Psychology Applied to Life

March 7, 2010

Burnout and the Plague: Flow as the Solution to Both

I sincerely apologize for my complete absence from the blogging world though a recent bout with what can only be called “The Plague” has had me incapacitated for more than a week. Minus a trip to the doctor that only reinforced my belief that going was a waste of time… but, I digress.

One of the small benefits of being sick is that you can gain some perspective on various tasks and areas of your life – you realize what you enjoy doing and will fight to get to do even when you are beyond exhausted and then you realize what you were doing because it was “the right thing to do” or you really had to do it. During my couch-confinement, I’ve tried to get a variety of tasks done – for classwork, my boss, to prepare for comprehensive (or qualifying) exams in May, etc. It reminded me of one of many, many exercises from productivity, organization-type blogs that encourage you to set your priorities (see an example on balancing your work-life from ChickSpeak, or Stratejoy’s take on running in circles, a usability post on fighting perfection in design, Lifehacker’s “do not do” lists, etc.)

Admittedly, I’m desperate to find a benefit from the lost productivity right now, but I genuinely feel that I’ve gotten a little reminder about why I’m doing all of this (in the big picture), the kind of work that energizes and makes me feel like all the little annoying stuff is worth it, and the kind of work that I find ultimately fulfilling. And while I could have easily identified this work before entering grad school, three years in, with concerns about publications and productive professors, credit-hogs and near-plagiarists, I lost sight of that a bit. Because the truth is that I often find myself bogged down by (ultimately) small (seemingly huge) decisions about data transformations and citations to justify different analytic techniques, translating meeting notes to public to do lists, preparing study guides, and running errands. I end up frustrated by unexpected costs (both time and money), everyday annoyances, and sometimes terrible working conditions. But, this week, I was reminded that some tasks don’t require the same Herculean effort from me (flow, anyone?), and some help me remember the big picture more easily than others.

Specifically, a paper I’m working on with a professor who is not my boss, that I approached because I had an idea and he loved it, is what I feel passionate about right now… it’s not anything in my area, nor is it something I think I’d want to build a career around. But it’s the academic, thinking-type work that actually forces me to integrate different literatures in unique ways and that forces me to write. Really write, not just explain complicated data in words. And I miss that. I don’t get to do it enough. I rarely actually think about much intellectual stuff and I think I need to make more of an effort to get back to doing that. Because the other stuff is important – I need to walk my dog and pay the bills, I have to do some scut work for my boss, I have to just deal with it. But to avoid the burnout that hangs over the head of any Ph.D. student, I think I need to make an effort to work on these projects and actually think about the big picture and big ideas more often too…

Oddly enough, it seems that this blogger described some of what I’m feeling as mere contrast effects – that basically the high-level, abstract thinking is enjoyable because it’s a break from the mundane. And I certainly think that’s true, and I know I need to figure out whether that type of thinking is appealing because of its uniqueness or because I genuinely want to do it all the time before I make any big career choices. But, for now, I think it’s enough to know that it’s a way that I can reduce burnout for myself and even get a tiny bit of flow in hectic everyday life…

(Note: Because I’m a nerd and have read a decent amount of Csikszentmihalyi‘s work and think he’s amazing, I’ve embedded a talk from him as well as one of my most favorite diagrams of his idea about boredom v. flow v. anxiety and all the corresponding states of arousal. I just think it’s cool stuff to think about so I’ve included it here though the need to include them here is somewhat questionable.)

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