Engage. Disengage. Repeat.

I believe that I have caught myself just this side of a major case of burnout.

If that sentence is an exaggeration, it’s not by much. A few friends who had the dubious pleasure of talking with me just after I arrived at THATCamp Leadership last week can attest that I showed up with an attitude that was in need of a little adjustment. Whenever I was asked how I was, I’d find myself starting out by saying “things are great,” which I meant, but which gradually gave way to a Five-Minute Complaint. I kept trying to stop myself, but it kept bubbling over. I’d hit some kind of limit, and my self-censor was just gone.

It wasn’t that I was unhappy about being where I was; I was very pleased to be back at George Mason, to be seeing my friends, to be participating in an event that promised to be both important and energizing.

It wasn’t that I was unhappy about where I’d just come from; I’d had an excellent, if action-packed, visit to talk with faculty and administrators at an institution thinking seriously about its digital initiatives in the humanities.

It was more that where I was and where I’d just come from were on the tail end of five solid weeks of travel and committee meetings, involving eight cities (not counting New York) and more planes, trains, and automobiles (and one unexpected van) than I can count.

It was thirteen nights in eight hotels over a five-week period, capped off with a musty room with two double beds (rather than one king) on a low floor (rather than a high one) with an industrial rooftop right outside my window (rather than pretty much any other view possible from that building).

Something about that room was the last straw, the thing that sent me right over the edge into a bitter litany of complaint aimed at anyone who would listen. But it wasn’t the room, and it wasn’t the trip: it was everything I’d gotten myself into over the previous month and a half, and — especially — knowing full well that I’d done it to myself. That no one was responsible for where I was, or for the mood I was in, except me.

I’ve spent the week-plus since trying to how to rectify this situation, how to pull myself back from the edge of complete flaming disaster. (1) Because, of course, my major projects did not grind to a halt in the office while I was traveling. Nor did the deadlines for the writing I’ve promised people this fall get any further away. It has become painfully clear that something has got to give — or that something will be me. And so, after a lot of thought, I think I’ve figured out what I need to do in order to make things better.

Less.

I need to do less.

* * *

You would be fully justified in rolling your eyes at this point. Because, yeah, duh. But this is a lesson that I have had to teach myself over and over.

I can read about the importance of significant downtime and totally get it. I can even go so far as to write about the degree to which stress has become the contemporary sign of our salvation or about the role of goofing off in the most important, most creative work that I do.

But I somehow cannot internalize it all enough to refrain from over-scheduling myself. Or at least I have not done so. And even when I think I’ve done a good job of protecting myself, of determining what’s enough and trying not to go beyond it, I manage to cram enough tiny things in around the edges that I end up just as over-scheduled and exhausted as ever.

* * *

If I’m going to be completely honest with myself — and this is hard — a huge percentage of this over-scheduling is about ego. People like my work enough to want me to come talk to them, and they’re nice to me when I get there, and that feels awfully, awfully good. (2) There’s of course also a general people-pleasing aspect to the difficulties I have turning down requests. And as long as I’m at it I’ll acknowledge that I’ve also fallen under the spell of competitive busyness; every time somebody says “I don’t know how you do it” about my travel schedule I get a sad little boost.

Ha, I don’t know how I do it either.

I feel as though I’ve been able to do some good out there in my travels — as though I’ve been able to help some departments and institutions jumpstart some much-needed conversations, and as though I’ve been able to help demonstrate some of the possibilities for the academy’s future. But I also know, when I’m willing to look at it squarely, that I’ve gotten a lot out of just feeling important. But that’s finally wearing thin, and the toll is beginning to make itself known.

* * *

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that during this same period I’ve found myself withdrawing from the various venues where I engage with colleagues and other folks online. I haven’t been very present on Twitter, and I certainly haven’t posted here. Some of that withdrawal has been about not having enough time or space or whatever to devote to figuring out whether I had anything worth saying. Some of it has been about a level of conflict of late that I haven’t had the energy to face.

In any case, for someone whose job is focused on fostering productive online engagements, this withdrawal has not seemed to me a Good Sign, and it’s been one more thing that’s had me worried.

But I’m now thinking that the withdrawal is in part about the conservation of energy, and as such may not have been such a bad thing after all. Total disengagement would be a problem. But disengaging enough to restore oneself, in order to be better prepared to re-engage, is utterly, utterly necessary.

It’s like sleep. It’s cyclical. And you’ll go crazy without it.

* * *

I’ve been reading a fair bit of self-help type stuff of late, partially (3) because I’m interested in the genre, in how it can describe and shape lived experience, and in the purposes it might serve in a scholarly context, and in part because I have felt myself in need of something that might help me personally figure out a better path. A more manageable way of being in the world.

Among the things I’ve read lately is Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s The Power of Full Engagement, which, if they’ll forgive me, is a rotten title for a very important book. (4) The key lesson in the book — heck, it’s in the subtitle, but if you’re interested, read farther than that — is that our belief that the resource we are shortest on, the thing that if only we had more of we could do what we need to do, is time, is dead wrong. In fact, the resource we are shortest on is energy, and we resist many of the things we need to do in order to conserve and restore our energy because they look to us like enormous wastes of time.

However, it’s clear that those wastes of time are precisely the things that allow us to step out of the barrage of the urgent long enough to discover, focus on, and make room for the important. In order to be genuinely engaged where it most matters, in other words, you have to find regular, routine ways to disengage. And to somebody as completely inculcated into our always-on, more more more culture as I am, that disengagement does not come easily.

Or at least it doesn’t come easily in a productive form. But it’s becoming clear that if I don’t figure out some better strategies for managing productive disengagement, a few much more damaging modes of disengagement are lurking just around the corner.

* * *

So, doing less. It’s not just a matter of saying no to more things. I keep trying to find some quantitative limit for how much I can do — no more than one trip every two weeks! no more than three major service commitments! — and yet it keeps not working. The over-extendedness just gets worse.

I finally realized something about why last week. In talking with my coach (5) about the issue, it suddenly became clear that the problem is the nature of the quantitative itself. If I set a limit of four trips per semester, it becomes very hard to distinguish between four trips and four with one little add-on. Or five, for that matter. With maybe one small side thing tucked in there too. And something local, because that’s not really a trip. And next thing you know, I have a calendar filled with five solid weeks of three-city trips and am railing at my friends over cocktails.

It’s the nature of the more more more culture: if you can run two miles, isn’t it better to run five? If you can write an article about something, isn’t it better to turn it into a book? If you can speak in four places this semester, isn’t it better to add on just… one… more…?

The quantitative will do you in every time, precisely because so much of how we operate is all about finding our limits and pushing past them. So it’s becoming clear to me that I’ve got to turn my attention to the qualitative, if I’m going to change anything, even if it’s not entirely clear what in this context the qualitative might mean.

* * *

One key to the qualitative, I think, is figuring out how to determine what’s important, and how to separate it from what’s just nice, or ego-gratifying, or adding to the frequent-flyer record. But the real challenge in that is that I don’t mean “important” in some externally-defined sense: what’s best going to further my career goals, or promote my organization, or what have you. I mean what is most important in a very personal sense: what’s most in line with the things I value, the things I want to be, the ways I want to live. What’s going to support me not just in getting more done, but in doing what I most want to do, and doing it better.

What am I doing it all for, is the question I keep asking myself.

* * *

As I’ve been working on this post, I’ve been hoping that some conclusion would present itself to me, some anecdote that would cheerily illustrate everything I’m pondering here. I’m not sure that anything can; I’m not sure that concluding, in fact, is the right way to end this line of thought. As the links above might suggest, I’ve written too many times before about the need to recalibrate and reshape the way I’m living, and yet. Here I am. Again.

I had, however, a near-perfect day yesterday. I did a bit of work in the morning, and then went and got a fantastic haircut, and had a great lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in eons, and then headed back home. And on a whim, I told R. that I wanted to take a walk in the park. Rather than push it, though, in the ways that I usually do (surely you can go a little faster!), I let myself just… walk. A bit faster than a stroll. Kind of an amble. It only took about five minutes longer than usual to make the loop of the park, and in the process, I got to do two really important things. I got to spend the hour really talking with R., and I got to look around.

And the trees. If it’s not peak leaf around here yet, at least a few of the trees are there: flaming reds and yellows mixed in amongst the still-rich greens. It was absolutely gorgeous, the best moment of my favorite season.

It’s uncomfortably obvious (see footnote 5 above) to point out that it will all be gone in the blink of an eye. But it will be. And I’m grateful, really really grateful, not to have missed it.

That’s what I’m doing it for. That’s what I want to keep my eye on. How the things I elect to do can better contribute to my ability to engage with the here and now, and, when I need to recover, can let me gently disengage.

I do not know how. But I do know why. And that’s at least a start.

  1. Okay, that one’s an exaggeration.
  2. I’ll just go ahead and admit here tucked away at the bottom of this post how much I identified with Sally Field’s “you really like me” moment, and how personally I took the grief she was given over it. Because, seriously, if you’re not a little bit shocked every time somebody likes something you do, the inside of your head is a very different place than the inside of mine.
  3. Says the scholar desperate to justify her more pedestrian engagements with the world.
  4. Schwartz is quoted in the “downtime” story I linked to a ways back.
  5. Yes, I have a coach. And she’s awesome. She’s helped me sort out a whole series of issues related to my new career path in ways that have been productive for me. But there’s still something in the phrase “my coach” that makes me just as uncomfortable as the statement that I’ve been reading a bunch of self-help literature, as if it were some kind of admission that I am underneath the scholarly veneer so simple that my issues can be understood and helped in the most facile ways possible. It is not at all unlike the discomfort with AA evidenced by so many of the characters in Infinite Jest, who are at great pains not to admit that, as Don Gately notes, “It starts to turn out that the vapider the AA cliché, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.” It’s me, whether I like it or not.

10 thoughts on “Engage. Disengage. Repeat.

  1. I recommend the Carnegie Hall spa. Or BAM if you want to stay in the ‘hood. Hours of beautiful music with no interruptions and the freedom to muse.

  2. I’m not sure how I missed this before. (That’s actually a lie; I’m sure I missed it because I was being too busy and too self-important.) But I wanted to write in a very long-tail sort of way and say how much I appreciate the tone and candor of this post. This is important stuff and it’s so easy to lose sight of that as we’re rat-racing about, trying to add lines to the CV in the hope of accomplish x, where “x”=get a job, get tenure, get promoted, etc., etc.

    May your new year be happy, healthy, and focused.

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