willing to work days and nights on the subject of interest and sometimes will ignore less interesting duties and activities. If there is not subject sufficiently interesting to lock the attention, the focus will be divided between several highly demanding activities, each getting its own focus until something more interesting comes along. Both the “flow” state associated with the “locked” focus and extreme multitasking associated with zigzagging focus are highly thought-after qualities. Both enable extreme performance and extraordinary results. To supply these results, there is a high toll on the body and the energy gets depleted. Eventually, there is a burnout, when the person simply collapses to rest. Sometimes these collapses coincide with weekends, and sometimes they influence the immune system and become an inflammatory disease. Sometimes the focus gets exhausted and there is a long period of procrastination.
The classical burnout cycles are associated with neurotic personality. Being meticulous to some details and having a vivid imagination, a neurotic person will try to perform his task perfectly. This perfectionism requires dealing with details others would hardly notice. The resulting product is often very polished and of exceptional quality, but the toll on the person is above average. This perfect performance results in more projects and projects of higher complexity being assigned to the person. The control of the detail does not allow the person to delegate the projects effectively. As a result, the unfinished activities mount and the person needs to work harder. Working harder soon has a toll on creativity and on productivity. The quality of the results falls, and the person suffers a classical burnout.
There are myriads of other cyclic scenarios, yet the patterns appear to be very similar. People who can show off extraordinary results are often exhibiting stronger ups and downs than the average. The things that make us different can be transformed into a competitive advantage, and that competitive advantage can lead to rising demand, which in turn can result in the unsustainable consumption of resources.
Preventing a burnout.
There are several things we can do to soften the ups and downs. Typically reduction of the risk factors can reduce the intensity of the “ups”, which means that highly ambitious people will choose to disregard some of the pieces of advice.
- Balance pessimism and optimism. The excessive use of the resources is typically characterized by very high optimism. If we take into the account high likelihood of a failure, we will be less likely to overstretch our resources. When the burnout finally happens, staying optimistic and knowing that it is only a temporary setback helps to overcome it. Coaches recommend one negative thought for every five positive thoughts. Reduced risk-taking can reduce the resulting benefits.
- Grounding The states of extremes are often characterized by partial detachment from reality. Insisting on connection with ourselves, nature, and the people around us reduces the detachment. The activities involved can include socialization, meditation or mindfulness, sports, traveling, hobbies and so on. There is some overhead to “being grounded” as we need to spend our time and energy to connect. As a result, the peak performance may decrease.
- Boundaries. If we keep clear boundaries between the work and the rest of the life, we can enjoy a better life, until “the perfect storm” arrives. We can try to build the perfect portfolio of activities, but it is not clear we will succeed. The perfect storm is characterized by highly stressful events in several areas of our lives. Money, time, energy, focus, health and so on are limited. Since our performance in different areas of our life depends on some of the same resources, the chances of a simultaneous collapse in different areas of life are quite high.
- Being “cool”. Social connections matter. Friendliness is a huge part of being “cool”. I quote:
In fact, on top of being good looking and friendly, if you are a high achiever in life then you are moving into the ice-cold territory. As well as being generally successful and blessed in life, volunteering to help within society is seen as cool too. Also listed as desirable traits that are equated with coolness are trendiness, individualism, confidence and having a sense of humor. There is a smaller and different facet…which is the dark, historical coolness, revolving around counterculture, risky behavior, irony.
- Monitor how you divide your time. Being very productive is not natural. Animals did not evolve to do that. So a large part of our day we are sort of “zombified”. I quote with some minor editing:
On any given day the porcupine spends 74% of its “active” time resting, 14% feeding, 11% going from one place to another, and 2% in miscellaneous activities. For orangutans, it can be more variable, but still, they spend 20-50% of their time during the day resting, 30-50% feeding, and 10-20% traveling; any remaining time is spent in assorted activities. If you are degu, a small social rodent from South America, feeding (46%), watching out for danger (32%), resting (8%), traveling (7%), self-grooming (4%), burrow digging or home maintenance (0.2%), and social interactions (3%). For baboons, social interactions make up a whopping 15% of their daily time budget. One way to get a handle on the “Where does all my time go?” question is to conduct a little behavioral study on yourself. The average American spends 8% socializing/communicating and almost 20% of the day watching television.
- Accept emotions. Being too busy to notice our own emotions or fighting against them can backfire. Even the negative emotions have their right to exist and warn us about our core values and needs. Quite often we get addicted or gamify our life too much, following some external attributes of success like power or money, parties or luxury. This can disrupt our emotions and cause responses that are not adapted to our deeper needs. Then we have conflicting sets of emotions, and that conflict can cause further issues. When we accept our emotions, we have the strength do not allow the addiction to rule our lives.
The “avoidance” or “face everything” techniques typically do not work. The avoidance means deliberately not dealing with some aspects of our lives that are painful or not fully adapted. The face everything technique is just the opposite: dealing with everything we would like to avoid. Both strategies do not work. The things we avoid can hurt us, whether we choose to notice it or not. And regular humans simply do not have enough resources to face everything that would like to avoid. We do need to face our fears and step out of our comfort zone, but it is best to do this in controlled environments. So prioritization and proper timing of facing the challenges are probably crucial to our mental health.
Surviving a burnout.
Whether we choose to risk a possible burnout, or we fail to avoid one, burnouts are a part of our lives. So we may as well learn to survive them. What is characteristic to burnout, and how we can minimize the effect?
- Boredom, frustration, impatience. If we do not have the resources to handle our tasks, the mind will not be willing to engage the tasks. This unwillingness can take many forms. If we are bored, we cannot switch the focus to the task at hand. Once we finally force the focus to switch, if we have a hard time keeping the focus on the task, we will get impatient. And if we do not see the results of our efforts fast enough we will get impatient. There are the early signs of a burnout. At this stage, we can still prevent the burnout by a more balanced approach to our activities.
- Extreme exhaustion. This is the most visible effect. We get too tired to do even the things we prioritize above everything else. We may feel like we procrastinate, and try to push ourselves stronger, but this will generate further exhausting along the way. Simply taking a few days of absence to sleep and recuperate may be a more viable approach. We do need these days from time to time, and we should not feel guilty about taking them.
- Physical pain. If we fail to recuperate in time, our body may “break down”. There are several syndromes of body failure: lower immune system, backaches, digestive problems, headaches. Almost everybody suffers some of these symptoms one way or another. Stress makes the sickness worse. This is probably a good thing since we get an objective system to finally rest. However, we cannot plan when we get sick, and it can be very inconvenient.
Eventually, everybody needs vacations. Not all vacations need to be packed with exotic sights and experiences. Maybe a staycation will be better. We have many tasks at home, and taking some time to finish them may save time and energy. Notice that after a burnout or a vacation we end up with having more tasks than we had before, so some deep change in the lifestyle may be required to avoid further issues.
Avoiding common pitfalls.
Sometimes the burnouts can get really sinister, and it is best to avoid these scenarios.
- You are not your job. If we calculate our value as a human being by our ability to generate income, help others or complete our jobs, it is a very bad scenario. Occasionally we will fail, and then we will not value our own life. This is almost a recipe for self-hurting disorders. Every person is special, unique and thus valuable. If this does not convince you, the monetary equivalent of your life is probably about 10 million dollars, and this is more money than anything that distresses you.
- There are many shades of gray. It is very easy to get into “all or nothing” territory. If we get there, we will take excessive risks and not count small achievements. It makes sense to make sure we have a clear understanding of the intermediary and alternative scenarios, clear sense their value and appreciate them.
- This too will pass. When we are in extreme situations, there is often a sense that things will not change, or fear they will not change in the direction wanted. The truth is very different. The “reversal to the mean” is the most common economic scenario, and homeostasis is the most common human conditions. Whatever happens, we will eventually adapt and will probably do it very fast.
- Cut your losses eventually. Admitting a failure is hard, and we often prefer to through more resources to deal with the issue. These resources are likely to be lost. There are examples of the opposite, but we cannot know if the trend will reverse. Do not risk more than you can afford to lose.
- History rhymes but does repeat itself. We do need to learn from history, but we should not expect the history to repeat itself. Past achievements and traumas can teach us many things, but they should not dictate our behavior. We have a freedom of choice and we should exercise it.
- Avoid self-destructive behavior. Being down, we are likely to get overcome by addictions, manipulative people, and self-destructing thoughts. On the other hand, being down we can get out of the comfort zone and be truly creative. When in burnout, it is best to practice extra caution to external triggers, but pay more attention to the sparks of creativity within.