The importance of balance ⚖️

Posted on Jul 16, 2023

I would like one (1) nap please

I’ll get right to it: the last few months have been a lesson in finding balance between work and != work. I’m fortunate enough to enjoy what I do, but I also enjoy other things that don’t involve looking at a screen. For several months of this year, though, the balance was tipped heavily on the side of “looking at a screen” with minimal time or energy for anything else.

For me, more screen time means less sleep–either because I’m still staring at a screen or thinking about it–and less sleep means less running. And that’s really not great for my mental health or productivity. I spent weeks feeling increasingly like I couldn’t think clearly or intelligently about anything, and I was constantly exhausted.

While in hindsight this should’ve been ample indication that I was approaching burnout, I was able to convince myself otherwise. The brain fog and the fatigue weren’t enough–what jarred me into realizing something was wrong was looking at my monthly running mileage totals from the last 12 months. The last few months were the lowest of all. This wasn’t some sudden onset issue, it had been lingering much longer.

After my 40 miler this February, I was plagued with a series of injuries and kept mileage low to recover, but I didn’t bounce back and resume activity the way I normally would. In fact, there were several instances over the last few months of entire weeks when I simply couldn’t get up and out the door.

Turning the corner

After the very rude awakening provided by my running data, I signed up for a summer distance challenge to add a little pressure to logging some miles. The challenge is simple: log as many miles as possible from July 1-31.

I’m at 93mi as of today, half-way through the challenge, and I feel great. Not quite as far as I wanted to be but I feel more like myself. Running is a lot of things for me, but one of the most important is time to zone out and let my mind wander.

Research on mind-wandering indicates that this time of “thinking about nothing” is crucial to creativity and creative problem solving. As you might imagine, this ability is really important for research (or arguably any discipline). During the last few months, in addition to general fatigue and brain fog, I felt what I can only refer to as “researcher’s block.” In addition to struggling with clear thinking, I found it impossible to produce even a single interesting research question.

What happens when this happens again?

While I’d love to be optimistic and say this kind of crunch time will never happen again, I work in security. Everything about security is a roller coaster, and that’s part of the appeal (mostly? I think?). Always new and interesting things happening, opportunities to learn–it’s great until it’s not. I can’t prevent the next big, wild thing from happening, but I can create as many tools as possible to help me navigate things when it does.

A few things I’d recommend if any of this resonated with you:

  • Talk to your manager about your workload and sustainability. As a newly minted manager myself, I’ll say that we’re here to help, but we can’t if we don’t know what’s going on or how you’re feeling.
  • Set hard limits on work time. If you wake up at 3am, don’t grab your phone and check your email. Check Reddit (RIP?) or watch cat videos, but leave the email for another time.
  • Consider muting email and Slack mobile notifications; experiment with removing those apps entirely from your phone, even for short periods of time. This isn’t about being unreachable, it’s about breaking the cycle of needing to constantly check in.
  • Find something to do that isn’t work. Maybe you already have that thing and have been neglecting it, or maybe you need to discover your thing. The world is vast, experiment until you find something you enjoy.
  • Drink some water. If any of this resonated with you, you might be dehydrated. Go get some water. Seriously.