:: The best jobs give their workers agency, and those workers tend to be happy. They get to be creative, and come up with neat ideas, and execute those ideas. Whereas jobs where workers do not have agency tend to have workers who burn out.

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I’m in the middle of writing a(nother) book on mental health and higher ed, and in it I have a chapter on burnout. The chapter takes on the psychology of burnout and really does the research. Burnout is a serious mental health condition, and deserves more attention. The chapter I wrote is solid.

But some conversations with friends over the past few weeks have gotten me thinking about burnout in another way, a more philosophical way, and this way of thinking about burnout goes all the way back to 2012 or so, when my friend Ariane and I drew the sketch below at a coffee shop.

The Urgency Chart

The sketch is a four-by-four chart. On the y-axis are the words “not urgent” (on the lower row) and “urgent” on the top row. Across the top x-axis are two columns, labeled “not important” and “important.” (This chart is a version of something called an “Eisenhower Box.” You can look it up if you’d like.) I call it the “Urgency Chart.”

Here are how the quadrants read:

✤ Under “Urgent/Not Important”: “Ignore this until it becomes not urgent.” This is Quadrant 1. (This name becomes important later.)
✤ Under “Urgent/Important”: “Do this now!”
Under “Not Urgent/Not Important”: “Never do this.”
✤ Under “Not Urgent/Important”: “Do this later.” This is Quadrant 4.

According to the Urgency Chart, the only quadrant that requires immediate action are urgent, important things. And unimportant things should just never be done, ever. (Unless you are procrastinating, in which case you should totally rearrange the dishes.)

Ariane and I realized that the place we wanted to live was in Quadrant 4. In Quadrant 4, the work is important, but we are also able to take time to do things carefully, slowly, without our hair on fire or any other body part, and on our own schedules. And, because urgent, important things do pop up and you do have to deal with them, Quadrant 4 gives you the space to deal with those things. For example, right now I’m working on a book, but I want to work on my timeline. My timeline includes buffer time, which gives my timeline space for a surgery I needed in December and space for sledding with my kids this weekend.

For me, then, Quadrant 4 means being in control of my schedule, and having a schedule that allows for important stuff to pop up unexpectedly.

This notion of “being in control” leads me to another sketch that Ariane and I drew around the same time as the Urgency Chart. I kept this sketch on the bulletin board above my desk for years. It was something like a mantra. Unfortunately, I don’t have the original anymore (!!), lost in my move from my office when I left my job. Here’s the version I wrote in my notebook. 

It reads “Agency > Mastery > Legacy,” and the Urgency Chart doesn’t make sense without also understanding “agency” in the context of this sketch.

When you don’t have agency, you don’t have the power to ignore the unimportant stuff that wastes your time. You spend your time on unimportant things that other people make you do (think TPS reports from Office Space). And then, when you finally get to the things that YOU want to do, you either don’t have time or you are just too tired. When you don’t have agency, you don’t have control over your life or how you spend your time.

Agency doesn’t mean you don’t have a 9-to-5 job. You can have a 9-to-5 and have plenty of agency. The best jobs give their workers agency, and those workers tend to be happy. They get to be creative, and come up with neat ideas, and execute those ideas. Whereas jobs where workers do not have agency tend to have workers who burn out.

If you don’t have agency, you do not get to make choices about the work that you do, and you tend to get stuck in Quadrant 1 of the Urgency Chart, rushing around doing pointless work until you fall down one day and realize you don’t want to get up again. You burn out. That’s what happened to me at my last “real” job. It’s why I left.

Now, let’s look at all of this long term, because the long term matters—burnout matters, and how we fix it matters.

If you don’t have agency, then you can never get to mastery. Mastery happens when you feel really accomplished at something. Mastery feels really, really good, because it feels good to be good at something. And if you can’t get to mastery, then you can’t leave a legacy—which, because of the human fucking condition, is what we are all wired to do in some fashion. We want what we do to “matter” in some way (hopefully in the RIGHT way, and not in some ego-driven, narcissistic way that fills some empty hole created by crushing anxiety, and someone please put down that mirror you are holding up to my face).

I can describe what it meant to lack agency in higher ed and why I left teaching full time. I can describe what it means to have agency (or not) in publishing and why I left a big project behind because the editor micromanaged the book to death.

can’t really talk about lack of agency in, say, nursing, because I’ve never worked as a nurse. From the stories I’ve read, nurses who used to love their work do not love it anymore because now everything is always on fire. They live in Quadrant 1. If everything is always on fire where you work, then you don’t have agency. You have nothing but third-degree burns.

If you have workers who report to you, maybe this essay will help you figure out how to prevent them from burning out.

If you are feeling worn down, maybe this essay will help you figure out why you feel that way, and what you can change.

In any event, hang in there. Everything feels like it is on fire. Protect yourself as best you can.

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If you enjoyed this piece, you will enjoy my book, LIFE OF THE MIND INTERRUPTED: ESSAYS ON MENTAL HEALTH AND DISABILITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION, available at lifeofthemindinterrupted.com. Buying my books is a great way to support the online writing that I do for free.

Thank you.

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