30 – 35 Days of Data / Round 2

Tuesday & Wednesday July 27 & 28, 2021

An informal discussion on how to overcome burnout without losing progress.

Since the beginning of this year, I have been trying to stay on schedule with my self-imposed goals, maybe I could say that I am still realizing my New Years resolution. I am making a daily quota, first, to have a few CVs sent out, write my blog from the previous day’s progress, study a little statistics, do a little python problem solving, and make some progress on a project or course I am taking. I also want to get some light exercise and reading done. With so much going on the feeling that you cannot get away sufficiently to regain your focus begins to creep in and eventually dread and the fear of failure sets in.

There can be a number of factors contributing to this. It’s mostly your personal reaction to pressure. In my case, I am searching for my first job in a profession that I feel under-qualified for…..but I believe that I am well equipped to handle. There are some insecurities that I know will disappear once I get some real responsibilities and prove to my self and future employer that I am capable of doing these tasks. All at the same time, it is a must that I convey confidence in an interview or when presenting myself. This. however, has slowly drained away my energy.

Then, as a data scientist, my environment broke, meaning that certain version of tools I was using became incompatible with new versions of other tools that had updated. This was a big set back for me on the progress I was making on an already difficult dataset. I spent two weeks diving into terrain that is only adjacent to what I want to study. I consider it a success that I over came such a hairy issue. But the small fear that something might go wrong in the future has also taken more energy out of my daily routine.

And recently, I have just returned to my apartment in the city which is long due for a spring cleaning. I found that after sitting at the computer for a while working I was losing focus whenever I took a break. I would find 50 things that needed my attention and when I sat back down I was dreading the disorganisation of my project files in front of me and the disarray of my apartment behind me.

So, I tried the pomodoro technique of 20 minutes work and 10 minutes of something different. But I got trapped inside one of my 10 minute breaks which had turned into a 1 hour break (of cleaning). Strangely, this cleaning seemed to give me more energy. I noticed that my surroundings were less clogged up. Clearing these things out made me feel like there were less obstacles in my way. If these stacks of paper could be cleared out, then my projects had some hope of get set right, too.

The blog is my tool to help me teach at the same time as I learn. And to put a face on everything that I am doing that is not a project submitted to GitHub. So the fact that I have missed such a long time does not mean I haven’t done anything. I just means that I haven’t reflected on everything I have done. But here is the update on my daily grind.

File:Organic home-grown tomatoes - unripe to ripe.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

A few of my own solutions are:

  • 20 minutes of automatic writing first thing in the morning:
    This is an activity that I have applied whenever I am going through difficult times that require intense reflection, effective solutions, and creativity. I am a reluctant creative person. I love it but I have many obstacles and one way for me to remove those obstacles is to write every day in the morning for 20 minutes. One week of it will put me on track but long stretches of it will create some powerful results. Warning: this is not a pretty process because you might discover things that you generally don’t want to acknowledge but you are searching for something that will help you not hurt you so don’t be afraid. I was introduced to thins in the Artist’s way and there is another book that talks about this practice.
  • Schedule your time in half hour blocks:
    Don’t go into more precise detail just write what you did mostly for that half hour block. Use the pomodoro timer to give yourself 5 min breaks. You can reflect how to improve the next day’s productivity.
  • Set timers for things that you like to do that aren’t what you need to do.
    Reading a novel, watching youtube videos, playing an instrument, playing video or board games.
  • Clean something in your breaks:
    then you are doing double duty. The movement and change of pace will give you a break and the small accumulations of cleaning will keep your space clean and you don’t have to do that later in free time.
  • Cut work off after eating dinner:
    You can do anything else but work. Read, write, watch television, play a game. If you have filled your quota then you deserve this time. Just don’t forget to put time limits on these activities so you can get to bed on time. I have to admit that I eat dinner very late (close to 8:30 or 9:00 p.m.) and usually it isn’t a big meal. I usually also go to bed at midnight so that means I have about 3 hours where I put any pressure on myself. But you should find a natural place to stop at the end of your day where you do not touch work related material.
  • take a nap after lunch:
    I think the science about circadian rhythms explains this well. But I haven’t read it. Don’t need to. I set an alarm for 15 minutes and it is magic.
  • Do some exercise:
    You cannot keep up your energy if you don’t. You’ll end up with more small growing pains in your body and declining health with out it. Plus, you will sleep better if you do. Twenty minutes is all you need. I like an hour to go walk and stretch. But I can easily just do some high intensity interval training for about 15 minutes which doesnt seem like much but can be pretty effective.
  • Find good music to help you concentrate:
    I don’t need to quote any studies to tell you that music with words or complexity generally are distracting. Think about a movie soundtrack. It’s simple enough that you almost don’t notice it and compelling enough to keep you emotionally invested at the right times. This will help you stay in the zone. Make sure it is familiar music don’t get too adventurous or you might start looking at song titles or find some distracting surprises. But you can explore something new each week.
  • Do a little of everything everyday:
    I imagine writers like Jame Joyce and think that they must have had a constant diet of books to read and probably reading more than one at a time. For him to have arrived to the level of being so well-read I imagine that he read a little of everything everyday. I think I heard this but can’t find the source.
  • Find the obstacles and move them:
    Whenever you find an obstacle to your work move it out of the way. You will never get what you need done if something else is in the way. I understand that this is the attraction to why people actually prefer to go to an office and work rather than stay home. There are less obstacles (generally) at work. Plus, travel time, if you take the bus, can provide you some reading time. But at home, you need to treat this like gospel.
  • Increase your learning with study techniques:
    Did you know there are techniques…and they genuinely help? Look them up yourself for what ever you need to do. Memory, reading, productivity, and study techniques are everywhere. Find on that works for you and USE IT.
  • Change big habits in small increments:
    Do not try to change everything at once. You brush your teeth twice a day. That means if you miss brushing once your teeth don’t rot because you keep up a small habit. Small consistent changes make big changes over time. You want your changes to scale over time. If you don’t keep up a change then it never has an impact. It is easier to make and maintain small changes than big ones. And once you get to normalize the small change then you make another small change. don’t be afraid to modify your habits in big ways either. It gives you some great variety if you manage to do so.
  • Work when you…work:
    Doing something intensely for short periods of time keeps your mind focused for that period of time and allows you mind to break when it is finished. Stagnant water get very dirty and murky. Don’t stay in one mode of operation too long. But that means when you are in work mode you have to do that thing, which is work. There is no more waiting then. When you play, then you play. when you distract then you distract. If you measure the time of each of these modes that you experience during the day you can observe if you are giving yourself enough time to do what you intend to do. Either change your schedule to give more time to do something you want or change your expectations of what you want to achieve. Stop mixing concepts of work with distraction or distraction with work. You will enjoy each experience a little more.

These are only some random ideas that occur to me about burnout and trying to manage that without stalling out. I try to be systematic about problems and though I have never read Atomic Habits, I probably already understand the principle. I think I would recommend it to anyone (but I’d have to read it — It is in my tablet right now, so I’m going to soon). On the other hand I try to not be too rigid, because serendipity is a real phenomena of making unexpected connections. If you don’t know how to alternate between structure and improvisation then you are eventually going to experience a schedule break down sooner or later. I’d also recommend the book Productivity Ninja in order to see what is behind and inside your natural rhythms and how to find your daily peak performance. You can take advantage of your best hours of the day by doing the more demanding work and when you experience drags you shift over to work that is less intense.

You really need to rethink everything and know when to take your foot off the pedal so you don’t crash into the next tight curve. And there is always a way to do very difficult tasks and meet unexpected goals. Try out some of these and see what you think. Let me know in the comments.

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