Burnout culture: a neurodivergent perspective on productivity

We have started the fall semester of the 2022/23 school year! If you’re anything like me, an overzealous, career-driven lunatic, you might be confused as to why you’re already burned out. You have all these plans for your future and the ambition to get there, but you find it difficult to take concrete steps to achieve those goals. As a person with ADHD, I’ve always found it difficult to stick to one thing at a time. One day I will have a burning passion for becoming a world-class pianist, then give up a week later and move on to something else. This also happens at school as I pursue the different majors and career paths that interest me. My mind jumps from interest to interest so often that I feel defeated when I push another passion aside.

Well, our corporate overlords must have heard my internal cries for help, as YouTube’s algorithm directed me to two videos that helped me immensely.

The first is a video essay, ” How capitalism burns you out‘ by Elliot Sang. In summary, Sang discusses the widespread trend of severe burnout that everyone seems to be experiencing in the wake of the pandemic, focusing on college-aged individuals. The theorized cause of burnout is “self-exploitation,” compounded by years of isolation. Self-exploitation is discussed as a way corporations have manipulated society to normalize exploitative labor practices disguised as “grind culture”, “career orientation” or “self-improvement”. In reality, these companies are just rebranding, blaming their own burnout on individuals while continuing to benefit from overworked and underpaid employees.

This “self-exploitation” is particularly damaging to neurodivergent people. Sang touches on this briefly at the end of her essay, stating, “Understanding your own neurodivergence is not a path to optimization. It’s not a way to work harder.” That line in particular caught me by surprise. In the last decade, neurodivergence and mental health in general have received a lot of attention. The once taboo subject has been the subject of multiple justice and accessibility movements to support those of us with different mindsets. However, as this issue evolves and becomes politicized, it is being hijacked by corporations trying to profit from us. I fell victim to this and found techniques to bring my neurodivergence into corporate form to be a more competitive worker. Learning to be a jack of all trades and an asset to various companies, even though it led to immense burnout and was detrimental to my mental health.

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Watching Sang’s video helped me understand the reason I was feeling burned out by pointing out the myriad factors that influenced me to exploit myself and optimize my own productivity without giving myself any mercy. However, it left a void that did not take into account how to stay productive, pursue careers, and live a comfortable lifestyle without the self-exploiting business model.

This is the video by Elizabeth Filips: ” You’re Not Lazy: How to Live a Messy Organized Life” come in. Throughout the video, Filips talks about how they can thrive in their careers and passions without forcing themselves to fit the neurotypical business mold. They find healthy ways to be productive in necessary tasks while avoiding the self-exploiting expectation that mainstream corporate ideology throws at them. Filips introduced the “Fall Behind, Catch Up, Go Ahead Schedule” for healthy “passion drive” productivity. This model allows the neurodivergent brain to deeply explore and successfully pursue topics of interest while accommodating necessary breaks our brains require. It also addresses and corrects the self-destructive mindset that neurodivergent brains fall into and suggests that this is another cause of our burnout.

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The “fall behind, catch up, move on” schedule is as follows:

Falling Back – This step recognizes that sometimes we are unable to start or complete tasks that are important to us simply because our brain isn’t interested in doing it at the moment. Filips concedes that this doesn’t mean we’ve given up this passion or that we’re lazy, but rather that we need a brief break from it to regain our interest.

Catching Up – This step means getting our brains reinvested in that passion and “catching up” on the productivity we missed when we “fallen behind”.

Go Ahead – This step means that our brains take immense interest in our passion, so much so that we not only make up for time we missed when we “fall behind”, but exponentially excel in a short period of time.

Filips says “I don’t optimize for consistency, I optimize for passion” and I want to use that feeling when pursuing my passions and career. Speaking to 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 driven by joy and passion rather than consistency. Holding ourselves to the same standard as our neurotypical peers is unfair and directly harms us. Sang speaks directly to this in the comments section of her video. “If I learn to accept my slow days, my ‘laziness,’ and bring myself to a place of acceptance and joy, I’ll be more productive and successful anyway.” These two videos have helped me immensely so far this semester as I’m empowering myself actively taught how to be successful as a student without resorting to self-destructive or self-exploiting practices.

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For me, this whole cycle can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months as I gauge my ability to work at specific times. My initial interest and “fallback” period involves going through my course syllabuses at the start of the semester and spending a day writing deadlines on my calendar, along with reminders two days before important assignments are due. This helps me not to let myself be overwhelmed by big tasks when they slip through my mind and avoids unnecessary stress. When I fall behind, I limit the optional commitments I make on myself like club meetings, office hours, and networking events. I also allow myself to be less rigorous on smaller assignments for class, and when class attendance is optional or on Zoom, I stay in my room.

This is particularly possible if you discuss your work plan with the professors early in the semester in order to get more flexible deadlines for term papers. An extension of a day or two makes a big difference and alleviates many fears about deadlines. During the catch-up phase, I collect the assignments that my professors provided and work on catching up on smaller assignments that I neglected during my “relapse”. Then finally, because my brain allows me to reinvest in my work, I start to “advance” my classes by two to three weeks. Also, I get a lot of work done on my three-day weekends. If this phase occurs right before an extended break, I’ll spend the break working ahead of time, particularly working on and preparing for assignments with tighter deadlines such as mid/final projects or term papers. This “go-ahead” period usually gives me flexibility for several weeks and a much-needed mental break.

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