Subtle Signs of Burnout

After I got to play a game last night, I ended up spending some great time talking to one of the players about career planning, the game industry, and burnout. (More time than I should have on a school night, but hey).

That left me with thoughts about burnout I wanted to share, so rather than sleep I typed them up and set them to post today. (Well, today if I set up this post-at-Xam thing correctly).

I’ve talked about burnout before, and given how large it looms in my life, I have to guess I’ll talk about it again. There’s a thin line between maximizing your writing/designing potential, and doing too much to be sustainable. Crunch time is a common threat in all levels of the game industry, and while bearing down and doing more than you’re happy with for occasional, short bursts is reasonable, sustained higher-than-healthy output is a different matter entirely.

Of course that’s easy to say, in the abstract, and harder to apply to your life in any way. I genuinely can’t tell you how to avoid burnout—that’s going to depend on your situation and temperament to a degree that makes any advice I’d give even less useful than normal. On the other hand, I do find that watching for signs of potential burnout—clues in my own behavior and thoughts that indicate I may be on an unsustainable path—useful tools. Seeing there’s a problem coming doesn’t solve that problem by itself, but it does arm me with the knowledge that I need to be looking for solutions.

So, this is a list of things I consider subtle signs of impending burnout. I need to note here that not only am I not a mental health professional, I don’t even consider myself a well-educated layman. These are entirely subjective, and based only on what I have experienced and witnessed. If you have a lot of these symptoms, and they don’t feel burnout-related, I recommend at most you engage in some introspection on whether you are in denial. But seriously, trust your gut over my generic list. Also keep in mind that I have a host of other mental health issues, from clinical depression to social anxiety to childhood trauma, that may cause me to view and react to my own conditions very differently than you (or anyone else).

But if with all that waffling on potential usefulness you still want to hear my thoughts, here are some things I have come to identify as subtle signs of growing burnout in myself.

  1. More reliance on caffeine.
    If you find your coffee/tea/cola consumption is higher than normal, especially if it’s higher than you’re happy with, and it has been for some time, look at why. If you need the energy emotionally even more than you need it physically, that’s a strong indicator of impending burnout.
  2. Increased fatigue.
    I’m dealing with various medically-induced fatigue at this point in my life, so this one is tricky for me. But that also means I’ve been charting my energy levels on a daily basis, and that’s lead me to conclude that when I am in early-stage burnout, I have even less energy than normal. It’s harder to get up, it’s harder to be energized, and it’s harder to feel enthusiasm for ativity, even activities I normally enjoy.
  3. Reduced enthusiasm.
    Subtle signs can be subtly different. Increased fatigue is relevant when it’s time to actually do something, and I can’t find the energy. Reduced enthusiasm means I’m not even looking forward to things in advance. Now this can also be a sign of a depressive episode, so I have to be careful how I rate and respond to my own lack of enthusiasm, but I have certainly mistaken generic imbalances in my brain with those with external causal links before, and I now try to examine the why as much as the what, when I realize that issue is growing.
  4. Increased mental health symptoms.
    Whether it’s more depressive episodes, more social anxiety, more nightmares, or more sudden rage, when I am beginning to burn out, all my other mental health issues get exacerbated when I am also beginning to go down burnout road.
  5. Decreased self-care.
    Yeah, this is probably one of the causes of #4, but it’s worth looking for on its own as well.
  6. Setting aside recreational projects.
    In my case, in addition to writing as a job, I often write for fun. That’s a very different process for me, and normally feeling like I have done all the “work” I care to in a day (or a week) doesn’t prevent me from having the urge to do recreational writing. Similarly, modeling, painting miniatures, doing holiday-based crafts or cooking, and playing games are all recreational activities that require some effort on my part, and if I find I don’t want to put in that effort over any sustained period, it’s a strong sign of burnout.
  7. Reduced creativity.
    Being creative takes effort. If I have been pushing the part of my mind I depend on for good ideas, clever wording, interesting twists, or even just basic good writing, one of the first things I seem to run out of is general creativity. Normally, I am flooded with ideas—more than I can use for any one project—and many leap out of the dream-soup in my brain unbidden and without pre-planning. Since that ebbs and flows it can be hard to see early stages of reduced creativity, but when it becomes hard to come up with ANY ideas, that’s a nearly sure-sign of burnout.
  8. Frustration.
    A lot of things frustrate me, from personal failings to world events, but normally I can compartmentalize those to have a greatly reduced impact when I am writing. If my frustrations outside of a project begin to make it difficult to focus on that project, that’s a huge warning sign. If that frustration is turning into disproportional anger towards people or events, it may be time for immediate, drastic measures.
  9. Lack of focus.
    If I can’t keep my attention on the things it’s most important I get done, that is a subtle but dangerous sign of burnout. Earlier in my career, I often found I could get more total writing done if I could hop between three or four different kinds of projects. Being tired of doing world descriptions didn’t necessarily mean I was tired of doing monster design, or GM advice, or creating spells. So if I feel an urge to move to a new project for a bit, I often just see that as taking a break while getting something different done. But if my muses are constantly talking me away from important, especially on-deadline, work it means they are likely suffering psychic burn damage.
    So I need to watch for when I spend too much time writing outlines for projects not on the schedule, or character histories for characters I’m neither playing or publishing, or imaginary histories of worlds I have no plans for.
    Or blog posts.
  10. Warnings from other people.
    One of the interesting things about being very public about my thoughts, moods, hobbies, mental health issues, and faults, is that close friends and astute colleagues sometimes see shifts in my behavior before I do. The first time a friend told me it sounded like I was getting bummed over the direction of my work, more than a decade ago, I dismissed it. After all, how would she know what was going on in my head better than I did?
    I forgot that many people in my circle of trust are much smarter than me. Ignoring warnings and burning out reminded me.
    Now I DO often know things my friends and mentors don’t. If I have changed medications, or a someone close to me died, or I pulled a 100-hour week and finished something so I don’t have to do that again, a lot of things may come out that look like burnout but are just dealing with the fact life is often imperfect.
    But I don’t ignore comments like that anymore. I consider them, contextualize them, and add them to the evidence of my condition that I take seriously.

Speaking of My Career

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About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on October 16, 2018, in Business of Games, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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