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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

This New Way of Thinking About Burnout Could Change the Way You Work

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It was one of those days when nothing was going right. I was overwhelmed, running a mile a minute between meetings, and counting down the minutes until I could go home. I was already debating what I’d watch on Netflix when my co-worker reminded me I agreed to go to an event with her. I reluctantly said I’d remembered and we headed off to a podcast recording hosted by The Great Discontent, an online publication.

And I’m so glad I did!

The show featured writer Jocelyn K. Glei, the author of one of the best books on email overload I’ve ever encountered, Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done (I even wrote about it on The Muse).

As she talked about her career path and navigating her hectic life, one thing that kept coming up was the topic of burnout (no surprise, as her upcoming podcast “Hurry Slowly” talks about just this).

Now, as someone who works in the career space, I’ve read and talked about burnout at great length—signs you’re about to, what to do if it becomes a big problem, how to bounce back from it. It’s not a new concept to me, and I’m not usually interested in someone giving me one more tip that promises to make my life easier, because it typically doesn’t.

That is until Glei, in her interview, asked the audience this:

Do you think you work hard right now?

Of course my hand shot up among the many others. Then, she followed up her question with:

Do you think you can work that hard for the next 10 or 20 years?

Like I said, I was just coming off an aggressive work sprint, so this question completely caught me off guard. No, I thought, I’m exhausted, I can’t keep this up for another week!*

It was in that moment that I had an epiphany (the same one that I hope you, dear reader, are having right now). I’m headed for burnout—and sooner rather than later. As you know if you’ve ever tried to run anything at full speed for too long, it eventually crashes, or falls apart, or runs out of gas.

So, the reality about avoiding burnout is that it entails more than just taking time off when you’re overworked—it’s about pacing yourself now so you can sustain yourself long-term.

Graphic by Tyler Tamulinas

What did that look like for me? After her talk, I made a pact with myself (we shook on it and everything). I decided I would go home when I was tired and no longer being productive—within reason, of course.

I would take more quick breaks throughout the day, and I would try to take those breaks outside. I would stop myself when I felt a project get too overwhelming and ask for help. I would only try to tackle the three to five most important things for that day rather than finish everything on my list. And, I would schedule at least three evenings of every week when I could go home and do nothing (even as an extrovert, I need time to unwind alone).

While it’s only been a couple weeks, I feel better already.

How about you? Maybe slowing down means actually taking your vacation days more than once a year. Maybe it means talking to your boss about your workload, or extending deadlines so you have more time to pace yourself and do a good job. Or, maybe it means forcing yourself to leave your computer to get coffee at least once a day.

Or, maybe it means rethinking your career path and whether or not it’s leading you to crash and burn down the road. Yes, you can handle it now, but what kind of life are you setting yourself up for in several years?

I’m not saying all this to scare you, but rather to help you feel less guilty about slowing yourself down so that you’re able to be this successful tomorrow, next year, and 30 years down the road.