I’ve worked in a fast-paced and ever-changing environment for many years now. Decades, in fact. I am also your typical perfectionistic high-achieving female who thinks that no task is impossible and no workload is too heavy to manage. I am a people-pleaser who wants to over-deliver. The classical recipe for burnout, in other words.
I always get too engaged in everything. I want to solve every problem. Straighten out every injustice. Get the last word on every topic. And speak the most and the loudest at every meeting. I know it’s annoying, but I can’t help myself. I simply can’t do my job half-heartedly. It’s all or nothing for me.
I like my job, but let’s face it – it’s just a job. Nobody will die if I don’t show up to work one day. Nobody will fire me or even get upset if I give it 85% of my time and effort instead of 150%. Nothing will fall apart the day I leave or retire. I want to do a good job, but I also want to have a balanced life. And for more years than I care to count, work sucked up way too much time and energy from this tiny fraction of eternity that the universe has been generous enough to offer me. I felt that my life had turned into a cycle of workdays with a few moments to rest in between and regain energy to work some more.
I didn’t make plans for weeknights or weekends, as I didn’t have the mental space to do so and because I knew that by the time I reached Friday, I would so much rather be lounging on my couch than putting on a sequin dress and going out to dance on tables. In theory, I wanted to socialize, but I only had the energy to meet family or close friends with whom I didn’t have to make an effort to keep up an interesting conversation or suggest new activities.
This is not exactly unusual. I think that most people over twenty-five with a demanding job are exhausted on Friday nights and feel that weekdays are just an eternal loop of Groundhog Day. But I can’t accept this. I don’t mind working hard, but I refuse to do so at the expense of living well and feeling that I am in control of my own time.
I don’t owe my employer my thoughts when I am at home. My work place hasn’t asked for energy that I need for myself. Nobody will thank me for checking work emails on the weekends. This sounds obvious, but I’ve often struggled to switch off.
During the last few years, I have found myself balancing on the edge of burnout many times. I got dizzy, didn’t sleep well, lost my short-term memory and was incapable of making the simplest decisions. I snapped at colleagues and had no patience when facing even the smallest hiccup. Work made me angry all the time. I tried to push tasks away as a defense mechanism, but as I stopped taking on new responsibilities, I also found my job less interesting. I knew that something was terribly wrong and had to change. I needed some time and space to figure out what to do.
I started by taking a five-week holiday in Italy. The entire summer was like a mindfulness practice. Days were slow, nights were long and every minute was pure pleasure. I slept, I walked, I hiked, I sat on the beach, I ate amazing food, I watched the tourists, read my books and explored. I felt more relaxed than I had done in years. I was healthy and happy.
I swore to myself that I would never get back to the stress levels that I had been operating at before. I wouldn’t get worked up about minor issues and set-backs in the office. I would keep a healthy perspective on work tasks and always prioritize my personal life over my job.
After summer, I tried to ease into the work ahead of me as slowly and carefully as I could. But things piled up quickly. I couldn’t even assess anymore if my work load was actually as bad as I thought, or if I was simply incapable of handling it anymore. I couldn’t prioritize and I didn’t seem to get things done at the rate I used to. Meanwhile, my heart rate crept right back up.
As I didn’t want to leave my job, I focused on finding other options for how I could do my job without losing my sanity. I knew that the Swedish winter would drag me down every further, so I scheduled a meeting with my boss and explained to him that I could perform all the tasked assigned to me, online. Other than a couple of meetings, there was really nothing in my current job that required me to be physically present in the office. Sure, I couldn’t take off forever, but as the team I work in travel a lot anyway, nobody would even notice if I was gone a bit longer than usual. We worked out the plans and just as the darkness settled over the Swedish skies, I got on a flight to Mexico.
Suddenly, I was working in my surf shorts from a café on the beach. I did yoga in the mornings and had Margaritas on the beach at night. I was sightseeing on the weekends and eating burritos for lunch. Most importantly, I was in the sun! As I could work uninterrupted, I was more efficient and could get through the inbox much faster. Except for the constant hunt for reliable WIFI, my working days were a breeze. Sure, I did miss out on the office gossip, the ad hoc meetings in the hallway and the social aspects of simply having my colleagues around, but instead, my sanity was intact. No stress, no energy drains and no over-committing to routine tasks. I found my equilibrium and I was free.
After a few spring months back in the office, I returned for another long holiday in Italy that following summer. That way, I could maintain the perfect balance throughout the year. Spring in the office when the light returned to the Nordics and the wrap-up of the season had to get done. Long and relaxing summer holidays to rest for the fall sprint. Fall in the office where I could set the plans for the year and get all my projects started. Winter hustling from abroad, focusing on simply getting the projects done and keeping the inbox under control. I knew that this was the best way for me to do things.
The first day back in the office after my summer holiday, I spoke to my boss again. I explained to him that in order for me to not only stay, but to also stay sane, this would have to become my yearly schedule. There is no other way. I explained that he would get a happy, healthy and more efficient employee. I would get my freedom and my sanity, while still working hard at a job I really enjoy. And my colleagues can have a moment of peace and quiet without me. Everybody wins.
Managers generally like it when everybody wins.
So here I am again. On a Friday night, lounging on my couch. Not because I am exhausted after my work week. This time, I have my laptop on my knee and I am searching for flights and scrolling through Airbnb rentals, trying to find the perfect place to stay this winter. I want to be in an exciting city, but in a calm area. My apartment must be light and warm, close to cozy cafés and have steady WIFI.
That’s all I need to work well.
That’s all I need to stay sane.