I didn’t think it was possible to burn out when happy. Sixty days ago, I learned otherwise.
I had gone three months without a free Saturday night, and while not a bad way to live life, for me, it was … odd. But this was not the only symptom. I could never seem to focus, constantly multi-tasking or procrastinating on my phone.
I bought this phone for its enhanced picture-taking capabilities (or if you’re like me, a chance to improve my sleuthing videography skills) and its bigger screen, so I could be more efficient when, let’s say, I needed to pay bills on-the-go (or more likely spend endless hours swiping left on my dating apps).
But while there is nothing wrong with the phone (minus the fact I dropped it in the toilet six months ago, and its audio is still a little “off”), there was definitely something wrong in my life. The difference is I didn’t think everything was wrong with my life. I knew I was happy, but I was also exhausted and never feeling like I could fully “show up.”
So, two months ago, I decided to break up with my phone. And while I didn’t publish this then, I’ve decided to post it now as a testament to its grandiosity but also – it worked.
Two Months Ago…
Something has felt off for weeks now. When I come home, all I do is spend time on my phone. I never take time for myself anymore. And I’m not sure the phone is giving me what I need in return. I feel depleted, unproductive and dissatisfied with my days.
I feel I am making little progress towards my goals, and I can never focus on any one task at a time. I am constantly multi-tasking – making mental notes of what I should and shouldn’t do on my phone. And because I monitor my blood sugar through my phone, I never feel it can leave my side. And so, when I see that screen light up – whether I’m cooking dinner, completing a work task or reading a book, I can’t help but check its contents.
A Trial Separation
So, I started with a trial separation. I took one night a week to “unplug.” This meant turning my phone off for 2-3 hours at a time and just letting myself be present in the moment. Color. Read. Write. Sleep. No distractions. I needed time to recharge. I had been going a mile a minute since I got a new job. And I felt my brain was failing me. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t focus. I was even missing words in sentences I typed and not even noticing. I was saying words in speech that sounded right but were completely wrong.
I wondered for a time if the diabetes was finally having a serious effect on my brain (or even age for that matter). My weekends were not any better. I went three months without a free Saturday night. I admit I was proud of my social calendar. I vowed when I lost my job that I would dedicate more of my time to having fun. Depleted from a toxic stress environment was no way to go through life.
And boy did I have fun. I have not stopped in three months. I assumed when I got a new job, the added pressure would exhaust me back into old habits of R&R. It did not. I merely adapted. I think I was living on the energy this newfound happiness brought. And I didn’t know how to stop. I kept pushing and pushing, and while my body was fine, my mind was screaming.
I’ve never been one attached to my phone. In college, I turned off my phone for days on end (this was before smartphones) when I needed a retreat. When I’m out in public, with people or even writing, I can disconnect. But for some reason, when alone, I was entrenched in this tiny little device. Ironically, I had upgraded to a bigger phone last year so I could be more efficient in my everyday tasks (aka do more on my phone without squinting my eyes).
I always had notifications turned off. I was good about setting boundaries and keeping a healthy work-life balance. But when I lost my job, I wanted to be instantly notified of job alerts and callbacks. And I wanted to feel connected to people. I was lonely and at a loss for what had happened to me. I was out of work for two months – just enough time to establish healthier habits (as my financial advisor would say) and just enough time to establish unhealthy ones – one of which was constantly checking my phone.
I turned off my notifications when I returned to work but this didn’t prevent the mental check. I was already conditioned to doing 10 million things at once, and even though committed to my new role, any ounce of free time I had, I was in my phone checking email, social, slack, news and my favorite bloggers. I was connected and terrified of missing out.
I tried leaving my phone in my purse at work. I tried turning on “do not disturb” mode. I tried leaving my phone in another room when I was home. But none of this worked. I could not help myself. I had become addicted. And I acknowledged this had become a serious problem. As I recently relayed to a friend:
I’ve really been enjoying my life these past few months. Like I know I’m happy and healthy and focused on well-being. I don’t feel burnt out or stressed or even anxious. I used to deal with an incredible amount of anxiety at my last job. It was a toxic work environment. And I’ve taken great pains to keep myself grounded since then.
But something still seems missing. Not even a relationship. I’m casually dating right now and it’s the first time in my single life I’m really enjoying that and feeling complete. And I feel like all this happiness is fueling my creativity and energy hence why I’m able to push myself farther.
And yet what have I accomplished? I have so many ideas but I find myself having trouble executing them or staying focused. So, I signed up for this 90-day workshop called Fiercely Focused. It kicks off this week and the idea is it’s supposed to help you better manage your time and execute on the ideas you want (in my case I want to start writing my next book). I feel like winter combined with holidays is the perfect time to fortify this perspective.
But before I can get back to writing, I need to set aside time for myself. I’ve started saying “no” to things, and I am committed to keeping most of my week nights free in December as a start. [Present Day update: this was a total fail – I did not commit to this, and as a result, I crashed and burned by the time the holidays arrived] And when I’m alone, I need to be away from my phone, at least temporarily so I can focus on the things that matter to me and take that time to recharge. I mentioned this to my life coach recently, and she asked me what could I do right now to ensure this happens.
One of those items was deleting all the apps on my phone that I felt were currently distracting me from that focus. Yes, I could still access them on my computer, but the idea is I would be more intentional with my time, and if I was accessing them on my laptop, I was taking the time to do so. So, I deleted all my apps. And I put the phone away. [Present Day update: that same week a reporter from CNN reached out to me about an organization I volunteer with as the director of communications. The world is funny sometimes. I maintained my deleted app status for about a week but then, for convenience sake, added some apps back.]
The next morning when I awoke, I turned off my alarm and checked my blood sugar and realized that was all I needed to do. Normally, I would scroll through my phone, preparing for the day, unaware of how much this was overwhelming me rather than preparing me. So, I put the phone down, full of energy rather than anxiety. The day seemed simple – achievable.
At another point in the day, I went over to my phone to change my playlist. I noticed I had a received a message and read it. But then after reading it, I recalled I was there to change my playlist. Usually I would get so enraptured in my phone that it would take me hours to remember what I had come over there to do in the first place.
My Brain Feels Less ‘Mushy’
Everything seemed simplified. And I felt I was making progress. Yes, my tasks have been simple so far, but I am finally taking time for myself again. I am making progress on my goals and feeling like I have direction instead of spinning out of control. And I realized in taking this time for myself how much I am burning out – how much I needed this reset.
I may have been happy, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t have breaking points. But those first few days were rough. It was hard not to want to lament about the latest drama in my life to all the contacts in my phone – another rule I had created for myself. I no longer wanted to give certain things in my life more energy than they deserved. So, rather than reach out to every man, woman and child I knew, I held back. I journaled more. I talked to Norm. I exercised. I haven’t exercised this much in three months I think. Because I realized as much as we need to feel supported sometimes, giving toxicity life can only add fuel to the fire. By letting certain things go, I could move on quicker and feel less consumed by its power.
I was free. I’ve been practicing a lot of self-compassion, too. It makes sense that when we finally take a break, certain emotions come to the surface. I’ve been grieving at the loss of my phone as silly as that sounds. And yet I’ve never felt so whole. I am healing from one hell of a year. And it is okay that I am still recovering from some of that trauma. I imagine it will continue to be a recovery period for months to come.
I’ve also put a lot of time investing in current and new relationships these last few months. It is now time to take some time for myself and let those relationships return the favor. In many ways, they already have. I think a part of me worried that if I stopped trying, they would stop trying, too. But that’s silly. The best ones never ask for anything in return. They love unconditionally.
And as a good friend reminded me recently when I was chatting about being single and alone this holiday season: This is the time of year that everyone wants to be loved. And I know it’s not the same, but I love you!
It is the same. I may be burnt out, but it is why I am so incredibly happy and grateful for the people in my life right now. You make me want to be true to me. A realness I can finally authenticate in a healthy, wholesome environment. Thank you.
Norm, especially, has been super supportive of my new quietude.
… Present Day
By the time the holidays rolled around, I couldn’t find the energy to put on make-up much less worry about censorship with family 24/7 five days straight.
The first step had been breaking up with my phone (and even now this is a struggle). But I also knew I needed to break up with the world for a bit. So, when I returned from holiday revelry, that’s what I did. I hibernated. I’m not sure Helter Skelter was the best literary companion, but then again it did keep me from wanting to interact with the outside world.
I took additional precautions during the holidays, too. The biggest reason I need my phone around is so I can monitor my blood sugar. But right before the holidays, my system failed, and with a new insurance policy, it took an inordinate amount of time to get re-supplied. So, I took this opportunity to leave my phone at the door and depend on finger sticks to survive the worst time of year to have Type 1 diabetes.
But my 10 years of experience worked in my favor. And in fact, I felt not knowing my blood sugar 24/7 actually decreased my stress and anxiety levels. When I did check them, they were near perfect. I have no idea where they were in the three hours in between, but sometimes, for my own mental sanity, it’s almost better not to know. It’s not a long-term sustainable management plan, but in a bind, it works.
Additionally, I removed all notifications (including texts) with the exception of travel alerts from my lock screen (I had re-added most of my apps back at this point, so this became a secondary precaution). That was a month ago. I still have this setting. I spent a good week and a half by myself. It was hard. Weird to admit for an introvert, but I’ve lately considered myself more of an ambivert.
But if I was going to be healthy and back in the creative spirit, I needed to be okay being alone. And I needed to re-charge. This isn’t to say I wasn’t connected to folks. I’m not a complete hermit. But about a week ago, I started easing myself back into the world. And I felt refreshed. I met up with a friend for dinner. We spent two hours talking, and my past self would have figured out a way to keep the night going. My present-day-self went home at 10 p.m., curled up with Norm and read a good book.
Being Happy and Alone
And then last weekend, a three-day weekend, I had no plans. And I didn’t intend to change that. For the first time in a long time, I looked forward to a weekend by myself. I actually hoped the tentative plans I did have would never transpire. I never once felt I was missing out or lonely (though there is nothing wrong with this either). I enjoyed it. And since then, even supported by so many family and friends, I feel happy alone.
There is a certain peace that comes with acceptance. Each week presents its own challenges, and I had to set a reminder on my phone that reminds me at 9 p.m. every night to “get off your phone.” It’s quite effective and makes me chuckle. But as a friend and I talked about recently, there is no reason to doubt these relationships you’ve spent years or hours cultivating. Because they’ve proven time and again, when you need to take care of yourself, they will be there, and they won’t love you any less for not “showing up.”