Burnout: How to avoid and live past it
I stepped down as editor in chief of The Polytechnic last summer. The decision nearly broke me, but it was necessary to prioritize my health and regain a sense of self. Those who know me pretty well may joke that The Poly is my life or identify the newspaper as central to who I am—it's true to an extent. Though being stretched thin is painful at times, I would never give up the experiences I have had for anything in the world. Even with all the enthusiasm, my Editor’s Corner about stepping into the role of editor in chief contains the foreboding line: “the role of editor in chief could eat me alive, if I let it.”
You may wonder why I stepped down in the middle of the summer, and if that helped me “avoid” burnout. It didn’t. But I hope that you can learn a lesson from me. Burnout is real, and I implore you to seek help when you recognize the signs. Saying goodbye to The Poly for a little bit allowed me to refocus and identify my other priorities. Though it took a while for the burnout symptoms to click for me, it’s a lot worse to completely burn yourself out and have to stop permanently. Choosing to step away was better than having that decision forced upon me by extreme fatigue and failing health.
When reflecting on my term as editor in chief, I realize that The Poly not only stayed afloat but thrived. We relaunched our comics section and managed to publish through a cyberattack! We covered revoked online learning requests and surveyed RPI clubs operating completely online. Throughout this period, the Rensselaer community experienced highs and lows together: undergoing another quarantine period since move-in, the sheer excitement of the Mueller Center reopening for the first time in months, and getting vaccinated together in the Armory. We stressed out together when RPI servers went down during finals season and checked Roundcube to see the announcement of Dr. Jackson’s retirement. Those of us on campus saw RPI friends for maybe the first time in-person in over a year, were saddened when Baba’s Pizza replaced Cusato’s in the Union, and savored the feeling of being in a classroom in a way that we may not have felt before. A lot changed over my term.
Though The Poly doesn’t typically publish during the summer, I wanted us to. I planned intermediate deadlines for Grand Marshal Week and other big projects, monthly staff social events, staff photo day and the ordering of Poly merch, and set senior staff workshop deadlines. I had this vision for The Poly and felt that I was constantly letting my team down every time I couldn’t meet these high standards.
In addition to this, I was working from 8 am to 5 pm and studying for the LSAT after getting back from work and making dinner with my family. I had trouble falling asleep even though I was constantly exhausted from working and driving–I don’t miss LA traffic at all. I was never hungry, but I’d force myself to eat. All my friends were on campus taking Arch summer classes, and though I had my family and friends back home, I had never felt so alone in my life. I had random sporadic headaches, stomach problems, and back pain.
This just became the new normal for me. I had trouble getting started on a task for The Poly or focusing on the LSAT, but when I did, hours would fly by, I’d get to sleep late, go to work and do it all over again. I stopped enjoying The Poly and resented everything that I was doing. Burnout is slow and sneaky. It eats away at the core of who you are and makes you doubt yourself.
One Saturday morning during the summer, I woke up and couldn’t move out of bed. It was like everybody part was being crushed by a car. My first thought was: “What’s happening? Okay, suck it up and get up. I know you’re stressed, but you can’t let anyone down. People are depending on you.” The worst thing was I already knew.
I knew that I couldn’t keep up what I was doing, that my stress levels were much higher than they should be, and finally acknowledged that I was miserable because I had piled too much on my plate as a result of not being selective of who and what deserved my time. I was spread out too thin, doing nothing well, and after many warnings, this was my body’s final cry to do something about it. Though I knew logically what I should do, I felt guilty about stepping down as editor in chief. This was the job I signed up to do, and I was sure as hell going to do my best. After hours of agony, I messaged the senior editorial board of The Poly on Slack, letting my teammates know that I would no longer continue serving as editor in chief.
The expression that “health is wealth” is true. You can’t do anything without your health. As my grandma used to say, “you can’t do anything if you’re dead. Who can you help if you’re not, at the very least, doing what you need to take care of yourself?” I didn’t realize it then, but I really needed to cut out basically everything that I could to regain a sense of who I am.
I put my health first. I read more, ditched coffee, chose sleep over working another hour, went for runs with my brother after work, and tried to remember who I was before I became editor in chief. My stomach no longer dropped when a Slack notification popped up, and I stayed offline with the exception of LSAT studying.
Whether it’s Snapchat, Instagram, or LinkedIn, it’s easy to forget that whatever you see online is a distortion of reality. They’re highlight reels, with the nights of crying and struggles conveniently edited out. It’s impossible to live the life you see on the screen; perhaps the other person has a lot more resources you don’t have, but they’re struggling with something else that you’ll never know about. Prioritizing your health is important.
Once you block out consistent sleeping time, time to exercise, and time to decompress as non-negotiable, you can work on everything else. Set out small guideposts, acknowledge when you reach them, and celebrate your accomplishments. Ask yourself whether something truly makes you happy and excited or if you feel obligated to do it. Hold yourself to saying “no” unless you’re super excited about something. If you’re on the fence, say “I need to check my calendar and will get back to you about that tomorrow.” Sleep on it. Frustrated? Take a break, go for a walk and come back to it. Feeling drained or constantly replaying conversations every time you hang out with someone? Limit the time you spend with that person and consider cutting them out of your life. You only have 24 hours in a day, so channel your limited energy in what brings you joy, and who embraces you for who you are and the person you want to become.