Over this winter break, I’ve accepted this: I am burned out on work, like I can’t remember ever being.
From the inside, being burned out feels paralyzing and alienating. “Why should I work on anything? It won’t be good, it won’t matter, and it’s just so god-damned hard anyway.” is a recurring thought, punctuated by bursts of manic work energy, though applied towards things actually completely irrelevant to work.
Obsessively cleaning your office rather than writing that god-damned paper? Check. Wake up feeling like you had a great idea overnight and a plan for action, only for that feeling to evaporate the moment you even consider actually carrying it out? Check. I’ve done that to three separate work projects I can think of, in the last month. At the same time, I’ve written something like 5,000 lines of code on different projects, simultaneously convincing myself that these were sufficiently related to work to justify the 12-hour-long reading and writing benders, after which I rewarded myself, of course, with a few days of doing nothing, because you see, I worked so hard just then.
This is profoundly stupid and hurtful on my part.
Being burned out has meant a number of people I cherish, respect, and who depend on me have had to put up with my bad behavior for the better part of last year, and maybe even more. Adriana, Luiz, Josh, Kate, Becca, Mingwei, Zhenge, Zhe, Todd, Michelle, Remco, Kristi, Bei, Paul, Suresh, Sorelle: I know I’ve let you down at times. I’m truly sorry.
If the rest of you reading this happen to be wondering about me, maybe this post will also go a little towards acknowledging that those are not the only people I let down. Really, I suspect all of you nice folks have already gone out of your way to be kind to me. I don’t expect you to hold me to a different standard, and I will not use burnout as an excuse. If you had noticed me going through this before I did, my intent is for you to know that I now see it too, and that I continue to appreciate your kindness. If you hadn’t noticed, then well, now you know.
There is one important thing that this post is not, and I want to get it out of the way.
I really do love research and academia. I’m not quitting. I see things now a little clearer, I think, because I disconnected from “work” for the break, hard. But I use “work” in scare quotes because I did do things that a lot of people would consider work: I prepared and practiced lectures for my upcoming course, and I read quite a bit of technical material. But I also know I ignored a lot of work that I don’t enjoy one bit, and that meant many of you picked it up off the floor for me. I see the problem here: this is the same problem as emotional labor, projected onto my professional relationships. As much as I would love to write “I’m not burned out anymore”, that just isn’t true.
Still: I now see where I’m at. I’m sorry it took me this long. I’m working on it.