Burnout culture: a neurodivergent perspective on productivity
We’ve begun the fall semester of the 2022-23 school year! If you’re anything like me, an overzealous, career-driven maniac, you might be confused as to why you’re already burned out. You have all these plans for your future and the drive to get there, but you’re having trouble making concrete steps to achieve those goals. As a person with ADHD, I’ve always found it challenging to stick with one thing at a time. One day I’ll have a burning passion for becoming a world-class pianist, then give up a week later and move on to something else. This happens in school too while pursuing the various majors and career paths I’m interested in. My mind bounces around so much from interest to interest that it’s easy to feel defeated when I push another passion aside.
Well, our corporate overlords must have heard my internal cries for help, as YouTube’s algorithm pointed me to two videos that have helped me immensely.
The first is a video essay, “ How Capitalism Burns You Out” by Elliot Sang. To summarize, Sang discusses the widespread trend of severe burnout everyone seems to be experiencing post-pandemic, focusing on college-age folks. The theorized cause of burnout being “self-exploitation,” which has been accentuated by the years in isolation. Self-exploitation is discussed as a way that corporations have engineered society to normalize exploitative work practices disguised as “grind culture,” “career orientation,” or “self-betterment.” In reality, these corporations are just rebranding, shifting blame to individuals for their own burnout while continuing to profit off of overworked and underpaid employees.
This “self-exploitation” is particularly damaging for neurodivergent people. Sang briefly touches on this in the conclusion of their essay, stating, “understanding your own neurodivergence, is not a path to optimize. It’s not a pathway to be a harder worker.” This line, in particular, caught me off guard. In the past decade there has been huge attention given to neurodivergence and mental health as a whole. The once taboo topic has been the subject of several equity and accessibility movements to support those of us with different ways of thinking. However, as this subject trends and is politicized, it is being co-opted by corporations attempting to profit off of us. I have fallen victim to this, finding techniques to make my neurodivergence fit the corporate mold to be a more competitive worker. Learning to be a jack of all trades and an asset to various companies, even though it has led to immense burnout and has been detrimental to my mental health.
Watching Sang’s video helped me to understand the reason why I felt burnt out by pointing out the countless factors influencing me to exploit myself and optimize my own productivity without giving myself any grace. However, it left a gap that did not account for how to remain productive to pursue careers and maintain a comfortable lifestyle without the self-exploitative corporate model.
That is where Elizabeth Filips’ video, “ You're Not Lazy: How to Live a Chaotically Organized Life” comes in. Throughout the video, Filips discusses the way they are able to thrive in their career and passions without forcing themselves to fit the neurotypical corporate mold. They find healthy ways to be productive with necessary tasks while avoiding the self-exploitative expectation put upon them by mainstream corporate ideology. Filips introduced the “Fall Behind, Catch Up, Go Ahead Schedule” for healthy “passion drive” productivity. This model allows the neurodivergent brain to deeply explore topics of interest and succeed in pursuing them while factoring for necessary breaks our brains need. It also addresses and corrects the self-defeating mindset neurodivergent brains fall into, pointing to this as another cause of our burnout.
The “Fall Behind, Catch Up, Go Ahead” schedule is as follows:
Fall Behind—This step recognizes that sometimes we are not able to begin or complete tasks we’re passionate about simply because our brains are not interested in doing it at the moment. Filips acknowledges that this does not mean we’ve given up on that passion or that we’re lazy, but that we need a short break from it to regain our interest.
Catch Up—This step is our brains getting re-invested in that passion and “catching up” on the productivity we missed out on when we “fell behind.”
Go Ahead—This step is our brains becoming immensely interested in our passion, so much so that we not only catch up on the time we missed when we “fell behind,” but excel exponentially in a short amount of time.
Filips says, “I do not optimize for consistency, I optimize for passion”, and this is a sentiment I intend to utilize as I pursue my passions and career. Putting this in conversation with Sang, who is also neurodivergent, the way to avoid intense burnout as a neurodivergent person is to accept that our brains are different and that we are fueled by joy and passion rather than consistency. Holding ourselves to the same standard as our neurotypical peers is unfair and directly causes us harm. Sang speaks on this directly in the comment section of their video. “When I learn to accept my slow days, my ‘laziness,’ and bring myself to a place of acceptance and joy, I’m more productive and successful anyway.” Both of these videos have helped me immensely thus far in the semester as I have actively re-taught myself how to succeed as a student without defaulting back to self-defeating or self-exploitative practices.
For me, this whole cycle can take anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months as I measure out my capacity to do work at certain times. My initial interest and “fall back” period involves me going over the syllabi of my courses at the beginning of the semester and spending a day adding deadlines to my calendar, along with reminders two days before major assignments are due. This helps me avoid being blindsided by big assignments if they slip my mind, avoiding unnecessary stress. When I fall back, I limit the optional commitments I put upon myself, like club meetings, office hours, and networking events. I also allow myself to be less strict with minor assignments for classes, and if attendance for classes is optional or on Zoom, I stay in my room.
This is especially possible if you discuss your work schedule with professors early in the semester to get more flexible deadlines for assignments. Getting a day or two extension makes a world of difference and alleviates a lot of anxiety involving deadlines. During the “catch up” phase, I gather the assignments my professors have made available and work to catch up with minor assignments I’ve neglected during my “fall back.” Then finally, because my brain is allowing me to get reinvested in the work I’m doing, I start “going ahead” in my courses by two to three weeks. In addition, I get loads of work done during my three day weekends. If this phase happens right before a longer break, I spend the break working ahead, especially working on and prepping for assignments with harsher deadlines like midterm/final projects or papers. This “go ahead” period typically leaves me flexible for several weeks and gives me a much needed mental break.