Illustration: Dani Pendergast

The Burnout Effect

The Woman Who Finds Peace in Productivity

Far from being burned out, some of us are fired up by keeping busy

This story is a part of The Burnout Effect, ZORA’s look at the pressures to perform and produce in an already chaotic world.

Denequa Williams Clarke can often be found sitting on her living room floor with her legs pretzeled into lotus pose, a position usually reserved for stillness and meditation. But she’s in a different kind of zen. Instead of keeping still, Clarke is keeping busy.

This is the part of her daily routine when she surrounds herself with stacks of corrugated white boxes to pack and ship customer orders for Lit Brooklyn, her flourishing five-year-old candle company. It’s a routine entrepreneurial task for Clarke, 31, who manages everything on her own from the creation of her signature scents — Home, a tranquil fusion of vanilla and lemon, is her favorite — to adorning each jar with a branded Lit Brooklyn label.

Since the coronavirus pandemic seized her native Brooklyn in an unprecedented halt, these tasks give her a taste of normalcy. Staying productive has kept her grounded in the turmoil. “I don’t work every day, but I still find a way to do things. Being focused and having a to-do list makes the chaos disappear because you’re creating your own reality,” Clarke tells ZORA. “If you’re busy with a to-do list, you have no idle time to be like, ‘Damn, I’ve been in the house for 37 days.’ I might not even know what day it is, but it’s in a good way because things are still getting done. My world is still revolving.”

“Being focused and having a to-do list makes the chaos disappear because you’re creating your own reality.”

Everyone is experiencing the pandemic at the same time but processing it in different ways. Staying busy through the disruption to our daily routines may be an opportunity to hang on to a little bit of control, says Tammy Wilborn, a licensed professional counselor and the owner of Wilborn Clinical Services. Wilborn has seen clients use productivity as a way to feel stable in the midst of uncertainty about the coronavirus, the economy, and the stay-at-home orders that vary dramatically from state to state.

For Clarke, she’s far from being burned out during this time. Instead, she is fired up.

Sheltered in place with her husband, Khiry, and their dog, Kingston, Clarke is baking a lot of homemade banana bread. She’s also doing home improvement projects that she admittedly put off, like painting her dining space and repotting her plants. She is taking the outbreak in stride, calling the separation from external distractions a “special gift” and using it to spend time feeding her spirit and deepening her connection with friends and family through FaceTime chats and long, meaningful phone calls that may have been less of a priority if life were normal right now.

She’s also been leveling up her business. As brick-and-mortar stores try to strategically pivot to offset months of closure, Clarke is seeing an uptick in her sales as both new and repeat customers have more time to shop online. In the first week of the New York City quarantine, she saw a 173% jump in her sales with orders from around the globe. The surge of interest in Lit Brooklyn products has been keeping her plenty busy yet relatively unstressed.

“It’s weird because I haven’t always been this way, I’m not going to lie. But I think when you’re a business owner, no one really explains to you that there are going to be lonely moments, especially when you’re trying to grind and hustle,” Clarke says. “Being an entrepreneur kind of preps you for what the quarantine is doing right now, which is having time alone. So in a sense, having a business prepared me for isolation.”

In attempting to be too productive, you may end up being unproductive or even burned out.

But Wilborn warns us to pay attention to how we feel when being productive, not about the output of productivity itself.

“I was in a workshop the other day, and the guy leading it said something like, ‘This is a time where you need to be work, work, work, work.’ I think a lot of people are buying into that message that now that you have all of this free time, you need to pack in as much as you can. When life as usual was happening, that was problematic,” Wilborn says. “It’s not mentally or physically healthy, and it can create depression, anxiety, and stress. And because we’re getting to bed later, our schedules are kind of off, and we’re working longer than we typically would have when life was normal; exhaustion and fatigue can be byproducts of overproductivity too.”

There are a couple of ways to avoid that, she adds. Implement an adapted routine or a schedule for important activities like work projects or your kids’ homework, keeping in mind it may not be feasible to try to get in an eight-hour workday at home when home is now also a gym, school, restaurant, co-working space, movie theater, and pet daycare. Try breaking your day up into scheduled segments for self-care, family time, and exercise, for example. In attempting to be too productive, you may end up being unproductive or even burned out.

“I would say 90% of my clients are professional women from various industries and occupations,” Wilborn says. “And what I’ve seen is productivity looking like having a routine that fits within the scope of this current social and cultural situation that we’re experiencing.”

Wilborn warns us to pay attention to how we feel when being productive, not about the output of productivity itself.

The bottom line: There’s no right way to handle the pandemic, and there’s no protocol for surviving and thriving during a moment no one has experienced before. The go-getters among us, the women who thrive on accomplishment and can’t turn it off — international crisis or not — are processing the best way they know how, the way that works for them. But it doesn’t work for everybody, and that’s okay. There is indeed a great deal of social pressure to come out on the other side of Covid-19 with a new book, body, or business, and that pressure can induce some folks to burn the candle at both ends. Wilborn reminds us to prioritize balance over forced productivity.

“Remember mental health is physical health, and physical health is mental health, so part of being productive is taking care of the basics,” she says.

If you do want to be more productive but are having a hard time getting in gear, Clarke recommends focusing not on work but on what brings you joy and drawing energy from that. “What did you enjoy doing? Outside is closed, but you can get yourself back familiar with things that you used to love to do before this happened. I go get my nail file, I pick out nail polish — those are things that I used to love to do when I was a child. Just bring back small joy,” Clarke says. “Joy helps you be productive. Make a playlist, listen to music, rewatch an old movie. Get back to where you need to be.”

I'm a writer, editor and storyteller slaying race, class and culture-isms. I love Five Guys fries, The Walking Dead and you. My mind's my 9, my pen's my Mac-10.

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