Burnout, Variety and Crop Rotation

I’ve written a lot about the value of habit formation and repetition.

I’ve been riffing off Aristotle (or whoever it was) who said: We become what we repeatedly do.

Habits are super-important. Lockdown has been an opportunity for me to change my diet habits and I’ve been off alcohol (with surprisingly good results) in 2021.

I like Monk Mode. But there are obviously downsides. It’s been a disaster for low-paid workers in the hospitality, events and travel sectors. And it’s been a mental health disaster for many more.

Lockdown can also get boring…a bit like that film Groundhog Day where everyday seems to be the same as the last.

But, even before lockdown, lack of variety was already one of the big problems working in The Prison Camp.

The problem is not hard work. The problem is the monotony, lack of true meaning and the power dynamics of The Office-Industrial Complex (aka The Prison Camp).

We are not robots. So we have to strike a balance between good habits and variety. Free range living should be for humans as well as chickens.

Getting to financial independence is a long game that requires good health for > 10-20 years. That means the journey has to be sustainable.

A change is as good as a rest, so more variety helps. You can get more variety at work by getting promoted, by changing team, by working on different projects, by moving employer or by secondment or via a period working overseas.

A useful mental model here is the idea of crop rotation. All schoolchildren used to get taught about crop rotation in Medieval England as part of GCSE history:

“Crop rotation is the practice of growing a series of different crops in the same field across a sequence of growing seasons.

Growing the same crop in the same place for many years in a row, known as monocropping, gradually depletes the soil of certain nutrients and selects for a highly competitive pest and weed community. Without balancing nutrient use and diversifying pest and weed communities, the productivity of monocultures is highly dependent on external inputs.

Conversely, a well designed crop rotation can reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers and herbicides by better using ecosystem services from a diverse set of crops. Additionally, crop rotations can improve soil structure and organic matter, which reduces erosion and increases farm system resilience.”

Wikipedia

The Prison Camp wants us to work harder. The problem is that we don’t function well as machines doing the same job for 40+ years.

I hope you can see the links between avoiding burnout and your earned income. As well as being a disaster from a health and happiness perspective, getting burned out interrupts the compounding of career capital as well as financial capital.

As we are currently realising, good mental health is a non-trivial achievement. If you are a knowledge worker, your most valuable asset is your mental health, your creativity and your headspace. Protect The Asset!

Hard work is fine but we need variety and so we have to mix things up to keep our edge sharp. We are like the lumberjack who needs to be reminded to stop and sharpen the saw.

Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.

“What are you doing?” you ask? “Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.”

You look exhausted” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?

“Over five hours” he returns “and I’m beat. This is hard work!”

“Well why don’t you take a break and sharpen that saw?” you enquire “I’m sure it would go a lot faster”.

“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw” the man says emphatically “I’m too busy sawing!”

Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

Sharpening the saw is a productive activity that takes skill and diligence. But it’s a change. And a change is as good as a rest.

You have to make time to sharpen the saw. That means setting priorities. You have to choose.

To add something to your life, something else has to go (e.g. The News, Social Media). Or at least get reduced. If, after 2020, you still can’t see how the The News tries to scare and manipulate us, I’m afraid you’ve not been paying attention.

We start out having to trade our time for someone else’s money. We work hard and, as we invest in our compounding machine, we gradually create passive income.

We all have to make trade-offs but sacrificing long term health for short term money is a bad trade. Not only is it possible for long term stress to manifest as illnesses and medical conditions, it’s commonplace. Physical symptoms can have emotional roots.

Long term stress takes a toll and the body keeps score. It may all be in your head at first but it doesn’t stop there. The body has a way of taking itself out of situations that the mind finds intolerable. If you can’t bear your job, eventually you may get sick.

It’s easy to allow ourselves to get run down. In my financial coaching, I often talk to people who have been treating themselves like a machine (e.g. a lathe or a photocopier). Who will tell you when you are doing this?

Our sense of humour often acts as the canary in the coalmine. If you had a great sense of humour when you were younger or when you are on holiday but you can’t remember when you last laughed, that’s a sign you’re run down.

Habits and variety are like Yin and Yang. They are opposites and complement each other. Like light and dark, one can not exist without the other.

The purpose of building better habits is to improve your productivity. The purpose of variety is to keep things fresh and to prevent you from sliding into ennui or boredom. Some say that variety can even slow down time.

Rotate the crops! We are organic creatures who are meant to live free range outdoors in nature. I deliberately mix up my exercise (walks, cycling, weights, basketball) to make it more fun and reduce injury risk. I rotate my food. I vary my walks.

What aspects of your life do you vary to avoid burnout?


The Escape Manual is explained * here *


3 comments

  1. Great article I love the logic here. You’re right we’re not robots I like you also vary my exercise between cycling weights and running and also swimming when it’s available. This approach keeps me fresh and invigorated and also means that I get to enjoy this activity more when I come to do them because they are Fresh and interesting. Mental health is so important and underpins really everything we do so just recently I’ve started dedicating 15 to 20 minutes per day to breathing exercises and also taking the cold shower just as the Iceman Wim Hot advocates. It’s been a real wake-up call and is tackling mental side which previously I have not paid attention to. Would be great to see the escape artist Review or discuss these we techniques As I believe they are important weapon in the armoury for escapism.

    1. Wim Hof is the ice man’s name. Though I would agree that Wim HoT would be a far funnier name for an ice man… 😉

  2. […] Variety, and Crop Rotation (The Escape Artist) – “The problem is not hard work. The problem is the monotony, lack of true meaning and […]

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