How to Avoid Burnout: A Buddhist/Socialist/Labor Perspective

How to Avoid Burnout: A Buddhist/Socialist/Labor Perspective

By Travis Donoho 

As we enter  the new year and the massive amounts of work ahead of us to “build a new world from the ashes of the old,” let’s consider how to avoid burnout. I come to these ideas the hard way, after 20 years as  a full-time labor organizer  who endured the  labor movement’s traditional cult of overwork (50  to 70 hours a week, most of it required, but much of it self-inflicted). 

  1. First, try approaching your work as an organizer or as a leader from the standpoint of the New American Movement’s tradition of prefigurative socialism— integrating some of the most important seeds of the world to come in the present one.  Ask yourself if there’s really any place in your dreams for a workaholic world and consider that there is a profound contradiction between theoretically exalting the collective as a socialist and expecting your efforts as an individual to be decisive in practice. Think about it.  I have.  A lot.
  2. And, to quote DSA labor organizer Paul Garver, be a relay runner—not just a long-distance runner.   Don’t forget the lessons of Organizing 101: the importance of breaking larger tasks down into little pieces and spreading the work out (among more people) and down (to people who perform smaller pieces of the larger task than you do). The amount of work done by activists on your team versus how much you do yourself is central to your effectiveness as an organizer.
  3. Don’t multitask. Multi-tasking is scientifically impossible, doesn’t work, and is counterproductive, in addition to wearing you out.
  4. Decrease your dependence on social media—instead of obsessively checking your phone or your computer, take a moment now and then to breathe mindfully. Perfect the art of being a one-minute Buddha.
  5. Set boundaries and don’t be emotionally extorted or guilt-tripped into giving more than anyone can reasonably expect (for example, public school teachers are routinely told that they “don’t have the best interests of the children at heart” unless they stay throughout yet another two-hour staff meeting after the final bell).  And just because you dedicated your life to the revolution doesn’t mean that your partner or your children did. Moreover, obsessive attachment to work turns you into a hack—no one except other work addicts wants to relate to someone who can’t think or talk about anything but work.  And potential members certainly don’t.
  6. Try a gardening metaphor. Lately, I’ve been intrigued by the Ayni Institute’s  idea of seasonality, that organizers might think of periods that demand intense activity as Spring and Summer, with  Fall as a time of reaping the rewards of our work and Winter as a period of relative hibernation when we try  to rejuvenate ourselves. Winter would be when the thinking that we haven’t had time to pursue in the more active seasons has a chance to bear fruit.  I’m going through the tail end of a Winter right now and have moved from juggling a dozen different responsibilities to paying attention to only three. As a result, new ideas have bubbled up to help me get unstuck. Of course, observing seasonality tends to be easier if you are an unpaid activist or retired as I am, instead of paid staff, but even when I was organizing director for the Austin teachers union, the ebb and flow of the school year and seasonally diminished commitments could have offered me some opportunities.
  7. Finally, make space for the personal--the personal is NOT always political.  A 25-year-old organizer I once worked alongside told me something that shook me to the core. She said, “I don’t want to look back when I’m 40 and find that I have nothing.”  Don’t leave a burnt-out husk behind.  But don’t recharge your batteries solely by making and executing a list of fun things to do. Instead, experience quiet reverie, stare into space, re-learn how to do nothing.  And don’t rest just because it will refresh you and make you more effective at work.  Rest for its own sake; rest because you’re human and you need it. 

And now, a note to our younger readers. Labor old-timers like me have waited for decades to live through and beyond the seemingly unending downturn in the labor movement, in hope for the upturn and the surge that young people are now delivering.  To paraphrase Alice Walker, “You are the people we’ve been waiting for.” 

Take care of yourself, take care of each other, don’t burn yourself out. Trust me, you are more precious than you’ll ever know.  We can’t afford to lose a single one of you, not now and not ever. And, for those of my generation and the generation before, remember the words of the great Indian philosopher and  social activist Rabindranath Tagore: “The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.”


Useful quote and links:

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence.  It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”--Audre Lorde 

Kelly Hayes, “From Burnout to Breakthroughs, Weary Organizers Can Come Back Stronger

Michael Bader, “When Progressive Leaders Burn Out, We All Lose

Kim Fellner, “Hearts on Fire: How Do We Keep Them from Burning Out?

Cheyenna Weber, “Occupy NYC Organizer Share Her Tips on Avoiding Activist Burnout

Chris McKenna, “Getting Real About Exhaustion

Gargi Bhattacharyya, “We the Heartbroken


Travis Donoho is a charter member of DSA, a founding member of Austin DSA, Knoxville-area DSA, and the DSA Buddhist Circle. He is a retired organizer with Communications Workers of America, American Federation of Teachers, and National Education Association in Texas and Oklahoma. This article is adapted from a talk  included in the December 5, 2022 DSA Zoom meeting, "Solidarity, Rest & Community: A Winter Celebration of the Labor Movement, the Solidarity Is Brewing Campaign, & Our Community."

Image credit: Ryoma Omita/Unsplash License