Oops I Did It Again: How Burnout Hit Me One More Time

March 1st 2019: Gave an internal company-wide talk titled “Stay Sane While Working Remotely”. Talked about mental health awareness, tactics, best practices, encouraged conversation, and let people know it’s ok to ask for help.

March 11th 2019: Hit a low week, all drained of mental energy. Kept it to myself, postponed asking for help for fear of how it reflects on my reputation.

The stigma is real. The mindset shift is hard. Shaping culture takes time.

Fool me once shame on you.

Fool me five times? Shame on me.

I have been tracking my thoughts, life stats, and time down to the seconds for some time. So I see this coming from miles away. Bits of resentments, energy level, unhealthy pattern in sleep and food quality.

This is burnout. My old dear friend.

Despite increasing number of mornings and evenings filled with resentments and mental fatigue, I was still killing it at work.

I still get the high after a long productive day.

Work is my play.

Work gives me energy.


I think life is a delicate dance between things you know you should do and things you do instead.

Burnout is serious, take care. If you die your employer will just replace you. I know that.

Learn to say no. Be assertive. Done that. Sometimes.

You will never run out of tasks. Prioritise properly, balance the urgent vs important tasks, do what can be done, and set expectation with people. I know that. I have even told my team that.

Long hours aren’t sustainable! Don’t worry, I know my limit.

Stop firefighting. Block a time out to identify the hole on the ship and patch it. In the middle of that. Juggling.

Schedule time for play. I know that.

Take time off. I do.

Oh. Wait. Yes, let’s take time off. The last time I took was in October. Since then I have been grinding it through and hold on until the December performance review cycle.

Well apparently mine won’t be until June.

Imagine you’re in a marathon, blisters all over, close to fainting, thinking you’re on the last mile, exerted your sub-human power to just take the next step. Just a little bit more and you can collapse in triumph.

But somehow you messed up the schedule. You joined and trained for another race. Apparently you still got 10 miles to go. Will you pass out right then and there?


So I registered for a 3-day-long storytelling workshop in Bandung. Love that city. Booked a bed and breakfast. Submitted a request for leave. Started planning.

Ended up a half-baked preparation still bombarded with a bunch of urgent initiatives for imaginary crises with conflicting stakeholders and reputation guarding up to the day before the leave. But hey, I am here.

The 3 hours drive was nice. I have always enjoyed road trips. Singing along to a flash drive of songs I last refreshed 1.5 years ago. Enjoying the sceneries and blazing through the highway.

Changed environment, shook the routine up. Disconnected.


Sitting in the hotel room. Fired up Evernote, dusted off the “non-work todo list”. Filled with “someday” items.

OK. “Write and publish more”. Followed by a bunch of prompts, topics, and headlines I have been collecting in the past year. Stuck in gatherer mode. Living in the future. The “someday island”.

Let’s write something then. I don’t need the list of topics for now. There are 3 to 4 that have been buzzing low-key at the back of my mind. Resident process. Eating up my RAM. Building up resentment.

20 mins later I was still scrolling food delivery services and jotting down mundane things.

Resistance.

OK let’s start with low hanging fruit. “Update an older post with links”. Let’s do that. Should be easy enough.

15 mins later it’s done. Good start. Getting motivated.

Then decided to start going through some of the unpublished drafts in Medium.

Saw one titled “I quit“. Dated July 2018. Clicked on it. This is what it says:

Starting to get resentments. And it’s unhealthy.

But quitting means admitting defeat.

And I know I can manage this, I am better than this.

I cannot do all the grunt work myself.

I just need to care less.

Am I burning out? But I am still very much engaged and killing it. What is happening then?

I would resent the time spent working but not tracked. Or when I feel I have spent more than 8 hours working but I cannot wrap up yet, just because there are so many more to do, to juggle, and to keep up with.

Most stress is a concern about your brand. The problem is exactly that. I care too much about my reputation.

Aha I know. I should stop being so reliable and awesome. Then people would give me less responsibilities.

Look at all these imaginary emergencies.

What is actually the issue? Are we defining the right problem?

Sebenernya gw ngerjain kerjaan brp org sih? Orang lain yang pelan atau gw yg gila? Yg kelewat high expectation?

Kalo dibilang cuti dulu, sabbatical, break dulu… Lah kemaren baru cuti. Dan nggak menyelesaikan masalah toh.

Wait, cuti bukan utk menyelesaikan sih, tapi untuk sedikit recharge sehingga kuat berjalan lebih jauh.

Gw tau ini cuma karena sistem yang gw set up belum sampai iterasi yang mateng dan akan butuh waktu utk tim menginternalisasikan sampai tim bisa masuk flow.


Y’know what? It’s first drafted in July 2018.

It means I have been running on fumes for 8 months. I didn’t even realise it has been this long.

Yes the progress we have achieved this 8 months is amazing.

Yet the milestone keeps evolving. I am insatiable.

To be fair, it’s not 8 months of constant down. It’s a cocktail of motivation and overwhelm, pulsing and oscillating. But the toxin compounds.


July 2018 was the catalyst. Structural and directional changes. New metrics, new goals, new processes.

I want to do everything ASAP. I know I can. This is going to be awesome. I’ll show them.

Delusional? Ambitious?

Long hours. Long yet exhilarating hours.

Should have been obvious from the data.

  • Q1 2018: 477.43 hours
  • Q2 2018: 460.62 hours
  • Q3 2018: 561.23 hours
  • Q4 2018: 436.2 hours
  • Q1 2019: 427.43 hours

And these periods in particular, I worked more than 160 hours per month.

  • March - May 2018
  • July - August 2018
  • January - February 2019

Yes I was nowhere near to pulling 60 or 80 hour work week.

But know that I log time with military precision. I have developed a system that allows me to context switch with as little friction as possible. And I work from home. So these are real hours, in flow, engaged with knowledge work.

Haha, 8 months? More like… you’re always pedal to the metal like this.


Burnout is not knowing how to recharge. - Marissa Mayer

I don’t know what to do with myself when I’m not working.

I lost traces of joy in other activities.

I don’t play guitar anymore. I don’t even listen to music anymore. Music used to be an integral part of my life and identity.

I don’t read for leisure anymore. I find myself trying to get through a book as fast as I could.

I find most social interaction to be a bore and a chore. Often disengaged, sometimes agitated, and mostly impatient.

Yes there is 35% possibility I just need new social circle that sparks more joy. But 65% it’s just me being antsy because I could be doing something more productive.

I still make time for family events, to catch up with old friends, deliberately seek out and join meetups and new communities, but not as much as I would like to. Fair to say I am not happy with the way I am present in these social settings. Quantity and quality wise. Not being my best self.

If I don’t see how an activity can yield monetary outcome in the short or long term, I feel guilty for spending time on it.

Is this that millennial disease I’ve been hearing about?

The hustle generation. Productivity junkie. Life optimisation freak.

Spending time to recharge is productive. You’re keeping it sustainable. I know I know. I’m just addicted and trapped in the momentum. Waiting to crash into a brick wall and get the permission to stop. All self imposed.

Well dogganit woman, do something, make time for these activities, it’s OK, take care of yourself!

I know I should. But working feels so good. Being useful. And I am good at what I do.


Well OK there is one other activity that sparks joy for me: eating.

This is me throwing fuel into the flame of unhealthy relationship with food I was already developing out of my fitness and workout routine.

Food became a reward. I eat to feel better.

This is coming from someone who used to mock salad-eating people and take pride in the fact that she doesn’t measure her life based on a number on the scale. One of the “not one of those girls” girl.

What do you get when you adopt a scarcity mindset towards food? Binge eating.


Objectively speaking, I am at a very good place in life.

I live quite close to the top of the Maslow’s pyramid.

I have excellent health. A solid support system. Loving stable family, kind and positive friends. Emotional stability. Financial security. Have a fulfilling work. Get to travel. Afford anything I need. I don’t have extravagant desire nor expensive taste.

Subjectively speaking I think I am a pretty well adjusted and well rounded human being with healthy physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual life.

So, why the resentment? What am I frustrated about?

The root cause of my resentment is opportunity cost.

Every second I spend for a short term gain is a second I don’t invest in long term gain. And the time is running out.

And that has been haunting me.

At this very moment, am I spending or investing? Am I taking from present me instead of giving to future me?

How can I invest? What should I invest in? How can I figure it out if all of my time and mind is stuck on spending activities?

I want a pause.


Steps to rehabbing an addiction: rewire the identity, substitute the source of pleasure, prepare to face the withdrawal.

Not sure how I will do this time around but I’ll take the first step and figure it out as I go.

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