The Art of Self Preservation Part 2: Recovery

| 8 min read
#mental-health #acquisition #burn-out #recovery

This is part 2 (and conclusion) of my series on burnout. You can find my previous article here.

Recovery as a Process

I suspect for some, this will read like a typical story of self-rediscovery through mindfulness. I am skeptical of the idea that “getting more in touch with yourself” is the active driver of finding inner peace and happiness.

Instead, I believe that practice and habits are core to happiness and satisfaction. The rewarding elements of our lives aren’t the outcomes we achieve, but the challenges we face and the literal thing we practice and repeat. The act of practice gives space to let us deal with any number of mental/emotional/spiritual challenges, but for me, the practice isn’t a tool to encounter those things, it is something of value on its own. The practice is the thing.

Mental and Physical Injuries

The reason I spent so much time talking about physical injuries is because I think they are a useful comparison here. Even though there have been considerable strides in how we think about and treat mental health, we often fall into traps when we think about mental health and recovery. We think about diagnosis of the issues as half the battle (even though no one would say that about a physical injury), and we still bias towards personal blame instead of viewing behaviors through the lens of habits.

The reason I wanted to emphasize the strain analogy with burnout is that the way back from both are similar. To very slowly increase your effort without pushing yourself past your injury point. Like a hamstring strain that is easy to re-injure, burn out, is about finding ways to slowly increase your mental workload, without taking yourself back down. The other reason I liked the sports analogy is that there’s typically a set and knowable amount of time that an injury recovery will take: like 2–4 weeks to recover from an ankle sprain. What I found helpful about this metaphor is that it created a separation from my mental state and my personal identity. I could view my habits as symptoms of the burnout I was experiencing, instead of feeling bad. I could also set a period of time to say “it’s ok to take my foot off the gas”.


Taking the time off between jobs was a huge first step, but letting myself heal meant significantly resetting my personal and professional expectations. The second thing to note is that joining Guild did get me back to a baseline of stability.

This isn’t to say I stopped doing work. More like an arm in a cast, I set very specific limits on the types of work I would do, when I would stop, especially when I felt emotionally good, like I wanted to push harder.

There were a couple of times when this broke down, of course, and I did push harder than I intended. And in each of those cases, the exhaustion reared its ugly head again, and I took that as a sign that I needed to slow myself back down again.

I don’t remember where I read it, but I remember learning that burnout wasn’t caused by working for too hard for too long. I was caused by working towards something and feeling fundamentally out of control of the results.

This is honestly the biggest pain inflicted by burnout. The most exciting challenges are ones where the success isn’t directly tied to how hard you work. Instead of feeling like you had one “bad beat”, burnout makes you feel like any uncertain goal isn’t worth picking up, which makes it harder to fully participate in your life.

The Caveat

I’m writing this with the assumption that you, the reader, have the primary goal of recovering from burnout to get back to a similar place to where you were. It’s fully possible you want none of that. I make no judgments there, but I will suspect that you find this narrative journey a bit less helpful.

Starting to Run

Dall-E Rendering of a Runner at a Finish Line Getting Misted with Water

I started running more often during the heigh of the pandemic, sometime around August 2020. The main reason, to be honest, is that I noticed how happy my dog Annie was whenever we ran, and when she was happy, I felt happy. And so, I started running, probably about 30 minutes a session, 3 times a week.

I decided to start training for a half-marathon because I think I saw an advertisement in 2021, and I felt like that would be a thing I could do. I think I stumbled my way into a path for success, to be honest. I don’t want to sound like I went into my burnout with a plan to get out. But there are some learnings that I have hypotheses about that I would like to share.

I don’t think mindfulness is a necessary component of this. While I happened to pick a practice associated with mindfulness, at no part was my goal on the journey to reconnect with myself. Like my analogy above, I think it’s very possible to be deeply connected to yourself and still experience burnout in a big way. So, here’s what I think is important to finding a burnout recovery habit:

  1. It’s an activity I intrinsically enjoy, but succeeding at it wasn’t deeply attached to my identity
  2. It had a goal I could brute-force
  3. Guardrails
  4. I had a set end goal
  5. I gave myself permission to prioritize it
  6. It was challenging

1. I Enjoy Running, But it’s not connected to my Identity

I love running. The act of running makes me feel great. But I am not a fast runner. My enjoyment of running is not, in any way, shape, or form, impacted by how fast I am.

This was actually quite key. Because early on, one of the hobbies I wondered about picking up was something like game design. Why not go back to something I loved that gave me a lot of meaning?

What I realized was, my identity around game design was tied up in my ability to be good at it, so that same sort of striving and judgment would creep in. And this isn’t to imply that I’m a competent game designer. I am deeply not. But I had an emotional attachment to the idea of being good at game design in a way that I wouldn’t as a runner.

2. A Brute-Forceable Goal

Brute-Force is a software concept where your ability to solve a problem is solely based on a factor of time. To use running as an example, this means that my goal was to finish a half-marathon, it was not to set a certain time at said half-marathon.

This is also why I might encourage not focusing on a creative pursuit (where creativity is the goal). To go back to the game design example, even something as simple as “finish a game” doesn’t have a clear outcome. It requires me to either listen to feedback or to spend time trying to come up with a set goal.

Running a longer distance is the type of thing I know I can do simply by running more. I might not run well or run longer faster, but I know if I spend enough time at it, I can increase the distances I run at.

I think other pursuits could absolutely fit in these cases, both physical and more intellectual. Maybe it’s hitting a number of free throws (not a percentage), or sketching some number of pieces of art, or throwing some number of clay bowls. But I truly believe quality should not be part of the success equation. The goal was to disconnect my identity from success in the challenge.

3. Guardrails

The other thing I’ll note is that I leaned heavily onto the Nike Running Club app. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how good it is, I’m not an athlete. But what I do know is that I didn’t have to think about a training plan. I just pressed play. That sort of divorcing myself from the goal entirely again meant I could just focus on the act of doing.

This created a number of self-reinforcing behaviors. Because I didn’t have to think about what I was doing I could pick it up quicker, there were fewer veto points for me to say no or chicken out.

I think if I were to try something similar without those guardrails (like maybe drawing), I would probably focus on trying to make a medium/long-term contract with myself where I would just pick a thing and do it. Potentially, I would practice drawing the same hallway for a month. That sort of thing seems inane, but the goal here is setting goals early that eliminates thinking in the future.

4. There Was a Set End Goal

I had a date and a goal in mind. This connects to the concept of an injury because I wasn’t trying to change my identity or become something new. I had a specific goal with a specific timespan in mind. Once that date came, I could renegotiate my relationship to running or drop it entirely.

5. I gave myself permission to prioritize it

This is one of those places where the privilege of having a flexible, remote job absolutely come into play, though I suspect there are other ways to make time. The point I want to emphasize is that there were times when running came into conflict with other priorities in my life, especially ones that I connected to burnout. Specifically, those times when I might’ve started working early or stayed late, I ran instead. It was honestly hard to do so because being a hard worker is intertwined with how I view myself, but I had made the agreement that the path to heal wasn’t through working more, it was through running.

6. It Challenged Me

The key here was that running still challenged me. There are so many times when I started an 8-mile run, internally screaming at how annoyed I was to be outside running. Or 4 miles in, begging myself to stop. So, it’s not like it was easy. But the easy part was that I only had one decision to make… either keep going or stop.

But… I also think it’s somewhat different from the meditate and rest form of recovery we talk about, and worth talking about the differences. When I was completely burnt out at the end of a previous job, literally taking the time off was important. Resting and disconnecting were akin to letting the sprain heal. To reach my goals again to get myself back on the path I wanted, active recovery was necessary. The challenge of it wasn’t a side effect of the goal, it was part of the recovery process.

What Actually Happened

In October 2021, I ran my first half-marathon and finished. It was around that time I started taking on more challenging projects at work again, and started feeling like I could participate fully in work, even knowing the uncertainty that my efforts would be fully rewarded.

What this practice of running taught me, is that it rebuilt my confidence in my ability to face challenge and not immediately assume the outcome was meaningless. It taught me that I could enjoy the thing for the sake of the challenge, without the desire to hit specific metrics or to be the best.

It also taught me that I could be flexible and renegotiate the things that were most important to me.

Renegotiating my Concept of Success

Like all injuries, sometimes it’s not just about healing back to 100%, it’s about renegotiating your relationship to the reality you live within. I value stability much more than I did, I’m much more skeptical of a crunching lifestyle and of the concept that that crunch will be rewarded by much of anything. My relationship to my job, even though I still strive, has changed dramatically. It would be weird if I went through this and was fundamentally the same person. I truly believe the specific running habit I practiced in late 2021 was a significant part of that recovery. But I don’t believe it has to be running, or even physical activity. The principles of having an enjoyable activity, disconnected from my identity, with a specific goal that could be achieved with effort and structure, can benefit anyone looking to recover from burnout.

The over-justification effect, which, I believe, is directly connected to burnout, is the concept that as we focus increasingly on extrinsic rewards the intrinsic values we found disappear.

Burnout is, in my opinion, the harshest form of over-justification. We become so focused on that external reward that when it disappears, there is nothing intrinsic left to come back to. In those situations, we cannot simply remind ourselves that once upon a time, we had intrinsic rewards from a certain behavior.

It can be hard to recognize that we can see how things once were, and also that our seeing it doesn’t make it possible that we can just mentally force ourselves back there. Just like physical changes, mental changes take time and effort to change. But, it’s possible to step away from that part of ourselves and find new areas for discovery.