No Off Switch


Last month was incredibly exhausting for me. In addition to all the weather-related problems I’ve been documenting online (perhaps too much, I know), and some challenges at work, I’ve been chin-deep in research for my next big book. An opportunity arose for me to go deep into one thread of my research, in order to write an article for a major academic journal, so I spent an awful lot of time tackling that, doing work that should definitely help when I get around to writing that book, even if the paper doesn’t get picked up by that journal. (I hope it does, though, since getting that paper published, in conjunction with recent news, would go a long way to getting me a good publication deal for the book.)

Things kind of came to a head this past Wednesday, as I was getting close to the deadline for that article, and I just crashed. I sat down at my computer that afternoon to try to get more work done, and my brain just basically went, “Sean, no. Enough.” I wound up spending that evening watching dumb YouTube videos, which is what usually happens when I’ve just pushed myself too hard. I was able to recover enough from that to teach again Thursday morning, but losing that night was kind of a big hit for me.

Taking care of myself, in order to avoid burning out like I did, has never come easily to me. I’ll save the gory details of how I came to be this way for my memoirs (if I ever find the time to write them), but these past six months of living and working here in Wisconsin, as fulfilling as they’ve been, haven’t been without their fair share of stress. I knew that I’d have a lot on my plate up here, and most of the time I handle all my work okay, but then episodes like this past Wednesday’s remind me that I still have a lot to learn when it comes to self-care.

I’ve taken some steps to try to improve in that regard. A few weeks ago, I blogged about finally becoming aware of video game randomizers that I’d dreamed about when I was younger, and shortly after I put that post up, I bought myself a game controller for my computer, with the intent of trying the randomizer for the original Legend of Zelda out. I’ve played a few games of it over the past month, and while I enjoyed small patches of those playthroughs, I’ve honestly found it a very frustrating experience. In addition to sometimes getting stuck in dungeons without a way to escape (since I lack a second controller to do the old Up+A trick to end/save a game), having to backtrack so much when a vital item can only be found super-late in the game (which never happened with the official Nintendo-designed quests) just sucks all the enjoyment out of the experience for me. Moments of discovery in each game are fun, but they’re like finding the needle in a haystack after that needle has already punctured your hand a dozen times.

If I’d had a better experience watching YouTube videos for hours on end, then maybe I’d feel better about my crash last Wednesday. Instead, it just seemed like a waste of time for me, no matter how necessary it might have been to help my brain recover from everything I’ve been putting it through . It’s not that there aren’t good YouTube videos out there, but the only good ones I can name off the top of my head are ones that make me think, and what I needed last week was time to not think, to let my brain go blank as it was fed a bunch of garbage that it didn’t really have to process on more than a very superficial level.

When I think about it, that may be the problem that’s making those randomized Legend of Zelda games such a hassle for me. Those aren’t games that I can switch my mind off for while I play them; especially given some of the difficult situations that can be generated by the randomizer (even with easier settings selected), I have to engage my brain to a significant degree just to figure out what I need to do to progress further. Playing those games may be a break from researching and teaching, but they certainly aren’t a break for my brain, and that could explain why I just haven’t been able to enjoy the time I’ve spent with that randomizer.

It’s not that I spend all my waking hours in heavy-duty thinking, because watching stupid YouTube videos is far from the only thing I do when my brain needs a break. What is true, however, is that I don’t really enjoy any of those activities. The only things I find enjoyment in are ones that require a great deal of mental and/or emotional effort from me, and even then the enjoyment is usually a feeling more like fulfillment, and less like the “fun” that’s usually associated with things like playing video games and watching YouTube for hours on end. Again, I will save the details for how I got to be this way for another time, but regardless of the events in my life that led me to feel this way, it sure does suck now.

Maybe I need to try some new things out here to see if I can get more enjoyment out of my non-working time, but that’s a lot easier to say than do when I’ve got so many big projects on my shoulders here, projects that I really can’t afford to delay work on. I don’t want to burn out again, but I feel like I’m really out of options when it comes to ways to prevent that from happening. If nothing else, I had to leave some research behind when that article opportunity came up. No one else is going to do this work for me, so maybe I’d just better get back to that, and deal with any problems that might come up from overworking myself later. It’s not like I’ll ever run out of stupid YouTube videos to look at.

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