(About 5 minutes to read)
I sent an e-mail to all my friends with the subject: “Help! Tools for preventing organizer burnout?”. The response was fascinating. Many called and asked when I was quitting my job , what I would do next, and commiserating that this is what happened to them too. Some suggested that I take a vacation. One, however, e-mailed 2 other people who he thought were also on their way to burning out, and asked if we could all sit down together.
I find the response interesting because it’s pretty much what was going through my head at the time:
- Step one: I have to get out of here. Where else can I go? Is there an organization that doesn’t burn out its staff? Is it even possible to be an organizer and not burn out? OH MY GOODNESS MY WHOLE PROFESSION IS DOOMED. I have to leave the movement entirely, it’s the only way. I wonder when auditions are to perform on that cruise ship…
- Step two: Or I could travel. Maybe study Portuguese in Brazil for a few months? Ooh I’ve always wanted to see Aurora Borealis. But they don’t speak Portuguese there. I wonder how long my partner can take off so we can do both…
- Step three: My partner just pointed out that I actually like my job and don’t really want to leave. Well, shit. I suppose he’s right. So…what now?
When I met with my friends, it felt like an intervention. They were all already there and were ready to listen intently to me. I tried to have us all go around and talk about what’s going on with each of us, but the friend stopped me. “This is about you. And I think we’ll all be able to learn from it.” Talk about pressure! But after I got over it, I realized that what they were actually doing was treating my life like a campaign. And like the nerdy organizers we are, we took out our flip charts and easels, and tossed around markers that were running out of ink.
“What’s the problem?”
First, I needed to vent. I had to miss a concert I had tickets for because I just couldn’t get out of the office. I had five active campaigns. One member was angry at me because I forgot to call her when we changed locations for an action. I wasn’t doing the kind of intentional leadership development I wanted; I just kept having the usual suspects take the lead. I’m supervising this guy but the members are having problems with him. I was eating fast food a few times a week and I was just so, so tired. I just couldn’t handle it anymore.
“Ok, those are a lot of problems. But what’s the issue?”
I have too much on my plate! I just can’t do it all!
“Right, but what can you do about that? What’s the actual issue?”
There are too many things that feel like top priority. I always feel like I’m spending my time wrong, because if I’m working on one thing, it means I’m not working on everything else.
“What would make you feel better?”
I need to feel like my time is being spent where my boss wants me spending it. If I’m getting different messages from her, I can’t prioritize. But if she were able to just tell me what she expects of me, I’d feel ok letting go of some other pieces for now. Right now, I feel like she’s asking me to prioritize things that aren’t as important to the members as some other things, and I don’t know how to reconcile them.
“So communication with your boss seems to be the main problem. What would you want from her?”
I think if I e-mailed her a list of my goals for the week, and my schedule at the beginning of every day, I’d feel better. She can see what I’m working on and where my time is going, and help me course correct when I’m spending time on something not as important to the organization’s needs right now, or we can talk about how to deal with the tension of the organization’s needs and the members if they are different.
“What are your next steps?”
I’m going to sit down with her and tell her my plan. Expectations will be clear and I’ll be transparent about what’s going on with me. And it’ll give me built-in accountability, which is important to me.
It seemed so obvious, yet it never occurred to me to think of my stress in this way. There are a lot of different reasons for burning out, and some of them are in your control. But taking a step back and strategizing, the way we do for any problem in the “real world”, is a good way to figure out what the root cause is. That’s what organizing is about, isn’t it? Figuring out what is at the heart of all these symptomatic problems and coming up with creative solutions to fight it. Putting out fires left and right will only leave you with an empty fire extinguisher.
Try working with a campaign-planning framework to think about stressors in your life. Ask yourself:
- What is the problem? How are you seeing these problems manifest? What are all the things going on?
- What is the issue? Use your skills here to find patterns. Look for something that sticks out as the connector between all these things. Sometimes when it’s your own life, it’s hard to step out of the mud and see things clearly- so I encourage you to bring friends into the mix. You know that friend who can just always sum up your life in one sentence? Yeah, call them.
- What do you want? This is where you get to be creative. Start big- what would your ideal situation be? If you could ask for anything, what would it be? Then break it down a little- what do you need right now versus a long-term goal? What does that look like? It’s really important that your goals are tangible. To me, that means actually being able to visualize what it would look like to have achieved my goal. How will your life be different after?
- Who is your target? If I’ve decided that getting a raise will let me not have to deliver pizzas in my off-hours and will help me stay in the game, talking to my members about it won’t help (or it will, but in a pretty mean-spirited, sabotaging-trust between membership and staff, kind of way). Talking to co-workers could get you some pointers from their experience and a pump-up. But ultimately, the person who makes the money decisions is the person you need to talk to.
- How will you get there? Again here it’s important to be very precise. “Have a conversation with my boss” is not the same as “Write out a plan from 2-4pm on Thursday to present to my boss. Ask her for a raise of $3,000. If she can’t make a decision there, ask what more information she needs, and plan a follow-up meeting in a week. Minimum raise I want: $1,500.” You’ll walk into that meeting being pretty darn confident of what intended outcome you want if you’re clear about how you’ll get there.
The work is always going to feel like a lot. The work is hard and exhausting. There are always connected issues that feel urgent. But if we have tools to clarify what others want, why shouldn’t we do that for our own lives?
I presented my plan to my boss, she delegated some things to other employees, checked in with me regularly about how many hours I was working, and I felt accountable to her to make sure work was getting done and taking care of my needs. All that, and I didn’t have to move to Norway.
Your turn: What do you think? Post in the comments section what creative problem-solving you’ve done to stay in control!
p.s. I want to thank Megan at My Burnout Thing for her fabulous art, and encourage you to check out her site! Aside from having thoughtful and hilarious cartoons, there are great resources there about stress and burnout that I hope to link to in the future.