THERE is no glory in a grind that wears you all the way down. Here’s how to stop yourself from heading towards burnout and what to do if you’re already there.
Early in my career, I was asked in an interview what my work mantra was. I answered by paraphrasing Paul Hogan, the star of Crocodile Dundee, “Bite off more than you can chew, and chew as fast as you can.” I stuck by that motto for years, whispering it to myself during all-nighters, repeating it on stages, doling it out as advice to protégés. I practised what I preached, too, except when it came to actual food. I’d frequently lug my lunch around the office, but forget to actually eat it.
The truth is I had been running myself ragged my whole life. I had unknowingly built an identity around being a high achiever, a straight-A student and – particularly as a young black woman and a leader in mostly white spaces – working twice as hard for respect. As a result, I found myself in a pattern of perfectionism – always striving, even for what would prove to be futile missions. As the writer Eve Ewing once told me: “There is no glory in a grind that grinds you down.”
Here’s how you can figure out if you’re headed for burnout and what to do if you’re already there:
Recognise the signs
I learnt the hard way that there’s a thin line between being a hard worker and a workaholic, someone who buries herself in work and inadvertently avoids participating in her own life. Ambition is by no means a flaw, but we all need to develop healthier habits to be truly successful.
There are two places to start:
- Stop glorifying stress
- Listen to your body
In “girl boss” culture, we often wear harried lifestyles as a badge of honour, as if stress, anxiety and sleeplessness are prerequisites for success. But we do ourselves no favours by making unhealthy work habits normal. Who are we performing all this stress for, anyway? You can be successful without sacrificing your sanity. Beware of the lies we tell ourselves about busyness. If your calendar stays packed with meetings and social obligations, consider scheduling quarterly check-ins with yourself. Are you okay? Are you prioritising what matters most to you? Are you neglecting aspects of your life that bring you joy? If so, why?
At various points in my career I was so tightly wound that my body would visibly tremble in my office chair. Colleagues began to notice, reminding me to go to the bathroom. My mother would occasionally call my office to badger me to go home, to eat, to slow down. “If you don’t take care of your body, it won’t take care of you,” she’d say. I’d dismiss her concerns. It wasn’t until my frequent, sudden urge to urinate and an extreme loss of appetite landed me in a doctor’s office that I realised these were not just funny quirks – they were red flags, indicating that I was not managing my stress properly. So if you notice abnormal symptoms – like thinning hair, insomnia or just generally feeling out of whack – take my mother’s advice. Listen to your body. Sometimes it knows you better than you do.
Build healthier habits
As women, we are taught to please, but some of the same qualities that help us climb the ladder will not sustain us at the top. Once we are the ones in charge, a fundamental rewiring is needed.
- Prioritise self-care. I had become so engulfed in work – and in constantly proving myself – that taking care of myself never even made it on to the to-do list. When my stress began to affect my health, I knew something had to give – and it started with shifting my mindset, then developing a self-care practice. For me, that began with a guided meditation class once a week. I treated these weekly appointments with myself like any other important standing meeting on my calendar. Find something that gets you out of your head and into your body, then dedicate yourself to doing more of it. When we keep joy on the agenda, everything else in our lives benefits.
- Learn to delegate. Establishing firm boundaries and making unpopular decisions are important leadership skills, but the stigma associated with women saying no can come at a cost. It is one reason that women too often end up doing more than their share of the work – in both our professional and personal lives. It is not only okay to set boundaries, but it is necessary. Your time is your most valuable asset. Don’t spend it doing someone else’s job. I wish I could go back now and revise that Crocodile Dundee career motto. Better advice I’d give would be: “Bite off only what you can chew. Breathe. Chew thoroughly. Put your phone down. Make room for the next bite. Laugh. It’s better for your digestion and cheaper than therapy. I promise.” Not as pithy, I know. But this is the mindset of a marathoner who knows how to pace herself. You can sprint towards short-term wins, but you need stamina for long-term success. There is hustle and there is flow, and you cannot sustain one without the other. Here’s how to achieve that balance:
Zero in on your ‘zone of genius
The goal of a great leader should be to spend more time operating from what I call your “zone of genius”, which means focusing energy on what only you can do and delegating the rest. How do you find your zone of genius? Consider culling clues from how you played as a child. As a child, I laboured over meticulously thought-out photo albums, which in retrospect were my first makeshift magazines. During bath time, I would conduct imaginary interviews with luminaries as if I were an aspiring baby Oprah. It sounds silly, but the archives of our childhood playtime memories can serve as bread crumbs that lead us on to the path where our passion lies.
Plot your next move
Speaking of childhood, most of us are asked as children what we want to “be” when we grow up – as if one title, one career track, one dream can define you for a lifetime. The truth is job titles are temporary, but purpose is eternal. If you find yourself in a rut, start investing energy in considering what you want rather than spending time on what you don’t like about your life. Sometimes that means preparing to walk away from whatever no longer serves you.
‘When the music changes, so must your dance’
I picked up this mantra in one of my guided meditations and it offers a regular reminder to trust my instincts, to let life guide me and to never allow fear to keep me stuck. The words helped me survive heartbreak in my 20s and they got me through my biggest professional break-up, too, allowing me the freedom to chase my next career goal. Use them to give yourself – and each other – permission to dream your way out of dead ends.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.