Okay workaholics – I know you because I am you. On any given day, I put intense amounts of pressure on myself to output insane amounts of work product. When I first moved to LA, I was so bound and determined to make a good impression that I took on anything and everything thrown at me. I thought that being a good employee – and a good manager to some – meant being involved in everything, all the time. I was desperate to prove myself, so I accepted that work – and LOTS of it – was the only way to do so.
And then I burned out. Hard.
I didn’t even recognize myself. I was constantly stressed, constantly on edge, and constantly bitter. I consider myself to be a naturally happy person, so this was completely out of the ordinary for me. The stress was taking a toll on my body as well – I wasn’t eating right, wasn’t sleeping right, and was exhibiting all sorts of weird health issues (reflux, etc).
I knew something had to change. I learned the hard way that I needed to set boundaries.
Okay Natalie – but WHAT boundaries, and HOW?
I’m so glad you asked. Hard work is necessary – but boundaries are the parameters in which you fully commit yourself to your work. Outside of those boundaries, you need to disconnect.
Example: I start my work day at 9AM. I RARELY answer ANY texts or emails before 9AM. That is the start of a typical workday, and I have assumed that as my start as well. On the flip side, I don’t answer any emails after 7PM. Beyond 7PM, I spend time with Mike, cook, and watch much-deserved re-runs of friends.
Before I set these boundaries, I used to keep my phone on ring all night, right next to my bed. I would regularly wake up at 7AM and make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I did this because I wasn’t confident in the work product I was offering. I undervalued myself and my time, and it made me vulnerable. It’s important to be confident in your value-add. You are more than capable of handling anything that arises – during normal work hours. [Note: of course there are always exceptions to the rule – if the house is burning down, definitely help put out the fire. But learn to recognize a brush fire from a lit, contained candle].
I also make it a habit not to answer non-urgent emails on the weekend. We have all been there – you have a quiet moment, so you think to yourself, “well, I’ll just check. I have five minutes – might as well…” And before you know it – BAM! You’re in full blown work mode. And you did it to yourself.
Burnout is real. Psychology Today lists the following as signs and symptoms of burnout:
- Chronic fatigue. In the early stages, you may feel a lack energy and feel tired most days. In the latter stages, you feel physically and emotionally exhausted, drained, and depleted, and you may feel a sense of dread for what lies ahead on any given day.
- Insomnia. In the early stages, you may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep one or two nights a week. In the latter stages, insomnia may turn into a persistent, nightly ordeal; as exhausted as you are, you can’t sleep.
- Forgetfulness/impaired concentration and attention. Lack of focus and mild forgetfulness are early signs. Later, the problems may get to the point where you can’t get your work done and everything begins to pile up.
- Physical symptoms. Physical symptoms may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, and/or headaches (all of which should be medically assessed).
- Increased illness. Because your body is depleted, your immune system becomes weakened, making you more vulnerable to infections, colds, flu, and other immune-related medical problems.
- Loss of appetite. In the early stages, you may not feel hungry and may skip a few meals. In the latter stages, you may lose your appetite all together and begin to lose a significant amount of weight.
- Anxiety. Early on, you may experience mild symptoms of tension, worry, and edginess. As you move closer to burnout, the anxiety may become so serious that it interferes in your ability to work productively and may cause problems in your personal life.
- Depression. In the early stages, you may feel mildly sad, occasionally hopeless, and you may experience feelings of guilt and worthlessness as a result. At its worst, you may feel trapped, severely depressed, and think the world would be better off without you. (If your depression is to this point, you should seek professional help immediately.)
- Anger. At first, this may present as interpersonal tension and irritability. In the latter stages, this may turn into angry outbursts and serious arguments at home and in the workplace. (If anger gets to the point where it turns to thoughts or acts of violence toward family or coworkers, seek immediate professional assistance.)
Boundaries are a necessary tool to avoiding burnout. Here are three easy ways to set boundaries for yourself:
Define your start and stop times for work each day.
Do your best to stick as close to those times as possible. If you’re committing to start at 9AM, show up on time and focus. Do your best work, and leave by your designated time. Yes – there will still likely be work to do, but tomorrow is a new day. Isn’t it better that you rest and rejuvenate so you’re completely lucid for the next day?
Learn to say no.
This has been so hard for me. As someone who loves to learn and who loves new challenges (and can be a BIT of a people pleaser) my vocabulary was full of “yes’s.” But “yes’s” are what lead me to four different doctors in search of a fix for my horrible acid reflux. No is not an insult. No does not mean you aren’t a hard worker – it means you understand your capabilities and your limits and you respect your time and the time of others. It does no one any good for you to take on that eighth client if it puts you behind on the first seven. No is a healthy time management tool.
Learn to delegate.
This was my biggest mistake. I thought that in order to prove myself, I needed to be hands-on with every project. I was wrong. If you are in a managerial position, learn to identify the strengths of your team and assign tasks based on strength. Micromanaging leads to resentment and burnout. Good managers hire even better teams. Allow them to shine – and if they make a mistake, allow them to learn from it. Prioritize the tasks that absolutely need your involvement, and hand-off the rest. Small business owners – this might mean outsourcing. Everyone needs help sometimes.
Weekends are necessary. It’s a time for you to shut off, shut down, and be an active participant in the world. After all – how are we to serve the needs of society if we have no understanding of it in the first place? Go out – try a new restaurant. Take a staycation. Stimulate a different part of your brain. Learn something new and have fun – and on Monday, apply your newfound knowledge and your refreshed brain and get back to creating work you’re proud of.