Perilous Perfectionism: First Aid for the Overworked
Most of this is self-explanatory. Many of you will probably roll your eyes at it. But as I've learned firsthand, these tips bear repeating.
THE AKRATIC METHOD
Philosophers have an amazing word called "Akrasia" -- the state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgment through weakness of will. If you're a member of the human species, I'm pretty sure you've felt this before (if not, please call me and lets both get rich). In the freelance world of the 21st century, one of the most common forms of akrasia I see is people burning themselves out from overwork. I'm guilty of this myself. Like, OJ guilty. But going back to the perfectionist well time and time again has forced me to generate a couple of tips on how best to combat the dopamine-depleting perils of burnout. Steal them all:
TRIAGE WITH 'HALT'
As a wise man once said: first thing's first. When you're at wit's end, try the HALT method. It's a simple self-inventory, and it should be your first line of defense. Are you too:
Covering these bases is like having a cheat sheet for improving your spirits. It works outside of the context of overwork as well. I can't tell you how many times I've felt pissy and petulant only to have my mood be completely lifted by some bacon or an avocado. I'm a fan of fatty foods (no sugar) for just such a brain boost. These 4 tips are key to remembering that the human machine is a biological one. You've got needs and you NEED to honor them. You wouldn't run a marathon with a broken leg. Don't start a project without food in your belly, a smile on your face, friends on your side, and sleep in your pocket. And if you can't do that, remember just to cut yourself some fuckin' slack.
OVERRIDE THE INNER VOICE
I wouldn't dare speak to anyone the way I talk to myself. I imagine I'm not alone in that regard. But when I fall short of a goal, even if it's impossible, I'm a piece of shit. Mistake at work? Fucking asshole. Fall off the diet plan? Weak-willed pussy. Pardon the French, but these are my actual thoughts. And those lines are usually just their opening salvo. When I'm able to get some clarity, I try to remind myself something my mother once told me: you are not your thoughts. Weird idea, right? But it's true. Without getting too deep in the philosophical and neurological weeds, you are simply the thinker of your thoughts. You can watch them pass by like a boat on the sea if you so choose. Of course, that choice is the hard part. But simply being reminded that you don't have to let all that bad shit stick is important.
My trick? Whether it's for a day, an hour, whatever -- just give yourself permission to ignore that voice. It may feel shitty when you do so, but when you come out on the other side you see that the world hasn't ended. Imagine that! Small anecdote: I recently committed to doing just this for an entire day. And it was hard. But the next day, I woke up absolutely buzzing. Just letting myself off the hook helped me charge the batteries back up. Give it a shot sometime.
This is another one of those tenets that we all get but we need to see from time to time: you are not your thoughts. You can get shit done without using guilt or shame as your motivators. You have so much more value than what you create or do.
Donna and Tom from Parks and Rec had it correct -- sometimes, you gotta treat yoself. Nothing will charge the human spirit up like feeling special. Especially when, like most perfectionists, that's a dragon we're always chasing. I find it's often easier to do this when I picture treating someone slightly off-center of me, like my inner child. This is beyond cheesy, but I actually have an internal persona that goes by the name of 'Doodley'. When I need to make decisions and I can tell my judgment is getting cloudy, I pretend I'm giving advice to Doodley. I'm soooo much nicer to him than I am to myself (see above re: inner voice). In a tragic twist of fate, Doodley will only really achieve his purpose once there's no longer a need for him. But I'm a huge fan of the principle, and I can already see its effects sinking in.
To close this section, I'm gonna cannibalize a poem from AA. It's a pretty great little screed that shows the dividends you can reap from self-kindness, even if you don't find yourself at the bottom of a bottle:
In the first few weeks without a drink
When the wolf is at the door
And the sheriff's at the window
and you're sleeping on the floor
and life looks bleak and hopeless
from a monetary angle
its time to spend in certain ways
to solve the awful tangle
That token or that bus fare
to get you to a meeting
That dime to use the telephone
For that necessary greeting
That nickel for 'expenses'
That makes you feel you matter
That dollar for the coffee shop
for the neophyte to make
This 'bread' when cast upon the waters
Always comes back cake
[See the principles of HALT at work here? ~Synergy!~]
FILL THE WELL WITH ART AND PLAY
As is becoming clear, burnout is more often the result of poor self-treatment than real willpower depletion (which recent studies are starting to show may be more myth than fact). Regardless, if you want to have a great output (as all workaholics do), you're gonna need some good inputs too. Play is exceedingly important for the growing boy and girl. And by growing, I simply mean not-dead. Go to a museum. Read a trashy novel. Play hookey. Watch a cool documentary. Binge your favorite TV show. See a movie. Go for a walk on the beach.
It doesn't have to be artistic, as a lot of these suggestions are, but from my experience art seems to help. The more important part is to simply have fun. If you don't believe me, listen to Dr Stuart Brown in his highly-viewed Ted Talk.
PROGRESS, NOT PERFECTION
So you've HALTed, you've shut your inner voice up, you've been kind to yourself, and you've taken time for play. But what to do when you finally get back to work? I know I feel the burn of every unread page, every unwritten line...everything, really. But the important thing to remember is that the goal of any given day is progress, not perfection. Consistency will always beat intensity in the long run, and it will have a better journey along the way.
So by all means, get out there and kick some ass. But don't forget that an important part of ass-kicking is knowing when your foot is sore and needs a break.
Now -- back to the grind!
What tricks do you use when you're burned out beyond belief?