In the months following her doctoral defense, Dr. Adrienne Fitzer shared post-doctoral reflections and experiences including rejecting mainstream self-care, trashing her to-do list, and becoming joyfully productive. In the last in this series of blogs, she shares a recent personal experience which helped her realize it is time to turn the page and move on from her post-reinforcement pause.
I went for my annual general wellness check recently. From a physical perspective I have nothing spectacular to report and nothing very bad. Like many, I put on a bit too many Covid pounds but the doctor is confident that I will be able to get myself back where I need to be once I am done nursing an injury from the end of May.
When I left the office I was upset about the weight gain but later I gave myself a hug. I reminded myself that it was a side-effect of allocating my time to everything else I focused on in the past 15 months, not a character flaw.
After that kind moment with myself, I found myself dwelling on what occurred after the Doc asked me how “I was doing.”
“Well I guess I am okay??” I said.
“If you did not experience any anxiety or depression after what we all went through in the past year-and-half -there would be something wrong!” He said.
In response I said,
“Well I am generally happy, we had a Bar Mitzvah, I celebrated a big birthday and a big anniversary, defended my dissertation and sorted out some other major things all from October to January. I love my job and enjoy building it and it is fun for me to direct my energy in that way….
….but I have to tell you Doc, ever since January I have had a hard time getting motivated to exercise or do anything the least bit hard that doesn’t have to do with my business. When I have down time, all I want to do is watch tv with the kids and play my puzzle game. I have no umph to make creative meals or work out like I used to.”
“Seems like you burned yourself out” Replied the doctor.
I think he is right.
If you have been reading my blogs this year you know I feel GREAT about all I am accomplishing and have been fully okay with giving myself that TV and puzzle game time…
But…it turns out my injury and the weight gain are directly related to spending too much time sitting around and are both pretty loud signs that it is time to take a deep breath and think beyond the present moment. I think it is time to end the “pause” that I needed after running on fumes to accomplish everything I needed to from October to January…you know, after burning myself out.
Well- it turns out that there is a known phenomenon called the post-reinforcement pause. After finally achieving a goal or completing a project, or even doing something like cleaning the bathroom, there is a pause before you pick up and start again. Put very simply, the harder or more effortful it is to finish what it is you aimed to do, the longer the pause after your achievement. Since it took me over 20 years to finish my doctorate AND in the last few months of that endeavor, we celebrated a Bar Mitzvah, etc. all during a global shut down and ongoing pandemic…I guess it is no wonder that I needed five months to recover.
Have you ever had an experience, good or bad, that after it was over you just “paused?” What did pausing look like for you? Do you think the longer the pause, the more likely it was that “you burned yourself out?”
I am thankful for that conversation with my doctor. He validated that it was (as I knew) okay to experience a pause, but also gave me the opportunity to articulate what I had only just started to realize, my pause was no longer functioning as welcome rest. I was getting concerned about my lack of “umph” and had been thinking maybe there was something wrong with me. It was only after our discussion that I stopped to think about this behaviorally. There is nothing wrong with me. The pause, the lack of umph, all of it, was predictable based on how much effort was required to accomplish everything I did from October to January. I also realized my decreased time playing the puzzle game and increased time outside doing other things is evidence that my pause is ending.
Have you burned yourself out?
Don’t beat yourself up if you find that you don’t have any “umph left” after accomplishing something that was hard to do (even if it was just getting through the week).
You aren’t lazy, it is a post-reinforcement pause.
You will find your wick again and rekindle.
First off, congratulations. Second, I guess it goes without saying that behavior analysts will always come up with language that describes pop psychology in terms of contingencies and environment. I’m glad they are blending well for you.
Whatever you call it- it can be very helpful for those “stuck in a rut” or “burned out” to remember that the problem isn’t a character flaw such as being lazy, uninspired, or similar which puts the onus on the person to improve themselves- it is a reminder that behavior is behavior- and context and reinforcement history matter.