How To Avoid Online Burnout: My Interview With Grist’s Dave Roberts


The most alarming hiatus in the climate change arena is finally over. No, not the faux pause in warming — we all know that was bogus: Climate change has continued unabated in recent years, and many trends have accelerated alarmingly.

I’m speaking of the self-imposed one-year hiatus from work — and from most things digital — of the inimitable climate blogger, Grist’s Dave Roberts, after becoming burnt out online. The man who gave us the term “climate hawks” now has a new online work strategy he believes is more sustainable (detailed below).

Personally, given the slower-than glacial pace of climate action, I believe there is nothing more important for any climate hawk than to figure out their own personal sustainability strategy.

I interviewed Roberts for this post, and his advice is worth heeding for anyone who is concerned they are spending too much time online “multi-tasking,” which is probably everyone who is reading this — and certainly everyone who aspires to be an online climate activist or a blogger on any subject.


Roberts explained to me he is in great demand now as an interview subject to discuss his one year offline: “I am getting famous for doing nothing.” But of course he didn’t do nothing. He did something most of us just dream about doing: He took a full year off and disconnected from the open fire hydrant of information known as the internet.

The tale begins last August when Roberts posted on Grist the shocking news that he was taking an entire year off of work (after nearly 10 years of blogging). Really off:

I won’t be writing for Grist (or anyone else); I won’t be reading or responding to email; I won’t be on Twitter….

It has been a dream job. I’ve loved it. I still love it.

But I am burnt the fuck out.

I spend each day responding to an incoming torrent of tweets and emails. I file, I bookmark, I link, I forward, I snark and snark and snark. All day long. Then, at night, after my family’s gone to bed and the torrent has finally slowed to a trickle and I can think for more than 30 seconds at a stretch, I try to write longer, more considered pieces.

Does any of this ring true for you? Well then you are probably a good candidate for burnout and need a break and a change. I asked Roberts the one thing that he would recommend to people suffering from Internet overload who could not take a year off. He told me:

The best thing you can do is schedule regular time off. Take time off daily, weekly, monthly. Take the vacations you are offered.

In case you or your boss think that taking breaks harms productivity, know that the scientific research says the exact opposite. Trying to work without breaks leads to lower productivity while taking the right kind of breaks measurably boosts it.


If you are wondering how much sleep he got with his former work routine, Roberts told me he was blogging until 2 or 3 in the morning and getting up at 7 or 8 — he has a family! — so that means 4 or 5 hours a night. Despite the remarkable number of websites asserting that you can thrive on such small amounts of sleep, 99 percent of people can’t or shouldn’t for their own good and everyone else’s — I’m looking at you medical training!

If you want the long version of his story and what he’s learned, he wrote a 4,500 word-piece for Outside magazine about his year living almost exclusively in the non-virtual world.

To me, the most mind-blowing thing that Roberts wrote was that he actually made it into “that exclusive Twitter club [of] users who have hit the daily tweet limit, the social-media equivalent of getting cut off by the bartender. The few, the proud, the badly in need of help.”

How do you do that? Roberts told me the fact-checkers verified that when he hit the daily limit, it was 1,000!!! How do you tweet 1000 times in one day? Combine an addiction with something like the State of the Union Address or a Obama-Romney debate.

And as Roberts explains — after studying the matter some — many online interactions, particularly twitter, are explicitly designed to be addictive: “Famed behaviorist B. F. Skinner discovered long ago that if you really want to ingrain a habit, you encourage it with rewards that arrive at variable times, in variable sizes.” In case it wasn’t obvious before, it certainly is now: We are all lab rats for Twitter, Google, OKCupid, Facebook, and so on.

And being a lab rat is a stressful and unhealthy job! So what is Roberts doing to get out of the rat race, as it were, while still getting paid to comment on it?

1) “I am going to get a scheduler, a timer, and really start scheduling my time…. There will be periods of time I am on Twitter, and there will be periods of time I’ll shut all that shit off and focus deeply on a single piece of writing. And there will be periods of time I leave the screen entirely and take a break, go walk around….”

Certainly if you want to fight the power of “variable intermittent reinforcement,” one way is to try to schedule the reinforcements yourself (see also below).


As an aside, my main unsolicited advice to Roberts 13 months ago was “When you come back, don’t tweet so damn much! Tweeting is fleeting!” I’m biased, of course, since I never tweeted much to begin with (other than writing CP headlines).

2. “First thing I did when I logged onto Grist’s email account was started unsubscribing from lists. I found this service “Unroll me”…. It’s like magic. I enrolled in it and it found 252 subscriptions. I unsubscribed to like all but three or four of them. The volume of my email is now like one-twentieth of what it was last year.”

This is one suggestion I will certainly try.

3. “I’ve turned off all push notifications on my phone and on my computer. So I don’t get a ping or a little box doesn’t open up when I get an email or a tweet or FB or whatever…. Nothing interrupts me now.”

This accomplishes two things. First, it helps reduce the addictive quality those variable intermittent reinforcements possessed.

Second, as Roberts notes, there really is no such thing true “multitasking.” It is actually “rapid task switching,” which inevitably comes with a productivity and cognitive penalty. As the American Psychiatric Association puts it, “the research shows” that “Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity.” How much? “Multitasking can reduce productivity by approximately 40-percent according to some researchers.”

Moreover, “In the mid-1990s, Robert Rogers, PhD, and Stephen Monsell, D.Phil, found that even when people had to switch completely predictably between two tasks every two or four trials, they were still slower on task-switch than on task-repeat trials.”

Sorry about that, all you would-be champion multitaskers out there (including me). Yet another good reason not to text while driving. But I digress.

4) “Coming back to Grist, I worked out an arrangement where I’m mostly working from home. And I am mostly working on a schedule that makes sense for my life rather than a 9 to 5 schedule.”

I have been very fortunate that the Center for American Progress Action Fund has allowed me to work mostly from home and mostly on my schedule for the entire eight years I have been blogging here. I can attest that it makes the enterprise more sustainable.

I think that the steps above are ones for all of us to embrace. And speaking for his many, many online fans, I hope he can stick with them.

Roberts has some more advice specific on climate change, but I will save that for a later post.