Burnout and Recovery

This week is the last week of classes and graduation. Congratulations to all who made it through! Be proud of your accomplishments.

Many of us who are faculty might not feel like “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.” In fact, my bet is that there are lots of people who are wondering why they can’t get a good night’s rest, hurt all over, and are just generally foggy. The last one might even mean change of grade forms, the bane of students and instructors alike.

It’s not in your head, and you aren’t unfit for the job. You’re burnt out.

A lot of us think burnout is all in our heads, a mind over matter thing. Except the mind is matter, and in this case, our body is shouting that something needs to change. If you didn’t hear the whisper, then I’ll just break down, thank you very much.

There are many definitions of burnout, but to be behavior analytic – it’s when the schedule of reinforcement is too thin, which makes formerly reinforcing contingencies aversive. In lay terms, too much work and not enough payoff. Lacritz (2003ish – an uncorrected proof was the only one available) suggested that University faculty are at greater risk of burnout than other populations. More specifically, we tend to be more exhausted and irritable. Women especially were at a higher risk of burnout. The number of students that faculty were responsible for was also closely related to symptoms of burnout. This seems to support the reasons why end of the semester is a particularly vulnerable time for all of us.

And so what? Burnout has very specific cognitive and physical effects, as seen in the graphic here:

Physical and Mental Effects of Burnout

If we know that burnout is such as problem, how do we fix it? I’ve looked through the Internet and read many blogs and workplace development sites. The authors of these sites give several suggestions, but they are not necessarily peer reviewed. I’ll include my favorites anyway in case some of them help you.

Acknowledge your burnout. Sometimes we try to work through burnout or think something is wrong with our work ethic. Say the word burnout to yourself, and, if you feel safe, your supervisor. Make a commitment to recovery.

Revisit your “why.” Last post, I talked about how important values clarification is to fitness and wellness. It is also important in your work. If you didn’t read my last post, check it out here.

Figure out the exact causes of your burnout. If you can articulate what specifically is causing you to burn out, you might be able to find easy fixes. For example, are you overscheduled? Did you say yes to a project you really aren’t that enthused about? Pinpointing the causes of burnout will make it easier to both ask for advice and ask for what you need.

Set up an “Anti-Meeting.” It can be helpful to socialize and de-stress with friends and co-workers. Meet up for lunch, but specifically leave work off the agenda. Make this meeting as set in stone as you would a faculty meeting or a committee meeting. If you have to, make it a standing committee of some sort.

Do something to acknowledge most stuff isn’t really that important. Of course we take our commitments to teaching, research, and service seriously, but does it have to be all dour? For example, a group of friends and I went to Five Below and purchased stuffed animals we take to meetings for “emotional support.” It gets people talking and laughing, and meetings are often more cordial as a result.

Set a meeting each day to exercise. Call it something that sounds like work if you have to – like cognitive recharging or something else. Just make sure you get that 150 minutes a week. If you feel like you have to be available 24/7 – this is for my online teachers – see the bullet point just before this one.

Don’t live on takeout, unless you’re going to the salad bar or making sure it’s healthy. Don’t forego healthy eating because grades are due or that grant is almost there. Who’s going to actually do the grant if you fall over? Step away from the vending machine – I don’t care if it is the fancy one that spits out bacon. Buy yourself the nicest water bottle you can find, and fill it with water. Add lemon if it helps.

Put pockets into your day, week, month. I thought I was being super productive when I scheduled every single minute with work and play. Then I would beat myself up for not sticking with the schedule. Now I realize we need time in our day to transition from activity to activity – and from role to role. If you can, find as much room as possible in your schedule that isn’t scheduled. Use that time to do whatever you find pleasurable – decluttering (my go-to), reading for pleasure, taking a quick walk, or maybe just staring out the window. Just don’t schedule it – do whatever you want to do at that moment.

Take a sabbath. Nope, I’m not suggesting you have to be religious in any way. I promised you all that from the beginning. The word sabbath (and sabbatical) comes from the Hebrew Shabbos – which means rest. The best thing to do would be to take a full day of rest, but even if you can’t do that, plan a few hours where you consciously unplug and do something that is purely relaxing.

From all that I have read, the best way to recover from burnout is to be crystal clear about your “why,” take baby steps, continue your healthy practices, and take time to rest and recover. Let me know if you have other tips and if these tips worked for you!

Core Strength

Sitting too much can be a real pain in the…gut?

Moving from face-to-face teaching to more online environments means we are standing less and sitting more.  As we know, sitting too much is bad for us.  But how?  One of the ways is by reducing core strength.  Core stability and strength are at the roots of movement. Less core strength can put us at risk if we are just starting an exercise program or are a weekend warrior. This article talks about the relationship between core strength and injuries – knee injuries being one of them.

Our bodies are clearly integrated machines, and a stable foundation makes the whole unit stronger. Raise your hand if you have low back pain.  Chances are, you do.  What does your core strength have to do with it?  Some research has shown that core stability exercises can significantly reduce back pain in the lumbar (low back) region. Core stability has been shown to enhance balance in older adults. (article behind paywall).

But what is a core, exactly?  People define the core in different ways, but basically it is the muscles that make up our torso. The muscles that hold our spine up are also included (I’m not going to say straight, because having a completely straight back is more of a problem than most realize).  The core muscles are aligned in such a way that allows us to bend forward, backward, side-to-side, and twist. 

Here are some short exercises you can do to strengthen your core muscles. As always, the difficulty level varies from workout to workout.

Tried any of these? Have others that you like?  Share them in the comments!

CDC Guidelines for Fitness

Last night, before I went to bed, I was studying for my Personal Trainer Certification test.  Yes, this is what I do in my free time and find it fun.  Don’t judge.  Anyway, the instructor on the study podcast referenced the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines of 150-300 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous activity.

Whoa – less than 20% of women and 30% of men don’t engage in enough physical activity to keep them healthy?  And, quite frankly, I’m one of them? Why aren’t more behavior analysts heeding the siren’s call to help fix this?  

It was a great reminder to move, but what exactly does that mean for the academic? 

The first thing to keep in mind when engaging in an exercise program would be your current level of fitness and any limitations you might have.  It goes without saying to check with professionals, but as an example – I realized yesterday while using my barstool/standing desk that my core muscles have become pretty weak from sitting all day long.  I’m a slipped disk waiting to happen, given that I already have all kinds of spinal arthritis and disk issues.

Next, I wondered about the definition of moderate, easy, and vigorous.  Those seem pretty subjective and in the eye of the beholder. The CDC uses a measurement called METs – basically, how much energy does the activity use relative to a resting baseline?  While this is pretty precise, it doesn’t really help the average Doctor Prof trying to get healthy.

Therefore, the CDC suggests the average exerciser use the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale to determine intensity. RPE is defined differently in different places – anything from a 1-10 to a 1-20 scale, but is nevertheless helpful when determining how difficult an activity might be. 

Rate of perceived Exertion Scale

I, personally, like heart rate better, but target heart rates can fluctuate with level of conditioning and medications (for example, Beta Blockers like Inderal). This article by Aamot, et al. (2014; behind a paywall) seems to suggest that we tend to overestimate how hard we are working. Which one works best for you will probably be an individual decision.

While I don’t have any data to support this – maybe I will some other time – I’ve noticed us academics tend to be all-or-nothing types.  If I can’t get 150 minutes at level 5, then I won’t do anything at all.  While reading the guidelines, it seems that we need a combination of all levels, as well as flexibility and resistance training, to be at our best. In future posts, I’ll look at ways we might tame the “all-or-nothing lizard” that gets us in so many ways.

What are ways you try to fit in exercise in your day, as well as tame the propensity towards perfection? Let me know!

Movement Break Ideas

After realizing I needed more movement in my day, I began to look at ways I could move more and sit less.  Since I already incorporate Pomodoros into my day,  I thought I might try to re-visit the idea of 5-minute exercise breaks distributed throughout the day.  One of my biggest hurdles is motivating myself to do the exercise breaks, so creative solutions are always welcome.

Occasionally, I will go to Obstacle Course Training. About a year ago, one of the trainers introduced me to Sally.  Sally is not a person, but a training technique.  “Bring Sally Up” by Moby and Trevor Rabin is the ideal song for a short but challenging movement break.  You can do this with just about any move that goes up and down (abs, pushups, wall sits, even stepping), but I’ll put this video here for an example. 

Remember: I’m just putting these up here as ideas. Consult a doctor, PT, or trainer for specific advice, and follow theirs if it contradicts mine.  

Catchy tune, isn’t it?  It doesn’t hurt that I am a huge prog rock fan and love Trevor Rabin’s contributions to Yes. 

Here is a stretch video that might be nice after grading that “what was I thinking when I assigned THIS” set of papers.

Last but certainly not least, if you are looking for something intense and you aren’t afraid to face-plant, here is a 5-minute HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training, not to be confused with Super High Intensity Training). This one I have not tried, but it does not look like it is for the faint of heart.

If you give one or all of these a try, I’d love to hear your feedback!  Have a great weekend – and take some time for you!

Behavioral Momentum Meets my Couch

In my last post, I introduced you to the phenomenon of behavioral momentum.  In my case, once I sit down and start writing, doing email, blogging, or whatever, I’m sitting for a good long time.  It’s hard for me to break that momentum, switch gears, and do something new. 

The Pomodoro Technique helps, but so far only for writing.  That, and the Academic Ladder challenge chats, where a group logs on and holds each other accountable for solid blocks of work. I’m thinking that in this case, I’m more using the Premack Principle, or the “do this first…then you get to do this” strategy than momentum.

Sidebar: So should you do easy tasks then more difficult ones to build momentum, or more difficult tasks and use the easier ones as incentive?  I think we can clearly see the answer is:

It depends.

But I digress – back to my couch.

If I have build a comfy (read: reinforcing) area and I tend to stay put when I get there. I need to do something to make things less comfy, right?  According to the literature, ways to break momentum are:

  • Stop making the area reinforcing (extinction).  Considering that I need my computer and I’m not willing to redecorate, that one is out.
  • Sit so much I get sick of it (satiation).  Hasn’t happened yet, so I have my doubts on that one.
  • Punishment – maybe make sure nails stick up in the place I usually sit?  Have someone come over and slap me or call me and yell at me when I sit there? Post my Rate My Professor reviews on the wall? (Alas, I have no chili peppers.) Doubtful as well.
  • Time-based reinforcers (so maybe Pomodoro does work here) or providing incentives for some other behavior that is just as reinforcing (Differential Reinforcement of Alternative/Incompatible Behavior or DRA/I). I could do that.
  • Distraction or redirection. Also a possibility.

DRA/I or distraction sound like the most reasonable of interventions. What would be an alternative or incompatible behavior that is just as reinforcing as sitting on my couch? What would be such a good distraction that I don’t want to sit there?  This is where my quandary lies. Stimulus preference assessment must commence.

There are many types of preference assessments, but I’m thinking that a variation on a trial-based preference assessment would work here.  Try each scenario out and see what works best.  Here are the ones that I’ve come up with, based on the peer-reviewed work of Dr. Google:

  • Standing Desk. I can already rule out the standing desk for more than 10 minutes.  My back and knees end up aching, and I have yet to find one that is the right height and doesn’t aggravate my kyphosis. But, for short intervals I could do it.  Maybe on my breaks. 
  • Treadmill desk. So, I’m a professor in one of the most expensive areas of the country.  Nope.  Although if I could make that one work, I would be happy to try it.  I did try a stepper in the office and ended up with hand nerve impingement.  Maybe I should bring it home, though?
  • Bar Seat. This one might actually be feasible with the standing desk.  Perch myself, work, stand, perch.  I just have to make sure not to slouch.
  • Walk Around for Breaks. I already do this sometimes, but I need to find a better reinforcer for doing so. Checking Facebook or Pinterest is way more reinforcing.
  • Use a Zafu and sit on the floor. A Zafu is a meditation cushion.  You can also purchase benches for mediation that do essentially the same thing.  The idea is to put you into a comfortable yet ergononically correct posture. I don’t think using one is cultural appropriation, but if it is, please comment and I’ll amend this post.

There are some other ideas on this site, but the ones above are the ones I’ll try for now.   As always, the data doesn’t lie. 

Results of my Baseline

I vacillated between reporting the data and vaguely telling you the results of my analysis.  I’ve decided on the latter because my journey needs to have some sort of anonymity to it.  Let’s see what interesting things I’m finding out about myself and my behavior: 

  • I spend too much time on the couch (everyone say “duh”)
  • Once on the couch, I stay on the couch
  • I’ve never crossed off more than 5 things on my to-do list during a day (over promising and under-delivering to myself)
  • My nutrition data explain a bit about how and why I’m not feeling as well as I could (especially in terms of low potassium levels – bring on the bananas and the potatoes)
  • I could be more hydrated
  • Most of my couch duty behavior is escape-maintained (which is surprising because I thought it would be more socially mediated) – in lay terms, I’m trying to escape the world as opposed to needing some external reinforcement. 

So what should my plan be?  I tell my students not to take on more behaviors than they can handle at one time, and never more than 3.  I’m going to take this slowly and do one thing at a time.  Starting tomorrow, I will try to increase my hydration and increase my intake of potassium-rich foods.  I’m hoping that combo will increase my energy levels, and we’ll see if the escape behavior is in the same response class.  If it is, I should see more increases in the couch potato area without intervention.  Somehow I doubt that, but the data never lie. 

I’m also wondering what role behavioral momentum has with regard to my couch potato lifestyle.  You might remember momentum from high school physics (I’m sorry if that evokes nightmares – we had phun in physics where we phailed, too).  Anyway, momentum refers to the tendency to stay in motion once motion is initiated. Same thing with behavior. The same behavior tends to persist unless it is disrupted in some way.  Let’s test this out:

Say roast 10 times as fast as you can.  I’ll wait.  What do you put in a toaster?

If you said “toast,” that was behavioral momentum at work. Once we are positioned, working, and the reinforcers flow (in my case, getting that work graded and those papers written), it keeps going, and going, and going… You get the idea. 

Now, most of the applied research is about how to get a response going – for example, getting a child with developmental disabilities to respond to commands.  The most famous of this is the Hi-P sequence.  Similar to the “Roast” example,  you do a bunch of high-probability responses and then throw in a non-preferred one quickly.  See Lee, 2010 for more information (this article is behind a paywall).

In the next post, I’m going to see how we can use behavioral momentum to (maybe) get me off the couch and into the world.

Goal Setting and Baseline Tracking

I’m currently sitting on my couch reading about how sitting on your couch takes years off your life.  This is enough to motivate me to start this project.  de Rezende, Lopes, Lopez, Matsudo, and Luiz (2014) found that sitting and watching TV increases risk of metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, cancers, and Type 2 diabetes. Not as comforting as the down blanket I’m under.

I’m not an active person by nature.  My friends would probably be surprised to know that physical activity does not come naturally to me.  In high school, I smoked a pack a day, listened to tapes, and played my Fender Telecaster knock-off.  Later in College, I found Step aerobics which I did pretty religiously for about a year.  After some serious surgery in 2000, I put on weight and got very into Spinning.  Then around 2010 I started martial arts.  My bursts look very much like Fixed Interval Scallops, where bursts of responding surround some sort of achievement/reinforcer, then drop off.  All animals do this, and it is a natural part of life.

So, I’m back in a rut. What, exactly do I want to accomplish this time around?

  • Eat better and drink more fluids (I have Positional Hypotension so I pass out when I’m dehydrated or stand up too fast)
  • Increase the amount of exercise I do in a week
  • Get back into a consistent martial arts schedule
  • Eat better with a 30/30/30 distribution of macros (fat, carbs, protein)
  • Not look like an idiot at the Soldier Field 10-miler I’m doing with other behavior analysts in May

In order to make a change, though, I need a baseline of where I am now.  So, I’m in the process of taking data on my current habits. The app I’m using is Countee, and I’m taking Antecedent-Behavior Consequence data on my own behavior.  Amanda Kelly, a/k/a Behaviorbabe, has created this tutorial on ABC Data collection. 

Stay tuned for the data!

What I’m Doing

You might be wondering what prompted a site/blog like this one.  Of course, as I said before, I have some bad habits that have affected my productivity and effectiveness as a teacher. But honestly, the motivation runs deeper than that. 

The Academy does awful things to us.  The quest for productivity means that being overworked and overtired is a badge of courage.  There is a fair amount of competitiveness in higher education. The Lake Woebegone Effect is alive and well in academia – everyone is expected to be above average in teaching, research, and service. 

A few years ago, someone close to me passed away suddenly.  His boss came by with a plate of break-and-bake cookies and said, “I’m sorry for your loss.  I need his computer back.”  This was one of those turning point moments. Another one was when my mother got sick with heart disease and cancer.  Before her illness, she was a fastidious homemaker.  One of my friends once remarked that she thought we were wealthy because our home was so clean.  When my Mom remarked she wouldn’t be able to clean her house anymore, one of her physical therapists remarked, “that is what you want your legacy to be?”

So what do these stories have to do with Fitness and Wellness in the Academy?  Well, I’ve come to realize that caring for yourself is critical if you want to stick around – and do the things you want to do.  Academia is unique in that we work A LOT, and we spend the rest of the time feeling guilty that we aren’t working.  To paraphrase a friend of mine, you have the flexibility to choose which 70 hours a week you want to work. There is also a hidden curriculum – how do you get it all done?  When is it ok to say no and when is it in your best interest to say yes? 

As a low (low-low) level supervisor, too, I’m hearing more about repetitive stress injuries,  increasing mental health issues,  and general anxiety of having to do more with less.  Yet when I look for resources on wellness and fitness for the unique needs of academics, I came up with nothing.  So, I decided to design this site. 

It is my hope that the resources I provide and the documentation of my journey is helpful and inspiring to you. My goal is to talk about the things no one is talking about with regard to healthy living in the academy.  I want to give practical advice – while there will be some links to meditation and yoga, I’ll try to keep those at a minimum.  Rather,  I’ll stick to evidence-based practices that will increase productivity and healthy living.  Leave a comment and let me know how I’m doing!