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On Burnout

Let’s talk about burnout.

Burnout happens in shooting. A lot. In fact, this post is inspired by Karla Herdzik, formerly a sponsored 3 gun shooter for FN among others, hanging up her shooting jersey. I haven’t talked to her about it, and she didn’t explicitly say so, but that’s what I read in her post:

Over the years, I missed numerous family birthdays and friend outings, and spent countless nights in hotel rooms across the country all so I could “play” at a game that lost its fun factor somewhere along the way. What had begun as an adventure and an exciting new challenge somehow morphed into a demanding second job.

The Formula
Steve Anderson introduced me to the idea of burnout and the two simple components as he put it: burnout is the result of putting in a lot of effort and not seeing pay value for it.

The effort component is an aggregate of time, energy, and resources. It can manifest itself in small ways, and slowly creep up over time. $50 for this thing and 45 minutes in the car to pick it up. $100 for this thing and waiting until Tuesday for it to arrive. Even if you’re not spending much money volunteering at the local charity, spending two nights a week of your time can burn you out quick.

Pay value is another aggregate term for whatever it is that you want to get out of what you’re doing. A lot of times, when we first get in to a hobby, it can just be because it feels good or is fun. There’s also a sense of responsibility in the shooting sports, that you’re gaining proficiency with a tool that might one day save your life. Very rarely does pay value mean literal money.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to poorly define your pay value and accordingly not get enough of it to keep up with the amount of effort you’re putting in. When you first pick up a hobby, don’t over-think it, but as time goes on, make mental notes. Figure out which parts of it you enjoy and which parts you… just… kinda… don’t.

It’s also worth noting that some forms of pay value, like novelty, “fun,” and the serious responsibility of getting better with a gun can fade over time, often in an inverse relationship with the amount of effort you put in. There is a tipping point in the shooting sports where you’ve basically gotten as good as you can without putting in real effort, getting training, and practicing. Just showing up, shooting matches, and occasionally punching paper at the square range will only take you so far, even if you’re shooting 2 or 3 matches a month. At that point, the skill building that you came to the sport for will taper off (pay value diminishing) and you’re still spending three of your eight days off work a month at the shooting range. Burnout city.

This is a case where changing the type of effort you put in can give you much greater pay value. Dry firing one or two nights a week in your garage will make your matches ten times as rewarding as all of a sudden you see yourself back on the upslope of improvement.

So, there you have it, the formula: burnout = too much effort + not enough pay value.

Or to put it another way, it’s a ratio. If your effort is greater than your pay value, however you measure those things, you’re going to burn out. If the ratio is only a little out of whack, it might take a while. But sooner or later, either you’ll reduce your effort to reach some steady-state equilibrium, or you’ll burn out and quit.

On the other hand, if you understand what gives you pay value, and maximize that as you ramp up your effort (and selectively avoid high-effort, low-value tasks), you can experience huge growth in pay value, even as you double or triple the amount of effort you put in.

Two years ago, I shot 6 or 7 matches a month, two of them quick, weeknight matches. I sporadically dry fired. I never live fire practiced. Since then, I’ve gotten a place to live fire, and begun regular dry fire. First three nights a week, and now up to five sessions in a good week, at first for 20 minutes and now for an hour at a time. I also cut out matches that took a lot of time (or, even worse, required waking up early) for relatively little pay value. I was actually just starting to feel burned out in November 2014 when I took Steve Anderson’s 2-day class. If I had been given the chance, I would have said, “Put it off a few months and let me build up some energy to get excited about it.” But it happened when it happened and coming out of it I was invigorated. Being given the keys to get much more pay value for relatively little energy, I started practicing the next week and haven’t stopped since.

Further Observations

Since I’ve started observing this trend, I’ve also noticed two things about how burnout happens over time. The first is that burnout often can be latent until it is triggered by some catalyst. Sometimes it’s an unusual life event: an injury that stops you from participating for two weeks and breaks the cycle.

Second, schedules can cause sharper burnout because you hold things together until a specified end date, and then as soon as you cross the finish line, your motivation drops dead. Humans are good at enduring through hardship when there’s a defined end and every passing day gets you closer. If you tell yourself “it’s not forever,” you can get through a lot of stuff, whether it’s getting out of debt and paying off your house, or struggling through a difficult competitive season. Schedules can be hugely motivating, giving you a deadline to perform by, but they can also burn you out because you ignore the warning signs.

If I had to guess, this is probably what Karla found happening. Faced with the prospect of signing up for another marathon year of training, traveling, shooting, sweating, late nights, and early mornings, she just said “nah.” And I have lots of respect for that.

So, in summary, to avoid burnout:

    Make sure to figure out what your “pay value” from your hobby is and maximize it.
    Minimize effort, but only in places where you’re getting little or no pay value for it. Scaling back activity across the board rarely solves the core problem.
    Be careful with schedules. They can push you beyond your normal limits. This is both powerful and dangerous.

About Ben

Blog contributor. Active in IDPA and USPSA, and he won't flinch if you call him a rules lawyer. Ben is a beard wearing, bacon eating, whiskey drinking, motorcycle riding, coder.

One comment

  1. Don’t forget to factor “guilt” into the burnout equation.

    Ms. Herdzik specifically mentions missing family events, and I can tell you from grim personal experience that the guilt from missing a kid’s soccer match weighs on you.

    I’m not sure where guilt accrues in Anderson’s equation — I get the sense it’s an under-represented component — but let’s call it an opportunity cost with a sizable emotional component.

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