You don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep others warm. Here are some preventative steps you can take to avoid burning out.
When I started my first full-time job after college, I dedicated my whole self to it. I fell deep into the common scenario: a junior worker, thrown into the deep end, who flounders, learns a lot, and uses their youthful energy to work all over the place until they can't anymore.
Honestly? At the time, I loved it… I felt like I was growing at a super fast rate, and I was saying yes to everything, from coding and mentoring to speaking and traveling. It felt good for my career and my personal brand, so I figured that meant all of the constant activity was good for my personal life, too. And then... I burnt out.
Saying yes to everything led to me going to an event almost every single night of the week, including weekends, in addition to my day job. It gave me exposure to community, the ability to mentor others, and the opportunity to speak to thousands of people, but it was at the cost of my own health, hobbies, and social life.
It's kind of hard looking back at that burnout period. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I couldn't get off my couch, I wanted to cry (and often did) at just the thought of having to go back to work the next day. I was lonely. I worked so much that I couldn’t pursue my hobbies anymore, and I had no time to myself. I felt obligated to everyone but myself, and thought that I was going to let people down if I said no to anything. I wouldn’t wish those feelings on anyone. To this day, I feel a weight on my chest when I think about that time in my life.
Sarah Drasner phrased burnout vocabulary well on Twitter:
The vocabulary we have around burn out is insufficient.— Sarah Drasner (@sarah_edo) April 15, 2022
It's often framed as too much work (which is definitely one factor), but I see it also stem from misalignment in terms of strategy or values, lack of recognition, and/or sense of belonging.
Burning out was a hard, valuable lesson for me. I knew I had to make some changes. I tried different roles, speaking less, setting boundaries, and pursuing my personal interests more. I thought much harder about my values and what was actually important to me, rather than what would look good on my résumé and what would make ‘the folks upstairs’ happy.
Here's some advice I'd like to offer you, to help you prevent burnout in the future:
1. Be willing to say no
It’s hard to not say no to things that appear to be good for your career and personal brand. But if you say yes to everything, you won't be able to do your best on anything.
2. Know what is important to you, what you want, and what you don't want
When you're assessing what to say yes and no to, try to think about your values. It is good to think about where in the ‘career ladder’ you want to be, sure, but it’s also important to think beyond that.
Make a list of what you don't want to do, and a list of what you do want to do. Do you have to sacrifice your ‘don't want’ list for your ‘do want’ list? How much? Is it worth it?
‘Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.’ – Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
3. Assess your energy levels regularly, and use that energy realistically
When you look at your to-do list for the day, figure out how much you can realistically get done that day, and actively move the rest to another day. It's easy to be optimistic rather than realistic when it comes to your tasks! But when you're honest with yourself based on your energy levels, you can set aside time to use the rest of your energy for the day on things that will give your brain a break.
When you give yourself dedicated time to relax and recharge, you'll be able to get your tasks done, and you’ll be driven by purpose, rather than looming feeling of being overwhelmed.
‘A day when one has not pushed oneself to the limit seems a damaged, damaging day, a sinful day. Not so! The most valuable thing one can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room.’ – May Sarton
4. Be kind to your future self
When you're saying yes to things, it’s easy to think, ‘ah, future me will have a lot to do, but they can handle it.’ I do this all the time. It's like you are separate from the person who will have to do the work you sign up for. To avoid this, try keeping a calendar and assessing how much you’ve given yourself to do in the future. If a particular day, week, or month is packed, maybe consider saying no, or choosing different timing. Add limits for the number of things you do in a given week or month, to the best of your ability.
All of these things are preventative steps you can start taking right now. You don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep others warm. Certain workplaces might struggle initially when you start setting boundaries they're not used to, but if you are firm, it will pay dividends for everyone. Many things can wait, or if necessary, be taken on by someone else. If you keep that in mind, you can do your work for yourself, your community, and your career more wholeheartedly, and enjoy your life in the process!
‘As for you, pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life.’ – Marie Kondo