Transforming Burnout with Selfishness

Flying to sunny California for OCON 2018 was the highlight of my summer. Leaving the humidity of New York far behind, I traveled to the opposite coast for the first time to enjoy a week of panels, lectures, and events, courtesy of The Ayn Rand Institute. I met friends with whom I discussed topics from mathematics to the philosophy of humor, which was a joyful and educational experience. The discussion of abstract ideas inspired me to evaluate how I use philosophy to improve my life in practical ways.

One of the panels I found most fascinating was “Transforming Burnout with Selfishness,” with Ellen Kenner, Edwin A. Locke, and Jean Moroney. Its theme was how to avoid burnout by setting and achieving goals that promote both short-term and long-term well-being.

The state known as burnout is characterized by declining motivation, neglect of one’s own needs, and in some cases, feelings of depression. Even though one may want to or have to do something, it can sometimes be hard to gather the energy and motivation to go through with it.

For example, if you have a long essay to write, you may procrastinate even though you value education and want to graduate. If your boss is overbearing, you might feel demotivated about going to work and fantasize about sleeping in instead. Burnout can be caused by both internal and external factors. It also feeds on itself, because it can trigger self-deprecating thoughts and guilt about lack of productivity. In any case, the result is the depletion of the “rocket fuel” which pushes you to achieve your goals. To fix this problem, you must break the feedback loop and refill the tank.

“Refilling the tank” means that you must be radically honest with yourself about who you really are and what your goals and capabilities are. What are the goals you are trying to achieve, and why did you pick them? Do you set goals deliberately, by thinking about what you want out of life and what would make you truly happy—or do you act to avoid conflict and please others instead of pleasing yourself? To answer these questions, you need to introspect and do some spiritual accounting. Think about what makes you feel happy and fulfilled in all aspects of your life—in your personal relationships, hobbies, and career. Knowledge of yourself and what is important to you is the seed from which your best possible life will grow.

Once you know what makes you feel fulfilled, you can figure out what goals to set. For example, if you love literature, you may want to be a writer or teacher. If you love solving problems, you may want to be a mathematician or engineer. Know yourself, and choose your goals on the basis of this knowledge. The goal is the destination, and the actions you take to achieve it are the steps on the path to get there.

The methods you choose are as important as the choice of the goal itself. If you want to climb a mountain, you can’t reach the summit by wishing yourself there. You need to prepare yourself with physical training, build up your endurance with frequent hikes, learn about the terrain of the mountain, and map out your route. Be ready to change your path if there are obstacles in the way and prepare alternate routes that lead to your final destination.

To reach your goals you must approach them methodically. Examine what it is actually like to do that thing, whether you would really enjoy doing it, and why it is important to you. In essence, you must fully understand how and why the goal supports your deepest values. Be honest with yourself about your current skills and how much work you are willing to put in.

Make a plan of action by breaking it into a series of steps. For example, if you would like to run more often, start by running a manageable distance at a comfortable rate. You can increase the distance when you feel comfortable with that routine.

One panelist, Jean Moroney, said “When you say ‘I have to,’ you’re saying ‘I have no choice.’”  Don’t force yourself to do things—remove the feeling of obligation. If you set a goal to run three miles a day no matter what, you are turning a goal into an obligation and setting yourself up for failure. You enter the task with the expectation that performing it will be unpleasant, rather than focusing on how it will support your values; this is a surefire path to burnout. You may be tempted to give up and eat cake instead. Constantly monitor how your mind reacts to certain things, and make an effort to understand why.

You can only reach big goals by setting and achieving smaller ones. Biting off more than you can chew will cause you to burn out, because you will be comparing yourself to an impossible standard. If you want to start running, you may be tempted to fantasize about joining a marathon before you have started running habitually. Impossible standards can come from others as well; if your parents really want you to take up tennis and criticize your interest in running, you will feel unsuccessful when you compare yourself to their expectations.

To be able to run that marathon, you need to motivate yourself to take the first steps by thinking about what it would mean to you. You need to get into the habit of running and actually enjoying yourself in the process, progressively building up your endurance and reaching achievable goals. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to your future self or to someone else. Do you know more about yourself and your chosen field than you did before? Have you made progress? Even if your original plan has to change, stay flexible and you will stay the course.

When working toward any long-term goal, monitor how the journey makes you feel—but be careful to remember that your emotions are an effect, not a cause. Improvement in any field is incremental. By acknowledging where you are in your process of growth—and taking time to enjoy the process itself—you can set effective goals that do not overwhelm you. Find what you love and what will benefit your life in the long term and pursue it one day at a time.

Where do you want to be in the future and why? What steps can you take in order to sculpt a life you are passionate about? Being able to answer these questions truthfully and with a real plan of action is the best way to avoid burnout. Find your rocket fuel and make it propel you to the stars because as one of the characters in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged puts it: “What greater wealth is there than to own your life and to spend it on growing?”

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