The matrix of activist burnout

January 21, 2010

I’ve been thinking about activism a lot lately, and you know what? A lot of the “rock stars” that were first in everyone’s minds, say, ten years ago (locally and globally) aren’t around so much anymore. They’re just gone. I’m assuming they burnt out, for the most part.

This sucks. It sucks for the activist community, because we’ve lost some great people. It sucks for the cause we’re representing, because duh, we’ve lost some great people. Possibly most importantly, it sucks for the people who’ve gone through burnout in all its various forms. That’s not somewhere I want anyone to be, so I’m putting some of my energy towards helping to reduce the risk of this kind of thing happening to more people.

Now, burnout can take a lot of forms, and the sneaky part of it is that it’s gradual. When you hear the name burnout you think more of the “out” part of the word, because people who burn out are gone, finished, done, etc., but I’m thinking more about the “burn” part, which eats at you over time. In other words, you’ve probably got a bit of the burn in you right now, and if it rages into a huge fire, you’ll burn out for sure, but even in the meantime those flames can be doing some serious damage to your work.

This hits you in two main areas: your productivity and your happiness. Both can vary for different kinds of burnouts, but the ranges are pretty easy to figure out: Productivity can be either high, low, or none. Happiness can pretty much be in three categories too, with either really happy, so-so happy, or completely unhappy and possibly deeply depressed.

If my years of attending boring business meetings back in the days where we didn’t have BlackBerries to play with and had to actually watch the bad PowerPoint taught me anything, it’s that when you’ve got two factors with an equal number of categories, you can make a spiffy matrix.

Here’s the matrix of activist burnout:

matrix of activist burnout

(If anyone wants to draw up something prettier, I’d be more than happy to swap this image out! Just sayin’!)

…and after all that, I’m not going to go into what any of it means. OK, I’ll go so far as to explain that red 1s are bad, yellow 2s are so-so, and you want to get yourself in the green checkbox zone: really happy and highly productive.

Because the matrix of activist burnout is also the matrix of activist effectiveness!

I was going to do something cool like design the grid so I could flip it upside down or something, but I didn’t pay that much attention in the meetings. The point is that if you’re in the so-so zone, you’re not as effective an activist as you could be, and if you’re in the red zone, you’re probably either on the verge of being counter-productive or possibly you’re out of the game, maybe forever.

The cool thing about the matrix is that the two axes are interrelated. Happy people are generally more productive, and productive people often are happier, since they’re getting things done. That works both ways though, so be aware that if you’re unhappy, even if it’s about stuff that has nothing to do with activism, your productivity might be dropping as well, and the same for the other way: low productivity makes people cranky.

Please, please, please pay attention to these two factors and your position on the grid. A lot of the time, you can course correct before things get bad, and if you keep a close eye on things with regular reflection you can get a lot more done for the animals, the environment, and for yourself.

If you don’t pay attention, you might let things go until it’s too late, and we’d hate to lose you! The other possibility is that you catch yourself in time, but it takes drastic measures to recover (remember how I took that year or so off from 2007-2008? Yeah, that wasn’t a lot of fun.)

“But Jason, I don’t do any activism for veganism!”

If you’re vegan, that’s not entirely true. Just being who you are is going to have an influence on other people, and burning out from simply being vegan happens all the time – it’s one of the reasons people go back to eating meat.

I’ll be honest, this isn’t the post I planned on writing about burnout today, but I need some feedback on this post before I go further, so please let me know your thoughts via a comment (preferred) or the contact form. I’ll probably post the followup in next week’s newsletter, because in my head it’s something that’ll work better on our YouTube channel, but I’ll post a link here later on so nonsubscribers can learn more.

Where are you on the matrix? How many of those squares have you been in before? How’d that feel? Give it some thought, and again, I really need some feedback on this, so thanks in advance!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

kevin m January 26, 2010 at 3:32 am

I've generally always equated activism with protest & outreach. I found that when I was younger (i.e. in college) I didn't mind blowing my weekend going to protests, etc, and being around like-minded people.

I've found that now that I am older (i.e. working stiff) I prefer to spend my non-working weekend(s) doing.. selfish things… Hobbies, etc.

Also, seeing so many hours go completely down the crapper, on what seem to be pointless/negative activities…. is draining. Seeing an entire community start to split and get annoyed with each other (e.g. see HLS campaign, or abolitionism vs welfarism, blah blah blah) really only helped to put it over the top.

jasondoucette January 26, 2010 at 11:27 am

Thanks Kevin, those are some perspectives that don't get mentioned enough! Maybe a post on “why be active at all” might be worth compiling… Nothing wrong with being “selfish” though – I've got something coming Wednesday that'll talk about that a little bit.

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