The Mental Ultra

This is not a running story. It involves an ultra, but is actually focused on recovering from an “accidental mechanical burnout”. There was no warning, it was caused by doing too many things, it was not driven by any negative stress and I was completely done. Absolutely absolutely done.

So how did I respond? I actioned full recovery mode. 3 days in a row, I got 12hrs of sleep, 4 naps, 5 meals a day. Pizza in the morning? You bet. You’d think that that would have done the job, but no. My head was still kaput and so I schedule a vacation (or what I call rehab) for the following week to heal properly. I’ve never had this issue before and so this was all new to me. What surprised me the most was that my head would get worse on my first day off and it kept getting worse afterwards as well.

How did it get worse? Consciously I was doing all the right moves – not thinking about anything nor was I worried about anything either. This was the case for me in general and why I called it an accidental burnout. I was more or less always doing things that I enjoy or found important, though admittedly I was doing a lot of it. However, and this is where things got complicated, my subunconscioussness went bezerk by defaulting to a 110% max-gear-over-drive mode 24/7. After not taking any real time off in a very long time, my subconsciousssness got stuck on over-drive mode after the burnout. It wouldn’t stop. It was working as if it were in a crisis center, non-stop. I dont know what it was calculating but when I woke up during the nights I noticed my dreams were doing work like stuff (perhaps my brain finally solved the sustainability puzzle – who knows – with that much CPU anythings possible). No activity (e.g. reading, singing, sports, dancing) would stop it and would actually end up making it worse because the activities themselves would kick start the engine at the back (again, I have no idea what it was calculating). At some point, I ended up getting headaches by just going to the store to buy food or when someone put the TV on at the gym forcing me to leave. All of this was obviously super annoying, I enjoy everything I do. I wanted my old brain back.

How did I adapt? I went all full Buddha on this challenge, meditated a lot, did yoga with Adriene (dont get excited, I mean the youtube yoga channel), closed nearly all social media (e.g. whatsapp) and then left for Spain (I originally wanted to and almost got to go on a 8 day sailing trip, but thats another story). Overall, it was clear that the only way to stop the engine was by focused mindfullness which could be achieved by meditation, nature or by spending time with people close to me. Luckily, I got a mix of these. I ended up on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage and running 105km with a friend. We began the journey in Sarria, talked, walked and ran throughout the night for 31 hours. There were a few interesting moments worth mentioning. For example, because my friend had a few sleepless months prior to the run, he took two 20 min naps along the route as he was about to pass out on several occasions due to sleep deprivation. Plus, he started hallucinating every now and then. I timed the naps and then woke him up. It rained during the night and it was pretty cold as well, so we had to keep moving. He also lost consciousness at a gas station at 7am, but luckily I was there to catch him before he fell on the floor (and I thought I was the one that needed help with mental challenges). Good thing the station had plenty of cookies to sugar him up. We then booked a hotel for a 3 hour nap and continued running (the hotel staff were pretty confused as we gave the keys back already at 1pm – they understandably assumed we’d stay the night). Others got good laughs before when they asked “where are you staying the night?” to which we answer “oh, we’ll just continue running”. To end, we run, walk and chat for another 12 hrs and then on the 31st hour, just 12km away from Santiago de Compostela, my friend’s ankle was done. There was nothing to fix it, and we wanted to be sure we wouldn’t cause any long term damage, so we took a taxi to the city and end the pilgrimage with drinks and laughs.

As relaxing as the pilgrimage was, my head was stilll kaputt. It was still calculating something in the background. So what do we do? We proceed with extreme relaxation. We take the train to Ribadavia to enjoy thermal baths, cold baths, dinners and massages. At one point, as I sat alone in the baths wondering aimlessly, I began closely examining the lines on my right hand with tremendous mind blowing awe. I thought “what a great hand” with the back engine turned OFF and voila, a real moment of relief! This was a simple first step showing that I was finally able to get my brain back. It’s a pretty strange feeling to lose control of your mind for weeks on end and then to finally get a glimpse of normality. We later head out to the coastal town of Vigo for more food and ended sleeping on a boat for 3 nights in the harbour. It wasn’t quite the sailing trip I originally had in mind, but close enough. I end the trip back in Santiago and did my best to keep eating, drinking, sleeping and calming the back engine by enjoying the town.

Overall, it took nearly 12 days to get my mind (mostly) back. Along the way, I also started getting increased clarity on what triggers the subconscious engine (burnout or otherwise) and did come to the realization that phones remain a major issue (updated thoughts below). Even though I control my phone (i.e. use it only when I want to) and receive zero notifications, the mere ability to communicate and explore options on demand is a major deterrent for concentrated deep thinking and proactive mindfullness. I am certain that I will begin taking even more formal steps to control this in the future. There is very little benefit for the social media CPU to be switched on 24/7 and instead it would serve better to concentrate on deeper and more meaningful thoughts (though still at a high pace) instead. Phones are great for facilitating curiosity, e.g. whom doesn’t want on-demand access on finding an answer to “what’s the difference between subconscious and unconcscious” (I’m still not certain I fully get it and I want to know more) but having non-stop access to check apps of interest (work, sports, news, personal network, etc.) can be paced better by choosing allocated time slots instead of filling arbitrary gaps to check them during the day. By doing so, I can fill the those gaps (e.g. bus rides) with just books and wikipedia, which is much more rewarding.

I’m pretty much all good now and back in action. That was a tough mental ultra marathon for me, huhuh. Luckily, I’m getting better and I learnt a lot along the way.

Time to get absolutely insane again. I’ll just have to pace myself better this time.

Update on post above ( 2 weeks later )

I have learnt a lot from a series of post-rehab-recovery experiments. In short, the new hyper connected working environment created new (long-term damaging) norms that I had not realized. Here are the things I learned:

1) Conversational debt: Once I disconnected from social media, I had a near endless number of unanswered messages across platforms. This was the first time I realized the sheer extent of the live conversations I have was having. Once remote work increased our collective use of messaging apps, I had run into debt that I was unaware of.

2) Noise: I thought I knew how to focus, but that was no longer the case. I thought I was doing 10 things at once, instead I was reacting to 10 things at once. Once the brain broke, the effects of this on my cognitive load became more visible. When I tried focusing on work, sudden updates from messaging apps were now producing clear headaches. This was a cognitive load that was actually very damaging without me noticing it.

3) Reactive work: Even though I wanted to address arising issues across messaging platforms, I did not know this was creating a new reactive norm. Once I re-adjusted my work style by allocating specific slots to messaging platforms (e.g. answer e-mails on only X hours), I realized how I had normalized reactivity. My ability to focus on one item was almost completely gone. I had to re-wire my brain to be able to focus on dedicated activities without interruptions. I was no longer choosing what I was working on, I was choosing stimulus, whether I was being distracted or not.

4) For every action, there is a reaction: I had facilitated the cognitive loads above not just on myself, but also those around me. With all the new post-Covid tools at our disposal, many of us are working on a document, while watching a seminar, while answering 5 people across 2 messaging platforms. These are great tools for short-term needs, but these are not sustainable practices long-term. This is a larger problem and I need to become more aware of my actions on others first. I need to respond, not react. With our new interactive tools, it became increasingly more difficult to differentiate these two from one another.

5) Excessive uncertainty avoidance: We answer our colleagues and friends because we want to be there for them, help and in many cases avoid uncertainty. I had not realized that because of the breath of reactive conversations I was having, my uncertainty avoidance had grown. Did I worry about uncertainty? Not at all. But was I more driven to resolve uncertainty. Yes. Absolutely. Finding resolutions to uncertainty avoidance irrespective of the horizon had become a major underlying driver of the stimulus I was searching for without me noticing it.

6) Bandwidth did not increase, only the pace: On reflection, a lot of my problems were not only due to increased workloads (there is some of that), but a lot of it was facilitating communication channels with a pace that was too high. Instead of 5 separate back and for the e-mails, it should have been just one.

In rowing, teams search for the perfect stroke. If the rate is too high, it is both exhaustive and inefficient. I share above because one should inspect their own habits first, but this should not be done in a way as if to promote that everyone’s personal struggle to resolve. You shouldn’t be expected to be solely responsible to pace yourself in a team. Therefore, let’s get out of this trap by finding new solutions to new challenges, together.

Final Update

The thoughts above were based on my immediate reflections after experiencing the mechanical burnout. These gave me a clear view of the effects of our modern short-term pressures on our cognitive overload. After months of subsequent dedication to what I called my brain re-wiring programme, I created new thumb-rules for myself to manage and take control of my brain. In this case, to take control, means taking control of ones’ own narrative, which is easy to lose when you’re note paying attention and especially in a world where information technology is pulling you in all directions. To help keep control of my own narrative, I will often ask myself the following questions.

1) Will vs. Should?

Before beginning the days’ tasks, it is important to examine how you’re describing your next steps. If you continue repeating the words “I need to do this” or “I should do this” it is likely that you’re no longer in control. Joy and productivity originate from when we say “I will be doing this”. This is ownership and ownership guarantees personal control and direction. There are many ways to re-take control and to re-set (e.g. by pausing, cancelling commitments, focused mindfulness, etc.), but asking the question before such needs arise serve as a simple and powerful test to monitor whether your transitioning from a proactive to a reactive routine.

2) Task vs. Time?

Before the age of clocks, we were primarily task focused individuals. Calendars, clocks and agendas increase the likelihood of us focusing on time instead of the completion of the tasks, which generate value for us. Therefore, by knowing exactly what you will be doing next helps take control of ones’ own narrative, otherwise the meaning of your tasks gets lost. If your immediate knowledge is knowing what you will be completing next week, such as “I will complete task X on Monday” instead of when “On Monday, I’ll be working on task X”, you’ll probably be on the right track.

3) Future vs. Tomorrow?

Do you know what you will be working on in the next three months? If not, then it is likely that a re-set is required. In such a case, it is likely you no longer have a plan that you are dedicated to and instead are working reactively, day by day. If this is the case, begin by re-planning, re-strategizing, and making sure you know, on a personal level, what you will be doing in the next three months.

4) Why vs. What?

Make sure you know why you are doing what you are doing. If you consistently fixate on what you are working on without knowing why, the work will likely soon lose meaning. Knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing is important and is key to continued commitment. Habit formation decreases our eagerness to question and ask why. Are your habits and routines still meaningful? To answer to this question, you’ll have to ask yourself why you’re (still) doing them.

5) Learning vs. Reacting?

Learning and development is important. If much of your day is filled with reactive tasks, it is time to re-evaluate and ask yourself, how can you re-build your day so that you can have a task-oriented process complemented with a developmental approach. Ask yourself, what new things did you learn or what new things did you solve last week? Answers to this question will help you evaluate the extent of your routine that is primarily reactive and non-developmental.

6) One at a time or all at once?

Compartmentalize your work. In our information technology heavy world, it is easier to fall into the trap of working on ten things at once instead of ten things one at a time. Ask yourself, how are you approaching your work and whether it is in sequence. Sometimes, multi-tasking is needed, but a sustainable long-run routine requires a sequenced approach. It is impossible to multi-task on a continued basis and therefore, do whatever it takes to make sure it is not your norm and remains reserved for cases where it is truly needed. Ask yourself, does this task require multi-tasking? If not, sequence your steps and stick to it.