Perhaps it should say reformed workaholic, as one year on I feel I can legitimately lay claim to that. A little over 12 months ago, I was preparing to jump ship. Preparing to sail into a new role on what felt like a pretty distant horizon. I had taken a bit of a sideways step on the career ladder, and would no longer have management responsibilities.
It was a big change that after a lot of soul searching, I felt I had to make for my own wellbeing. I had worked for four years in an organisation that I was fully committed to and that had given me tremendous opportunities. I adored both the people in my team, and our mahi, and was inspired by the leadership and the community we served. I was totally passionate about it, and was surrounded by a team that was even more so. It was hugely satisfying that my team and I could not only see the impact we were making, but tangibly demonstrate it too.
But I was exhausted. My to do list was never-ending. In fact, it was lucky if I had the time to scribble one down. My email inbox would induce a panic attack in an otherwise calm person (‘the tiger in my inbox’ aka my email is a blog topic all of its own). It was commonplace for me to reply to work emails the minute I woke up, and in the evenings, and churn through chunks of complex projects in the evenings and weekends. I even checked my emails while sitting on the toilet (every semi-spare minute was an opportunity to be productive, I thought!). Furthermore, when you’re really passionate about something, the list of extra things you could be doing never stops expanding. You can never quite do ‘enough’ because after all, you’re working to address very real challenges faced by very real people. It is very hard to turn your brain off to this. It’s even hard to leave work at a normal time to meet up with your friends, when all you can think about is the 101 tasks you haven’t yet got to. And as someone already prone to anxiety, this constant, frenetic feeling coupled with an inability to shake off the perpetual to-do list meant that I was perpetually in motion. At least, my jittery insides were.
I went over and above the call of duty because I felt so passionate about what we were striving to achieve. This is one of the shadows of passion, I think. And it makes it very easy to burn out. I knew all about burnout from my early 20’s, when I was working full-time, studying part-time, volunteering 10+ hours a week, and babysitting, playing sports and trying to have a 20-something year old social life too. I think it was shortly after this when I ended up with a) glandular fever and b) a strong aversion to signing up to too many commitments ever since. On the plus side, I’m grateful to be learning a lot of these lessons relatively young.
But somehow, this over-committed state crept back up on me inadvertently, as you’ve heard about above. Experiencing this state of stress is not something that’s sustainable. Not only that, but for those of us who are fortunate enough to have a choice, I consider over-work to be a waste of valuable life. My integrity and work ethic will never be a problem for me, and so, with that said, I know my wise 90 year old self does not encourage me to work harder, longer, or more. She encourages me to live a more balanced, present life. Work is important, and it is one way to contribute in this world, if you are lucky enough – but it is not everything.
It wasn’t for lack of trying that my life had become so out of balance and unsustainable. I worked hard to relax my standards and become far less of a perfectionist. I became an expert on productivity strategies. I had coaching. I sought feedback on how to manage my workload, and what I should prioritise. I learned a little bit about how to push back, how to delegate. I asked for help, and advice, and suggestions on how to cope. I did mindfulness and meditation, and went to the gym very regularly. But I was also nervous about the idea of stepping away from my beloved career path. Who would I be without my work and all the privileges that came with it?
Eventually, having a pretty awful car accident a couple of days after my 30th birthday was the biggest wake-up call I could have had. I wouldn’t wish this horror upon anyone, but at the same time I am tremendously grateful that a young-ish woman, who must have been texting rather than looking at the road, drove straight into the back of my car in the middle of a state highway. Thank god everyone was okay. I honestly don’t know if anything less life-changing could have jolted me out of that frenetic state so I might get onto a better, healthier path. It took a fair bit of time to slow down and step out of my circumstances, but I couldn’t not. Having that accident left me with a changed perspective, and an unshakeable feeling that continually reminds me of the fragility of life, and the value of time.
Over a year later and I can honestly say I am no longer fuelled by adrenaline. I have learned the value of slowing down, of considering before acting, and of not pushing to get things ticked off a list. Much to a rushing woman’s horror, I’ve let myself have evenings and weekends where I do very little, and where I have to sit with my thoughts and truly face myself, rather than chasing distractions. Many of us feel truly uncomfortable doing so. I have discovered and started to pursue three things that I am truly passionate about. None of them involve pushing myself to be a high-achieving career person.
We are all a work in progress, but I’ve now started to see the light and enjoy the benefits of a healthier life-work balance. In doing so, I’ve often caught myself feeling sorry for people who rush from meeting to meeting, exclaiming how furiously busy they are. It’s as if having far too much to do has become some sort of status symbol, some revered state. I certainly used to be one of those people – but I don’t think I ever legitimately aspired to be like that. I was just genuinely overloaded. And I couldn’t get away from it. But then I remembered, just last night, a scenario from my days spent in London. We were out for dinner one night with friends, and I was in the middle of planning towards a big campaign at work. I needed to check my emails urgently, and was having issues logging in. When I apologised for being rude while we were meant to be chatting at the dinner table, one of my acquaintances sort of shrugged and said ‘don’t apologise. I actually kind of feel sorry for you’.
At the time, I thought that was a pretty snarky comment. But it’s ironic that now, some six years later, it’s the exact same train of thought I have each time I come across a ‘rushing woman’. Yet another member of a not so exclusive club that I am deeply satisfied to say, I have chosen to revoke my membership of.