Sometimes, the first step towards starting is stopping. Here’s how to prioritize the work you’re passionate about and avoid burnout.
After being with an organization for a certain amount of time, your reputation begins to precede you. In my case, I became “the accessibility person”. I came into my role as an accessibility advocate. I overhauled ongoing efforts to move them from compliance to broader culture-building, and basically did not shut up about accessibility in any and every forum where I set foot.
New folks joining our team in any aspect of product (engineering, design, or otherwise) were encouraged to meet me during onboarding to learn more about our accessibility practices. “Talk to Plum about this” became somewhat synonymous with discussing potential accessibility concerns.
Two years into the role, though, my reputation didn’t just precede me: it engulfed me. I talked a big game for what was becoming, frankly, a waning accessibility practice on my part. I had delegated some internal training to individuals who were subsequently laid off, and I had never quite gotten around to recruiting replacements. Our working group meetings had either been canceled, deferred (then canceled), or were short and minimally productive for most of the second half of the year.
There were still onboarding meetings and the occasional sporadic PR comment. I wasn’t doing nothing. But I also wasn’t living up to the legend of the accessibility champion that I wanted to uphold. It felt like my passion for accessibility had fallen to the wayside, and I was beating myself up mentally for allowing myself to become so apathetic.
Identifying the problem: A lack of energy, not passion
In the end, it took a discussion with a colleague to help me understand the root cause of my situation. I’d worked with this person on several organization-wide initiatives outside of accessibility, so I asked them for general feedback on my working style. They said plenty of positive things about my organizational skills and ability to get folks to rally around initiatives, but, as a result, I was doing too much rallying in too many areas.
This wasn’t the first time I had heard this kind of feedback, though normally it was framed in terms of burnout: “You’re doing so much. We value your work and it’s of high quality, but it’s all going to catch up to you soon.” My colleague, however, put it in a different light that helped change my own perspective: “I wish you were putting more of that energy into accessibility to have more impact there, because I know it’s important to you.”
I had been hesitant to take things off my plate because I was afraid it would signal a lack of passion – and I was passionate about a lot of things in our organization. But my colleague’s words highlighted the key difference: you can have a lot of passion, but only so much energy to turn that passion into action. I had been operating as if energy and passion were interchangeable, and that the only way I could show I cared about best practices or standards or process was to be running towards it with full force (either solo, or with a team rallied behind me).
I had been kicking myself because I thought I was losing my passion for accessibility, but I really had lost energy. I could be passionate about a lot of things, but I would be a lot happier with myself and my work if I was investing my energy more heavily into fewer key initiatives.
Budgeting energy levels to tackle burnout
I knew I had to make some changes. I took a brief mental survey of the previous two weeks, and noted down all the places I had recklessly splurged energy, both in my personal and professional life.
The resulting list was intimidating, spanning everything from team management and hiring, to three different process initiatives and some “quick, really not a problem at all” proofs of concept. And that wasn’t factoring in my energy expenditure outside of work, which included drafting proposals for talks, navigating the early legal stages of my divorce, and preparing to move. I was deep in energy debt.
My original intention was for this list to be the foundation of a re-budgeting exercise, to shift and delegate to make room as soon as possible. But after seeing the final accounting, I realized that I didn’t just need a budget adjustment: I needed a wholesale refinance.
As anyone who has ever encountered the mortgage process can tell you, refinancing takes time. The most effective first step I could take in my accessibility initiative was to clear up my energy debts and start building up energy savings. Since a lot of the energy-intensive and time-sensitive items on my list were not accessibility-related (especially those around my life outside of work), this meant that the first step to revitalizing my accessibility initiatives was to do nothing related to accessibility.
Creating a list of priorities
There are plenty of different frameworks out there for personal prioritization, so I won’t point to a specific pyramid, because everyone might optimize for a different set of priorities out of their career. In my case, I used two simple, relatively unoriginal but reliable, criteria: what needs to be done now and what can only be done by me. This was enough of a filter to narrow my larger set of tasks into a list of five.
From there, I took my list to my manager and had her take more off my plate. There were cuts that I could have made myself, but I intentionally looped in my manager for three reasons:
- I know that I will always overestimate my capacity – and still deliver, but at the expense of my own well-being.
- There were items I was going to need to delegate as I stepped back, and I wanted both her visibility and support for the opportunities being created for others.
- Subconsciously, I needed the permission from someone else to step away. This type of permission is something that ideally should come from oneself, but if you’ve been in overdrive for months, or years, it can be difficult to find that mental allowance in your own brain (and it’s helpful to have an outside example to follow).
The resulting list was not my top passions, but it was the top things that I needed to clear out of the way in order to really have the energy for my top passions.
I would be absolutely lying if I said that it was easy to turn off the nagging voice in my brain that said I wasn’t doing the right thing. But giving myself permission to ignore that voice immediately reduced my stress and increased my focus and effectiveness.
How to budget your own energy levels
If you find yourself in a similar situation of choosing between passion and energy, I highly recommend taking an hour to STOP and do a similar accounting exercise for yourself. It takes way less time than the actual mortgage application process, guaranteed!
- Survey: Write down everything that is taking your energy – large or small, personal and professional. You don’t need to go too detailed into relative amounts of time.
- Triage: Determine which items need to be prioritized right now because of forces outside of your control. These are the items that are going to take your energy, whether or not you want them to. These are time-sensitive items that are likely tasks only you can do.
- Overhaul: Draw a line and start flipping the off switches on the items that are taking up too much of your energy right now. It’s going to be uncomfortable, which is why you should also…
- Pair: With your manager, narrow down your final list of immediate focus areas, and delegate to your team when necessary. (This P could also be for Permission, because you have your own, and your manager’s, and mine, to do this for yourself.)
It’s not easy to make an intentional decision to not put energy into something you are passionate about. In the medium to long term, you will see the payoff in having renewed energy to engage with the areas that matter to you in a way that is both more impactful to your organization, and helps you feel more personally and professionally satisfied.
Don’t try to forgive yourself for taking a step back, because you aren’t doing anything wrong. Instead, commend yourself for not just trying to push forward and break the candle that was burning at both ends to find more scraps of wick to ignite.
Accessibility isn’t on my immediate list right now, but once it reclaims its spot at the front of the queue, I will be able to give it the full investment of both energy and passion that it deserves.