Burnout and Civic Tech

Stress doodle, circa 2020

In 2019, I started to get scared. I had been struggling with feelings of being intensely overwhelmed, exhausted, reactive, and unfocused for several months, but I was unable to point to any specific cause. While there were stressors at work and home, nothing seemed out of the ordinary — in fact, in many ways my life was better than it had been in a long time. Despite all that, it became undeniable to me that the brain I’d relied on my entire life had stopped working the way I was used to it working.

For most of my life, I was a detailed note taker and could track fast-paced conversations. Suddenly, if I tried to take notes I would get lost after a few seconds and found myself staring at a blinking cursor. For most of my life, I could understand the basics of a complex idea after it was explained once. Suddenly, no matter how many times someone explained a concept to me or diagrammed it out, it was like a post-it that had lost its tackiness: nothing would stick. These were some of the most tangible mental impacts, but on an emotional level, I also found myself increasingly angry, paranoid, and reactive — unable to approach critical feedback with curiosity, and unable to regulate feelings of defensiveness. Like Hemingway described going broke: it happened gradually, then all at once.

At some point I realized what I was experiencing was burnout. A lot of people I knew talked about burnout, but I had written it off as something you could overcome with coffee and a good attitude. I had no idea it could severely impair a person’s basic executive functions, or that it could completely reshape how memory and knowledge was stored and accessed. I was glad to take this first step: once you name something, you can control it.

Over time, I learned how complex burnout is: how holistic and systemic the causes, symptoms, and antidotes each are. How deeply personal burnout is, while simultaneously being bound up in social and cultural expectations at the highest levels. The way I define burnout to people now is: depleting one’s mental and emotional reserves in pursuit of an unattainable goal. Burnout can be particularly insidious because both ends of that equation are extremely difficult to identify and make sense of: at one end, recognizing what motivates a person to deplete their inner resources (and that they are being depleted); at the other end, realizing that the way a person has articulated goals to themselves might not be realistic (and that this is a poor set up for success).

As I learned more, I started to understand why so many folks in civic tech seem to gravitate toward the Stockdale Paradox, or a similar philosophy as a way to stay motivated. The Stockdale Paradox says: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” In this framework, the idea of unattainable goals (“faith that you will prevail in the end”) is tempered by paced, achievable progress (“confront[ing] the brutal facts of your current reality.”) Much of what I developed over the last two years to offset burnout for myself continue to revolve around these focus areas as well.

Step 1: Triage

Before I could get to a place where I was thinking about prevention or systemic changes, I needed to figure out how to get through my day-to-day work. The first thing I did was tell my team. I told people publicly, directly, and repeatedly that I was struggling. I am tremendously lucky to work at an organization where I felt safe making this kind of admission. I asked people to let me know if I was blocking them or dropping a ball, and acknowledged that this required extra work from them, but that I hoped it would be temporary. I also feel very lucky that my team was willing to help and to extend care when I asked.

After trying to right-size expectations from others, I looked at what I could do myself. The practice that most helped me was choosing three highly achievable goals every day and writing them down in a notebook. The act of writing things down and crossing them off every day was unexpectedly calming and effective for me — much more so than doing the same thing on a computer. This helped my brain organize itself.

Pre-burnout, my top three goals for a given day might have looked like:

During burnout, my goals looked like:

This exercise of choosing three achievable tasks and completing them was simple to describe, but often difficult to execute. One challenge was identifying the right tasks. I focused on small actions that were critical to preventing catastrophic or irreversible project failure, or heading off future pain. After identifying three goals, another challenge was making sure I actually completed them. It didn’t matter if I wanted to do them or not, and it didn’t matter if there were larger crises popping up on a project. The more I got sucked into reacting to things outside of my three goals, the less effective I became overall. I trained myself to ignore everything outside this scope of work until I was able to consistently outline and complete three goals daily. If I could do more I did, but I told myself that if I completed those three goals, even if they were dead simple, it meant I could feel good about what I did that day. This was a major improvement over feeling overwhelmed and helpless for being eternally behind, which only served as kindling for burnout. Looking back on the idea of burnout as “depleting one’s mental and emotional reserves in pursuit of an unattainable goal,” the items outlined in Step 1 both help curb the depletion of inner resources and also helped me set attainable goals.

Step 2: Revisit Expectations

By staying hyper-focused on small, strategic goals I could control, I was able to create a structure for my daily work. The next step for me was understanding what was causing my burnout. For me, this looked like therapy and continual self-reflection. However you get there, it is hard for me to imagine how I could have made lasting changes without extensive, honest self-awareness and self-reflection.

The realization I came to was that I had the wrong set of expectations, both of myself and for the work I was doing. Expectations are the bedrock that we build everything on top of: relationships, task execution, communication. A common problem is that a large number of expectations are implicit, and it’s challenging to do the work of making our expectations explicit — if we even realize what our expectations are. In this process of self-reflection, I identified many ways I had come to depend on work to make me feel validated and valuable, and realized I’d developed an over-reliance on work for those positive feelings. I kept expecting work to do certain things for me on an emotional level, but those were expectations I created for myself — it wasn’t what work was for.

Once I realized I had to reset my expectations, I felt immediate relief. It was like I had been pouring energy into a bucket riddled with holes and growing desperate because it would never fill. Turns out, I had been pouring my energy into the wrong bucket. The only thing that changed for me on my project was the story I told myself, but it made all the difference.

I thought deeply about what kind of relationship I wanted to have with work:

  • How much time and brain space did I want work to occupy?
  • How many unique kinds of validation or reward was I getting from work?
  • Why wasn’t I able to get that kind of validation or reward by other means?

Gradually, I developed non-work ways to achieve those same feelings through things like volunteerism, more time with family and friends, new hobbies, physical activity, and creative pursuits. It was fundamentally a restructuring of my entire value system, and it required both hard work and courage. Again, looking back on the idea of burnout as “depleting one’s mental and emotional reserves in pursuit of an unattainable goal,” the work I did in Step 2 was critical to understanding why I rationalized that depleting my inner resources was acceptable, as well as identifying unattainable goals early. Slowly, I was starting to affect systemic change within myself.

Step 3: Putting It All Together

Over a year and a half has passed since my burnout was at its worst. Like most kinds of recovery, the process was non-linear. It took two or three months to go through the processes described in Step 1. It took many more months to feel like myself again. The work of deliberately defining and honoring my value system is ongoing and something I expect to continue for the rest of my life. Throughout all of this, I’ve had a lot of conversations about burnout, done a lot of research, witnessed a lot of people burn out, and undergone continuous talk therapy. As a result of all of this work, I’ve identified larger patterns around burnout as it relates to civic tech (and multiple other industries), and strive to systemically address these issues within my own organization. Here are some of the main things I’ve learned.

Beware perfectionism. A lot of people don’t view themselves as perfectionists because they focus on all the ways they are imperfect. But, if you’re someone who feels that things are constantly not good enough, or feels that if something didn’t happen the way you imagined it, then it doesn’t count: that’s perfectionism. Learn to celebrate progress — especially progress that seems insignificant to you. There is a huge amount of deep social, cultural, and familial conditioning that leads to these thought patterns, but they are changeable patterns.

At the same time: dream big. Continue to want to do more, and continue to cultivate a vision for the future — but don’t forget to be truly glad for the small things you accomplished, or the feeling of never doing enough will wear you down.

Care about something more than you care about work. Making a practice of caring about other things more deeply than work and actually investing time and energy in those things is critical to your well-being and ability to avoid burnout.

This idea might sound simple, but in reality this means you may need to miss a client meeting in order to take your pet or kid to the doctor. You may need to be a day late on a report so you can be with your friend or spouse on their birthday. It’s critical to find a workplace culture that allows for this (or to develop this culture at a workplace that does not). It’s equally critical to give yourself the permission to say yes to something other than work, which can be surprisingly challenging.

It’s worth calling out two specific reasons for drawing hard boundaries around work. First: if you are continually putting work above everything else, eventually something is going to fail spectacularly. Maybe this looks like job loss, whether that’s from layoffs, restructuring, or retirement. If that happens, the individual who has been putting work above all else for years will likely struggle because of how meaningful work has been, and because they’ve potentially neglected the other aspects of their life. Alternatively, lack of boundaries can look like a superstar employee suddenly quitting or burning out because they can no longer sustain the demands of constantly prioritizing work.

A second reason for boundaries: the more all-encompassing work becomes, the more people tend to tie their sense of self-worth to their work. This makes it exponentially more difficult to receive feedback, collaborate with people you disagree with, or arrive at a solution that is different from what you imagined. The more one identifies with work, the more mistakes, disagreements, and setbacks feel deeply personal. Everything feels like it’s about you, and not the work itself. Over time, this is also a path to burnout.

Embrace healthy tension. Finally, I return to the concept of the Stockdale Paradox. Many people come to industries like civic tech with the hunger to solve big problems. As my colleague Peter Karman, an engineer at Truss, points out in his excellent blog post: “Digital Service is not really about technology. It’s about changing organizational process.”

Those changes to the organizational process are the big problems. The hunger that people bring — and the belief that change is possible — is integral to successfully effecting organizational change. Simultaneously, it is critical to realize that solving these big problems is the cumulative work of many years and the collective efforts of hundreds of individuals. Thinking otherwise inevitably leads to burnout and attrition.

There’s a Chinese proverb my mother taught me that roughly means: “If I’m full after I eat three dumplings, why can’t I simply get full by eating the third dumpling and skipping the first two?” Of course, that’s not how hunger works: you need to do the task of eating all three dumplings. When confronted with burnout, and the frustration that so many problems are ongoing and seemingly endless, it’s helpful for me to remember: We, as a civic tech industry, are and will continue to be in the business of eating the second dumpling. The hunger is purposeful. May we all one day be full.

delivery management lead @Truss * former lecturer @Rutgers & @NYU * author of Bridled (LSU press 2018)

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