Low-level Burnout: Willpower’s Equivalent to Muscle Burn

While trying to think of ways to increase my focusing power for hard and thought-intensive work like studying, this bolt of an idea came out of the blue. Over the past couple days, I had a tendency to reach a point where my brain said, no more, you’re going to go eat chips and be a phone zombie for the next hour. I realized that feeling of low-level burnout (not to the point where you want to quit school or your job or whatever, just break for the day) is like your muscles burning and then giving out when weight training.

To improve this, I think, is just like working out. You push until you start feeling that, push a little more, then rest, which is absolutely essential. Without rest, the low-level burnout grows into exhausting, motivation-sucking true burnout.

To make the difference distinct, let’s call the low-level intellectual/willpower burnout ‘willburn’.

Before this, I knew the most effective way to train focus power was to, well, focus. You get better at what you practice. But I didn’t know how to evaluate the level of training.

With any kind of physical exercise, it’s fairly easy to tell once you’ve been doing it for a while. You get to know your physical limits and how it feels to push them; you start getting an intuitive feel for how much more weight you can push, how much longer you can run. But how do you tell with your brainpower? How do you know when you’re about to run out of mental gas and be at virtually zero productivity until you get a recharge?

By being aware of how mentally tired you are. Not the I’m kinda mentally tired from doing homework/writing reports, let’s take a break (i.e. goof off), but the kind where you know that if you do five more minutes of work, you’ll be almost completely useless for the rest of the day; you don’t want to socialize, you don’t want to read, you don’t want to write, you don’t want to do any more work, you’re so mentally gassed that the little devil voice that goes I’m kinda tired, let’s procrastinate disappears completely, and the little angel voice that says maybe I could do a little more, I probably should, also disappears completely and what’s left is you being basically catatonic on the couch.

At that point, our state is pretty much the mental equivalent to lifting weights so much that turning your steering wheel or reaching up to the cup cabinet is an effort. Even thinking about what we want to eat in an hour is a hefty thing to ask for in that mental state.

So, to increase focusing power, be mindful of ‘willburn’.

I think an optimizing strategy is not to push to complete willburn every time, because that’s like exhausting yourself completely every workout; it’s not sustainable. Treat it like working out; some days, push hard and brutal and then rest easy. Other days, realize your limits and work within them, power through the most essential things and then rest up.

Most of the writing I’ve seen on increasing willpower has to do with things like meditation, extrinsic vs intrinsic rewards, etc. Meditation, for one, has helped, but as logic points out, if you want to get better at something, you have to do it.

This is a perspective that includes the directly doing part, and I think also adds a way to measure it, at least qualitatively. And as they say, what gets measured, gets managed.

Hopefully this a fresh take on a useful subject, friends. It was and is for me, daily.


P.S. I’ve just put out a compilation of unpublished blog posts—called Catalyst—and if you want more of this type of stuff, check it out!

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