4 min read
Thu 14 Nov 2019 Writing

Avoiding burnout as an activist

On the importance of doing deep and dense work, rather than getting caught up in short-term, urgency thinking.

Avoiding burnout as an activist

One of the aspects of political organising that we often discuss internally is the importance of doing deep and dense work, rather than getting caught up in busyness.

Our focus is broad, systemic change, rather than just electoral cycles. To achieve this level of change, we need to be thinking and acting at the same kind of scale — something that requires space and time. We see cultivating deep attention and patience as an act of political resistance.

Staying politically engaged in today’s social media landscape can be exhausting. It’s easy to get swept up in feeling like you need to continuously produce and respond to content, across a range of social contexts, at a pace that is impossible to maintain.

This unsustainable level of engagement is, at best, a constant source of distraction and anxiety and, at worst, leads to burnout. Burnout is a threat on both an individual level and a collective one, as activist groups often rely too heavily on the knowledge and work of one person. If this person burns out, it can significantly impact the rest of the group and its work.

How can we avoid burnout, while still staying engaged and achieving our political outcomes?

We think that it starts with recognising that:

1. You will never be able to keep up

It is simply impossible to keep up with the level of engagement that social media requires of us. Sometimes the most effective thing you can do is to not engage.

One method that we’re trying internally is being more thoughtful and thematic in our social media use, rather than being constantly reactive.

2. You need to replenish your energy somewhere

This means taking breaks, often, even if it feels self-indulgent or that you’re letting others down. It’s never going to feel like the right time to do this.

It also means sleeping properly. You are no use to any group if you’re operating below capacity due to overwork or anxiety.

3. The key to successful organising means removing yourself from the centre

De-centering yourself is also a sure-fire way to allow collective intelligence in. In any activist group, the end goal should be about cultivating greater collective agency and power. This relies on building resilient systems and structures that go beyond the efforts of any one individual.

Being transparent about how you work and think can help others learn, but it also allows them to contribute — they might have an alternative take on a problem that you’re stuck with. It can also reduce the stress and anxiety of being solely responsible for ‘coming up with the solution’ yourself.

By clearly documenting processes and spreading knowledge across multiple points, new people will be able to pick up where others have left off, without having to go through the same learning processes. Ultimately, the more we can save on repeated work, the more time and energy we’ll have to spend actually campaigning.

Internally, we do this by continuously documenting, sharing and reflecting upon our experiences. We use digital tools like Notion and Capsule to help build and maintain this collective memory.

4. Maintaining consistent habits helps protect against burnout

Faced with urgent and stressful situations, it’s common to let established rituals go out the window and instead switch to reactionary mode. However, this is when rituals of care and maintenance are needed most. Habits work because they have an established rhythm—they don’t require much conscious thought, they’re just something that you do.

In fact, skipping your usual rituals can often be a sign that you’re beginning to burn out. In The Happy Healthy Non-Profit , Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman outline a simple framework that helps people self-monitor their own signs of burnout, based on a Personal Chaos Index.

How we use this mindset at Common Knowledge

We do sprint planning at the beginning of each week, where we ask ourselves what we each think should be the goals of the week. We rank these according to the MoSCoW framework: Must, Could, Should, Would.

We then break these down into shirt-sized tasks and add them to our Task List. As with our product work, we break any task down into its smallest component elements. If a task requires multiple steps, it’s probably a project.

We block out time each day for deep work, and try to maintain a working environment than enables focus.

We have stand-ups twice a day, even when working remotely. This helps us keep up to date with what and how everyone is doing.

We also have a longer retrospective every Friday afternoon. These are vital as they allow us to know celebrate successes, understand just how much work we’re all getting done, and look for any puzzles or problems that pop up repeatedly.

These practices aren’t just about productivity, but also about collective care. Each meeting we have begins and ends with a check-in, one of the key patterns of sociocracy . Check-ins are a way of sharing our emotional states, recognising that this changes day-by-day and is influenced by external factors as well as work.

We’re going to be exploring this topic more over the next few days, looking into the different tools and structures that activists can use to maintain their individual and collective health.