On being burned out

I guess I'll work or something now...

“Going to the field!” – normally, that phrase makes me giddy with excitement.  The chaos of pre-field preparations is made manageable by my eager anticipation of the Next Adventure.  I’ll put on my Adventure Hat (straw fedora) while packing, and play songs about rambling and roving (and make up appropriate lyrics: “The life I love is finding dolphins with my friends – I can’t wait to get on the road again”).  I dream about the moment when I’ll first emerge into that humid tropical air that seems to portend exciting explorations ahead.  Ah, that moment! – it always makes me grin.

the resemblance is uncanny.

I thrive in the field.  I love the research, I love living in beautiful rural parts of tropical countries, I love adapting to new places.

It turns out that this excitement, for me, starts to fade after 8+ months of running a field project that moves from site to site.

I’d underestimated how challenging this 9-month stint in the Philippines would be.  I’d spent 13 months working in Thailand just after college, and have had several 2-3 month research trips, and I assumed that 9 months would be something I could manage handily.  I followed advice to pace myself, to take time to explore the country, to enjoy it all.  I’ve found, however, that it’s an awkward period of time that makes one constantly feel torn between immersion and retaining strong mental ties to home.  Plus, I’ve been somewhat rootless since the summer of 2010, hopping between field sites, my parents’ home, and a series of sublets and guestrooms and couches.

I just wanna go home and sleep.

Being more of a “grown-up” has changed things:  Besides the stress of managing my own project and lugging my “mobile field station” around the country, I’ve realized that my other commitments back home – personal and academic – have meant that I haven’t been able to fully embrace my time here.  These commitments feel much stronger than they did when I was a freshly graduated, 22-year old field assistant.  Feeling stretched between two very different worlds, and being unable to fully commit to either, makes it significantly harder to adapt.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve been burned out for the past couple of months; I’ve felt exhausted, unmotivated, unconnected with the present, and rootless, and my physical health hasn’t been great (even my typing is suffering – I’m making puzzling typos and grammatical errors that I’ve never made before).  But, following wonderful advice that I read in Bernard’s fantastic book on anthropological fieldwork, I keep daily notes on my mental and emotional state.  This is to make me aware of how my state of mind might shape my perceptions.  And this has allowed me to acknowledge that my fatigue is predisposing me to apathy and sloppiness, and so I can muster up all of my remaining motivation to combat those tendencies.

So, here’s my mental list of “Keep it together, Tara!” tips; I’m assuming I’m not the only researcher who deals with field fatigue, so I’m sharing what I’ve found to be helpful:

  • Smile, dagnabit. Smile. It helps combat the irrational impatience that can arise when you’re tired and frustrated with things not going right. Remember to engage with your research team and your interviewees.  This makes everything more fun.
  • Sit back and think about the “bigger picture” of your research for at least 5 minutes right before going out on the boat and before going out to do interviews.  Remember why you need these data.  Please don’t go, “Bah, I don’t feel like doing that now…”
  • Don’t yield to the lazy shoulder demon – if you feel that annoying stickler shoulder angel tugging at your conscience, listen to it.
  • Now, more than ever, force yourself to be super-organized.  A tired, apathetic brain doesn’t retain details well.  It needs a support system.
  • Think about future Tara, who is relying on the data that you are collecting now.  Don’t give her sloppy, incomplete field notes, please.  Don’t give her data files that are haphazardly named and located in whatever folder was the easiest to click to at the time.
  • When you feel frustrated, identify why.  If a field assistant is making a mistake, or doesn’t understand something, it’s probably because you didn’t explain things well to them.  Gritting teeth is not a solution.  Smiling (see above) and clearly explaining yourself is a solution.
  • That pile of unentered data sheets seems like a real bore, huh?  Too bad.  Just put on some music and attack it. One at a time.
  • Does handwashing your clothes seem like a great injustice (especially jeans, oh my, the jeans)?  Cold bucket showers seem like the height of suffering?  Power outages unreasonable?  Remember – (1) you’ve handled this all before and been fine, and (2) this is a way of life for millions (billions?) of people.
  • Eat well. Take yer vitamins (I’m a vegetarian, so vitamin B is particularly important).
  • Be kind to yourself (this comes from many friends and my advisor having to repeatedly tell me this).  Maybe you haven’t mastered Tagalog, or even come close to basic competency in Ilonggo.  Maybe you haven’t been able to exercise each day.  Maybe you’re not happy with some of the snap decisions you had to make in the field.  And maybe you’re realizing that you won’t be able to do what you proposed as brilliantly or completely as you’d proposed.  You are probably not the only field researcher to “fail” in these ways (I certainly hope not).  Wearing yourself down with self-doubt and regret only makes things worse.
  • Find something exciting to look forward to as a milestone – e.g., that fantastic diving/white sand beach vacation you have planned for your last week in the country.

Follow these tips so you don't go the way of Ray Finkle.

I’m hanging on during these last few days of fieldwork, before 5 weeks of data analysis, library research, and some government agency interviews in more urban settings (with a smattering of working mini-vacations for a change of scene).

It’s hard to come to grips with the fact that I’m not fully appreciating my time here right now.  But, deep down, I know that it’s been a fantastic experience, and I hope that some time refocusing over the next month or so will help me more fully realize that.  I really owe a warm thank you to the people who have helped me along the way.  Without them, who knows what kind of sloppy mess I’d be right now…

there but for the grace of all of my friends...

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