Burning the candle at both ends: burnouts, environmental change and minimalist recoveries

9 min read

Burning out (again and again) is a great opportunity to crash properly, rest, and hit reset to focus on what truly matters. This time round, it occurred to me that personal burnouts are closely linked to planetary ones. In this post, I explore how individual and environmental burnouts feed off each other. The post ends with some minimalist recovery hacks inspired by timeless wisdom and common sense.

harder. better. faster. stronger.

The value of hard work and service to others may well lie in the fruits we reap from them. By learning to work selflessly with a purpose or for a cause, we derive personal satisfaction from achieving something that brings collective value. But the Great Resignation and the emerging four-day week, along with the growing popularity of flexi-work arrangements and portfolio careers that move work ‘beyond the job‘, may point to the need for greater intentionality and practicality in both the type of work we do and how we get it done. It’s no longer enough to work hard or smart. We have to pace ourselves and learn the art of mindful efficacy.

Burnouts rose during the pandemic, with remote working erasing some of the traditional boundaries between workspace and the home. A recent survey by Deloitte by 1000 employees in the US reveals 77% experienced burnout at their job, which negatively affects the retention of millennials. A report by HSE (2021) shows that levels of reported burnouts have risen significantly since the early 2000s. Although there are many different causes to burnouts and ways to deal with it, burning out is a real, worrying trend.

‘Flat out’. Do make time for a proper rest, like fur seals on Hokitika beach in New Zealand. Photo by Myreality2 on flickr.com.

At the same time, we as a society are still profoundly addicted to ‘busyness’. In my own job searches, I can’t help notice that the same buzzwords are still as prevalent as they were twenty years ago: ‘multitasking’, ‘fast-paced environment’, ‘manages competing deadlines’, ‘hard-working’, ‘stays calm / thrives under pressure’, ‘willing to go the extra mile to exceed expectations’, ad nauseam. Which inevitably leads to people ‘working hard’ and ‘playing harder’. Ironically enough, these terms have been so (over)used that they have become absolute cliché. Multitasking and keeping insanely busy are of course essential if one is meant to deliver the day before yesterday, particularly for consultants who are often called to put out fires, as if perhaps it was their fault the fire started in the first place… And so, in a world where obsessive concerns about liability and risk management can directly lead to human tragedies, we still need to run faster if we want to catch the bus to net zero. It might still go like the Daft Punk song: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger. Or like the Zen parable, where a rider on horse gallops frantically on a road past farmland. An onlooking farmer asks the horse rider: “Where are you riding so fast?”, whereupon the rider answers: “I don’t know, ask the horse!”.

Working hard is all great. Hard work is often necessary to get good at something. But as Greg McKeown and many neo-productivity gurus remind us, work does not have to be ‘hard’. Hard work can be rubbish. Conversely, great work can also seem effortless. Acclaimed sci-fi author Ray Bradbury famously claimed he never worked a day of his life, and yet was truly prolific in producing works that shaped the genre (among which Fahrenheit 451, the Martian Chronicles, and the Illustrated Man).

Whether we want to make our work hard or not, it pays to know why we’re doing it. Simon Sinek wrote a whole book and one of the most watched videos on TED.com on ‘why’. So the next time you begin a new project or have an idea for a cool product, start with why. Why should that be? Well, we already know the answer to the entire universe: it’s ’42’ – you can find it in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (1979), but we allegedly forgot what the question was. Therefore, the simplest questions are always the most effective ones (and easiest to remember).

Perhaps it is time to slow down, after all. Not because we are lazy (which we humans may well be), but because slowing down can help us focus on what truly matters. Focusing on what is essential can help us leverage the deep work, and live the ‘deep life’, that our modern world so direly needs. Slow productivity is perhaps the best chance we have at delivering our very best work, and that starts by doing “many fewer things”.

Burning the candle at both ends

Perhaps it is no coincidence that personal burnouts, forest fires and global temperatures are all on the rise, at the same time as global insect populations are collapsing. Steve Cutts’ Happiness is the most compelling animation film that correlates the global rat race with ecological collapse. It is not a happy picture. We don’t need to go that way.

At the core of the neoliberal capitalist economy is creative destruction. To keep the machine going, one must keep destroying what was once created to forever create anew. But creative destruction, and the eternal need for growth that is predicated on it, cannot possibly go on forever. What goes up, must always come down. Unless we should redesign creative destruction to occur in a truly circular fashion, where everything is reused, and nothing is ever wasted. Which also implies that the practice of recycling resources and upcycling objects should not in themselves consume any energy from a systems perspective. But there again, growth cannot last forever – nowhere under the sun has anything grown forever. Which is the logical paradox of the capitalist growth machine, that it must somehow, in fine, destroy itself to keep going. Like Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son – a pretty dismal outcome, should one think of it. Science fiction has repeatedly warned us that if we do not take care, we could burn ourselves toward ecological collapse (as in Blade Runner 2049, among many others). The trouble is, we are now compelled to acknowledge we don’t really have a Plan(et) B!

Burning the candle at both ends is not apparently the same as burning two candles for the departed. But burning up too fast could lead to serious personal and socio-ecological hazards at the same time. Picture by Terence Faircloth on flickr.com.

So, as we continue to burn out because we can (never) keep up with our world, we forever fail to ‘manage’ the work that was imparted to us, or secure that sense of security that is more elusive than the most remote El Dorado.

Thankfully, research exploring ‘beyond GDP’ assessments of wealth is growing. Thinking beyond growth opens up new ways of pursuing livelihoods and exchanging services which try to make the most of the limited amounts of natural resources on earth. It can enable a shift to a wealth economy. It is high time, for we are knee deep into ‘Peak Everything‘.

So, if we step off the gas pedal, we can perhaps learn to burn bright and slow, rather than all out. The race to net zero is on for very obvious reasons. But at the very same time we also need to pace ourselves if we are to run the whole marathon in one piece. We can’t burn the candles at both ends all the time – both humans and the planet need a break from all the creative destruction.

And we cannot cure the ill with more of what caused in the first place. To paraphrase a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, one cannot solve problems with the same logic that created them in the first place. Do we really need to run faster?

Minimalist recoveries

A life of voluntary simplicity, characterised by contentment and a decluttering of one’s mind and possessions, has always been the road less travelled. Monks throughout history have been the staunchest in the pursuit of voluntary simplicity, if not voluntary ‘poverty’. Perhaps we can’t all be ascetics or recluses – it is a hard life after all! But silence is not something to be muffled with noise. Occasional solitude does not have to be felt as loneliness, as it can be quite restorative. Having less of what you don’t need can increase your appreciation of what you really enjoy. And it can allow us to share with those in greater need, to help close the gap between forced poverty and excessive consumption.

The modernist motto that ‘less is more’ therefore goes back a long way and takes countless forms. It can help us recover from the constant pursuit of ‘too much’, and from the perceived need to always run faster.

Below are some insights borrowed from timeless wisdom interspersed with odd facts.

  • Did you know the Cynic philosopher Diogenes lived under bridges, owned literally nothing, and wandered through the streets of Athens with a lantern in broad daylight, looking for a good ‘honest man’?
  • Francis of Assisi was a wealthy and attractive young merchant, who had also witnessed the futility of war. Eventually he was ‘called’ to a life of monasticism and community service. This included looking after fellow humans suffering from the plague, whom he had avoided at all costs prior to his heart conversion. Beyond doubt, his life grew immensely richer, and he is now a revered saint for the faithful and more generally a patron saint of ecology, having been able to perceive the presence of the Divine in all of nature.
  • Lao Tzu was a court official and scholar who retired from his professional responsibilities to become a roaming hermit. He nourished his philosophy and spiritual strength from living close to nature, observing the universal laws at play that could inform a more peaceful, harmonious and purposeful way of life. The modern, illustrated translation of the Tao Te Ching by Zen practitioner Stephen Mitchell is well worth a read!
  • Henry David Thoreau was a practical and social philosopher, and an advocate of a life lived more simply in closeness to nature, which he recounted in his famous monograph: Walden.
  • Pierre Rabhi was a famous agroecologist who advocated a life of ‘voluntary simplicity’ and ‘slow food‘, who saw gardening as both a socially fulfilling and a spiritual healing practice.
  • Famous women monastics have included Mother Theresa, Theresa of Avila, and many others. Hildegard of Bingen was renowned for her deep knowledge of plants and their healing effects on the mind and the body, as grounded in daily spiritual practice and gratitude.

From early Christian monastics and ancient yogis to modern-day stoics, countless people throughout history have embraced a simpler, more fruitful life, characterised less by having or busyness than meaning, purpose, training the mind, and relentless service to their community. Without doubt, timeless wisdom has something for everyone!

Modern-day hacks can also help us recover from a toxic culture of busyness and creative destruction. Here are some.

  • Own less, without impacting your overall wellbeing. Minimalism evangelist and film-maker Matt D’Avella owns twelve (12) t-shirts and one (1) pair of jeans. But there again he owns lots of film-making gear, which is for his craft and passion. Owning less, combined with focused work and flair, enables him to pursue his craft of producing engaging meaningful content. His YouTube channel has no less than 3.3 million subscribers (as of May 2022). A lot of young people are catching the minimalist bug and pursuing creative side-hustles of their own.
  • Deep focus. To help you focus only on what is most worthy, Cal Newport has a devised a compelling programme for ‘deep work‘, which includes: pursuing what you are good at rather than blindly following your passion, ditching social media and email addiction, doing one hard thing a day (the rest is optional), and blocking out time for those hard things that do deserve the time. By focusing more, Cal Newport has been able to write multiple best sellers about productivity and slow growth, while also being an associate professor in computer science at Georgetown University. Check out his excellent podcast on YouTube.
  • Be more essentialist. The path to maximal growth and focus is an essentialist one, where consistent habit trumps goals. With time, he promises, our effort to focus on what is most essential can become truly ‘effortless’, because ingrained in our mindset and way of being. Greg McKeown’s newsletter provides weekly, one-minute mindset hacks that could help you download an essentialist operating system that works just for you.
  • Know the process, and be patient. Once you have burned out, you have to be patient. As per my own repeated mishaps, burning out goes a bit like this –> Step 0: crash > step 1: sleep > step 2: reset > step 3: focus on what truly matters > step 4; dust yourself off, and try again, with more intentionality. It takes time, and plenty of kind determination, to heal and slow down. Wholesome food, good sleep, exercise, sunlight, nature, massage, meditation/prayer, quality entertainment, the classics (literature, films, series, music) and positive company can all help in getting back on the right track. Whatever works! We can only do so much individually in this crazy mixed up world. But future generations might suffer badly if we don’t do every bit we can now.
  • Divide and conquer! We may often burnout because everything seems so overwhelmingly complex. We consume more information than ever before in human history. Our brains were not designed for constant information overload. Cal Newport cites sci-fi author Brandon Sanderson’s three key steps to perform sustained, reasonable work (from the 2020 early pandemic talk Common Lie Writers Tell You) . First, make clear, realistic and manageable goals you know you can commit to, and upon which you can build at your own pace. Then, know what works for you. You’ve probably burned out dozens of times in the past, so you do know what does not work. Tap into the working routines you know can keep you going for the long haul. Pursuing too many intensive sprints can be depleting. Then, most importantly perhaps, break up hard, challenging work into smaller chunks, the Cartesian way. Do so until you feel comfortable with the specific, clearly-bounded tasks you have created for yourself. The rest of the recipe is sweat, consistency, and a pinch of luck.
  • The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. (Mostly) everyone knows them. They could even be taught at primary school! The book belongs on every bookshelf as a practical go-to book. Do listen to the man speak about Habit 1: proactivity. There are plenty of good summaries and animated videos out there. But the experience comes nowhere near actually taking the time to read the book. The seven habits truly belong in the category of timeless wisdom, and were shared by a man who ‘walked the talk’. It is unlikely the effectiveness he depicted is about running the rat race. ‘Sharpening the saw’, the seventh habit, is an ode to rest as a foundation to all other six habits. In fact, all seven habits are interdependent.
habit #7 – sharpen the saw before it gets rusty – we cannot become ‘highly effective people’ without proper rest, a wholesome lifestyle and spiritual activity. Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com.
  • The five second rule by Mel Robbins: if you have to make a simple decision, count down from 5. And get on with whatever you decided. That will help tackle everything that lies behind the difficulty in making any decision quite constructively, rather than being stuck in constant doubt and fear. In my own experience, this simple practice can save hours, if not entire days.
  • The five minute rule. Does your day / project / activity look impossible to start? Start with a task that seems essential enough, and work into it for 5 minutes. That is usually long enough to get the ball rolling. The five minute rule is a surprising companion to Dorie Clark’s advice to focus on the long game.
  • Be kind, gentle and whole. The School of Life, launched by the pragmatic philosopher Alain de Botton, provides lots of resources to help you stop caring about what others think, live your life more intentionally, serve others, become more resilient, appreciate the great beauty of life, and accept your and others’ imperfections with greater kindness and insight. It also helps you to just get on with life while pacing yourself. Life sucks at least some of the time, which makes the brighter times all the much brighter. The School of Life’s eight foundational pillars are worth going back to for inspiration to live more fruitfully and with greater gratitude. 7.4 million YouTube subscribers must think there is at least some value in the content!
  • Keep looking in. As Buddhist monk and meditation master Thich Nhat Hahn famously said, “the way out is in“. It means satisfaction, happiness, peace and joy cannot ultimately be found outside, but come from within. It is a lifelong practice. Looking inward helps us engage with the world more kindly and positively, from a position of inner contentment and wisdom, rather than need.

Beginning anew

As we continue to burn out because our broken world encourages us to, it is helpful to remember the following quote by philosopher Krishnamurti, lest we should choose to blame ourselves for not running fast enough:

Clearly, there are countless causes and symptoms of burnout. There are just as many cures for different people. A whole book would not be enough to cover what works for each and everyone.

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Should burning out be a kind of death, it provides a modest opportunity for resurrecting the better part of ourselves and beginning anew with a bigger heart and more spacious mind. The phoenix (aka firebird) is a mythical representation of our own capacity to be reborn from our own ashes.

As support on the way, we can always go back to art and practical philosophies for inspiration and a renewed appreciation of beauty in the world. The School of Life praises the craft of living an ‘ordinary life’ as a form of the ‘good life‘, by drawing on the work of such varied creatives as 17th century Dutch painters, modern novelists, architects and others.

In praise of the ordinary and its (extraordinary) simplicity. The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer (~1658).

Likewise, photographer Sean Tucker, in his book The Meaning in the Making (2021), encourages us to tap into our infinite pool of creativity to (re)create order and reveal intrinsic beauty in this highly entropic world of ours. The creative power is yours.

And so, ending with a call to (non-)action:

Everyday heroes in-the-making, hurry slowly!

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