Dylan Vassallo 😁

From Burning Out to Being the Phoenix

July 29, 2013

Of everything I’ve read on the Internet lately, this comment has been perhaps the most enlightening:

Burnout is caused when you repeatedly make large amounts of sacrifice and or effort into high-risk problems that fail. It’s the result of a negative prediction error in the nucleus accumbens. You effectively condition your brain to associate work with failure.

Subconsciously, then eventually, consciously, you wonder if it’s worth it. The best way to prevent burnout is to follow up a serious failure with doing small things that you know are going to work.

Only after reading this comment was I able to verbalize what had been bugging me for so long about my experience at UCLA. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my school, I loved many things about Los Angeles, I loved being part of such a diverse student population, and I loved what I was studying. What I didn’t love were the times when I felt desparate for a break from the exams, the papers, the presentations, and the code. The times when I’d give anything for a good night’s sleep and a reprieve from being graded on that damned curve. The times when I was simply burnt out. It’s not as if school was a constant source of negativity and failure, because it wasn’t, but the prolonged subjection to competitive pressure in a cyclical schedule beyond my control was enough to start to eat at me a little bit.

I now realize that I never fully understood the definition of burnout. I knew it caused fatigue and restlessness–once to the point of giving me pneumonia and then mononucleosis within a span of six months–but I always assumed that my only choice was to buckle down, slog through finals, and get some R&R during the next winter break, spring break, or summer in preparation for doing it all over again.

What I had just barely begun to independently develop when I graduated was knowledge of the antidote to burnout: “reassociating work with success by doing routine things…that will restore the acts of working with little ‘pops’ of endorphins.” I had started to do that on my own only because I knew it felt better than focusing on school all the time. For the 2012-2013 school year my antidotes were doubling down on JavaScript, indulging in my fascination with distributed systems, and doing contract work for Khan Academy. These things didn’t noticeably detract from my schoolwork for two reasons: they kept my mind active and they didn’t feel like work.

So my challenge to anyone reading this (…Bueller?) is to think of a collection of small tasks that can serve as your antidote when burnout strikes. It could be a Dropbox folder full of academic papers that you’ve been meaning to read or a Trello list of minor UX bugs that you haven’t taken the time to fix. The only rule is that they be bite-size tasks that are meaningful, engaging, and easy to knock out in succession until you’re feeling satisfied and productive enough to move on. Even though this exercise might not make your high-priority to-do list any shorter, I’ve found that it’ll do wonders for your mindset and the rest will more easily fall into place.