Seven Standards: 4. Sustain Self
April 10, 2019
4: Sustain Self
Self-care is a combination of self-awareness and concerted effort to foster and preserve your own wellbeing.
You need to protect your ability to create. Meeting your personal needs should not be a chore, nor be viewed as necessary evil. If you are creating something of value, you need to see yourself as valuable. Recently, I’ve noticed huge strides online in recognising and commending good self-care, as well as opposing harmful practices such as poor job security, mental health stigma or “crunch” (where projects become all-consuming to reach a hurdle or milestone). Yet almost every day, there are individuals hearing about self-care for the first time. This is our Fourth Devly Sin: Consume Yourself.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact that poor self-care has on a creator in both the medium and long term. Yes, sometimes we will hurt ourselves to get something across the line but this is firmly the exception not the rule — we sometimes work in stormy weather, but we want a climate of clear skies and sunshine. Vincent van Gogh is touted as the epitome of the ‘tortured artist’, with great personal suffering producing fantastical works of beauty, and yet the cost of some 900 works was his early death at age 37, during the peak of his abilities. What great works could he have created had his life not been cut short by half? How cruel must you be to demand his suffering for your passing amusement?
That great creation demands great suffering is a trope that we should attempt to defy at every step. I firmly believe that I can be physically and emotionally healthy, have great relationships and produce my best work at the same time. Hardships are rightfully seen as a source of inspiration, but there’s enough suffering in everyone’s lives to produce a never-ending stream of deeply empathetic content. To think otherwise is just an elaborate form of imposter syndrome; belief that you aren’t good enough, that something terrible must happen to make your story valuable is diffidence, not insight.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is a concept we are still only beginning to apply to the professional space, yet anyone who has worked too hard or for too long will identify the symptoms in a heartbeat. Essentially, burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to a loss of function across a number of areas of life. It is characterised by exhaustion, detachment, cynicism and demotivation. Typically, these symptoms appear in specific work situations first, then spread to all work activity, and even spill over into personal life. Over a long period, unresolved stress leads to a constellation of symptoms that often resemble depression — loss of motivation, sense of worthlessness, and exhaustion are shared features. Unlike depression, burnout seems to be more simply prevented, and is often more easily addressed — but only when we recognise and respond to it! Don’t think of burnout as a weakness or failure - burnout is not our Dev-ly Sin - but as the natural consequence of overwork and a prompt to look for an underlying problem. At its core, burnout is itself a symptom of an unhealthy work practice — either personally or corporately. This can be excessive hours, prolonged work without recreation, or the blurring of professional boundaries in a way that prevents restful recovery between working times. These practices are what we oppose, including the demonisation or blame of affected people.
What can you do? Firstly, being aware of the issue before trouble arises is the first step in preventing burn out. Bear in mind that all hours spent working are not created equal. A few hours of well-rested, well-fed and contented work can easily outshine days of exhausted grinding. Sometimes, even reasonable hours with appropriate space and breaks from work can lead to burnout if the work is uninspiring and unfulfilling. Take breaks, drink water and spend some time out in the sunshine.
Secondly, take holidays and let your workflow naturally oscillate. Some projects demand hard work and long hours but this should be followed by more relaxed periods where you can recharge, refocus and rest. To keep the good stuff coming, you need to cycle between creation and recreation, letting your rest fuel your work and your work give meaning to your rest. Ideation is impossible when under intense pressure — what is writer’s block if not this? Only by clearing your mind can you expect inspiration to strike. If you have trouble with overworking you can reframe the entire experience, schedule your time off and think of it as productive. Know that by caring for yourself you are doing what’s best for your work too.
Finally, if you start to recognise signs of burnout, do something about it. Humans are social — talk to someone! Talk to your friends, colleagues and family about where you are struggling, and listen to them talk in return. Find a doctor you trust and talk to them. Look for not-for-profits and support groups in your chosen area. The longer you burn out, the longer the return journey will be, and its never too early to start getting better.
An accurate depiction of a video game developer experiencing burnout. Both management inflicted and self-inflicted burnout appear with a similar fire-y effect.
Investing in yourself is a medium and long term payoff. You will lose hours today. You will lose projects that didn’t ever get enough love to get off the ground. The return however is another 30–40 years of work, even joyful work. You are only doing yourself, your loved ones, your work and your users disservice by overextending & neglecting yourself. A sustainable lifestyle bears fruit across a number of years. Don’t cut down the tree trying to get the high fruit now. This is The Fourth Standard:
Creation should uphold the value of the individual creator. The creation of value should not come at the cost of, nor damage or reduce value of the creator. Creativity should not come at the expense of physical, mental, or emotional health.