It’s difficult to stay committed to a task or undertaking. Endless distractions exist to steal your focus. Plateaus can bring progress to a screeching halt. Lack of response can be extremely discouraging. Fitting the time in to work on the task is difficult in our busy lives. Even the most dedicated and earnest effort can lead to burnout and questioning whether or not to continue. How do we continue, how can we keep going when we hit that wall? The solution: Take a break.
At least, temporarily.
The Bridge to Burnout
Focus, grit, and dedication are all wonderful things. Substantial, positive change in our lives cannot be accomplished without it. These qualities separate the driven from the directionless. An unfortunate fact that accompany these virtues though is the unavoidable truth that willpower is a finite resource. Even the most motivated people only have so much drive to commit. This phenomenon is known as ego depletion, and has been a topic of psychological study and debate for decades.
A psychological study by the University of Illinois found that prolonged focus on a task depletes attention span and that the brain struggles to continually regard the task as important. This also manifests in pursuits such as dieting and exercise. Jumping headfirst into dieting, to the point of causing one’s self severe stress, often leads to burnout that may result in worse food habits than before a person began their diet.
I found myself in this boat recently. I’ve been running this blog with new posts weekly (with some missed weeks here and there) for over a year now. A guide I read to starting a blog advised to put out new content weekly to retain regular readers. There were weeks when I struggled to crank a post out, but around May of this year, I felt like my enthusiasm was waning and my writing began to suffer as a result. After some thought, I decided to take a break from motivational posts and focus on other projects and content (namely my Kaiju for Dungeons and Dragons series). If I was going to keep writing motivation and self improvement content, I wanted my heart to be in it.
Some may say that a break from an undertaking means giving up, that one must soldier through the plateaus. This is a fine attitude to hold, but there are consequences to continuing a task. First and foremost, with waning enthusiasm comes sub par effort. For creative pursuits, such as art or music, projects that one must force themselves to do may produce a lower quality end result.
This creates an unfortunate feedback loop when one looks back at the fruits of their labor and believes a bad drawing or fluke performance reflects a lack of talent. Enthusiasm takes hit after hit from this cycle, until drive to continue drys up entirely.
If it isn’t burnout sapping your enthusiasm, boredom may pop in to steal it instead. The same University of Illinois study I referenced earlier also found that constant stimulation of the brain (in this case, working on your task or hobby) dulls the brain’s response to it. It’s just like developing tolerance to a drug. When a stimuli fails to stimulate, disinterest and distraction set in quickly. Taking a break, even a short one, restores a task’s ability to captivate our minds and restore enthusiasm to keep chugging forward.
As that old cliche goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
License to Chill
So, let’s say your pursuit or hobby is burning you out and you’ve decided to take a break from it all. Putting down the pencil/keyboard/guitar/premium arcade fighting stick controller and walking away seems simple enough, right? Not entirely. After all, this approach is about taking a break, not quitting. Not working towards your goal for too long may break habits and kill enthusiasm completely. Plus, too long of a pause may result in lost progress, and we certainly don’t want to jump back into our quest with that discouragement hanging over our heads.
Instead, choose a specific amount of time to take a break from your project. Put it out of sight and out of mind. It could be a day, a week, or even a month. During that time, try to not to think about your task or do anything related to it. It’s all right if you think about it from time to time, after all, if a goal is truly important to you it will remain on your mind.
To hold yourself accountable, set a reminder on your computer or phone to begin work on your goal again after the break time is up. Have a friend remind you to resume your efforts. Commit to jumping back in and making the break a recess and not a rescission.
After every convention I attend, I resolve to not do any work related for cosplay for at least a week. This way I’m ready to give it my all again and let the haze of con crunch pass. This time off lets my enthusiasm regrow and gives my mind to think of different approaches to projects I already have in the works and brand new ideas for costumes. With a little bit of rest, I’m ready to waste my time, money, and effort on making silly costumes of fictional characters once again.
Ready, Set, Break!
Losing enthusiasm happens, don’t think you’ve failed because that happens. Reaching our goals requires constant effort and drive, but sometimes we just need to step away from it all. Take a break, even a long one, and let your mind and willpower recharge. With a little bit of R&R, you’ll be ready to get right back to kicking ass and taking names.