On the road to burnout

I woke up one day and felt like the weight of the world had come crashing hard on my shoulders. I needed a break. I had gone quite a while without one. I got on my computer and clicked furiously at my HR platform profile to discover I had only 2 vacation days left. How the hell did that happen? 18 vacation days had been used and I could barely recall how. Oh wait, that's not entirely true. I remember using some to register and prepare for certification exams, and a few others to take full courses on new stuff I had been meaning to learn (anything to get the job done, right?). One or two were spent in a silent daze at home while a fever ravaged me. I had a hobby, so it's not like I spent my days toiling endlessly in front of my computer or sick in bed. But wait, my writing was done on my computer, and my gaming, however sparse and irregular, was in front of a 55-inch screen. I had Slack installed on my phone just in case I missed something important and at least seven days in a month, I had PagerDuty ready to wake me up, and it really cannot be ignored.

I realised I had gone 3 years without anything that resembles a vacation. Just extended weekends and public holidays here and there that I designed to fool myself into thinking I had rested. Occasionally, I would whisper to myself, "No one is indispensable", and I knew that to be true too. But soon afterwards, I would put in my umpteenth 12-hour shift (without being asked), and end the day barely able to put dinner together and get a good night's sleep before I do it all over again.

Finally, I woke up that day just unable to function, and I realised that I had slowly but surely travelled the road to burnout. The destination is worse than you can possibly imagine. There's something to be said about taking life and work easy, and not biting more than you can chew, and taking one step at a time, and not making everyday a pressure-filled one with deadlines lying in wait and managers breathing down one's neck. But for some reason, I was drawn to the burnout flame like a moth. Helpless. Or so I'd like to think, as an excuse for ignoring the sure signs.

I should have known I was on the road to burnout when:

  • I ended a job contract on a Friday, hopped on an 18-hour flight (6 hours of which were spent standing around in a large airport in Frankfurt waiting for a connecting flight), and resuming my new role on Monday morning in a new company and country. Covid hit two weeks later and that sure made for an interesting onboarding experience.
  • In a bid to ramp-up and contribute to my new team, I started to put in 12-hour shifts per day and then some hours of study afterwards. (That impostor's syndrome is no joke!)
  • I had all the gizmos and gadgets that were designed to help declutter the mind and provide some balance between work and life and I completely ignored the results and recommendations. Although I will admit that it is cool having a smart watch light up every time I looked at it, and even more impressive to read off suggestions about how my sleep could be better.
  • And just before you start thinking I have no fun at all, I bought a copy of The Last of Us 2 and decided to burn through the game with no breaks, and ended up with 72 hours of working and gaming. Dumb, I know, but still I thought it was different. At this point, you're probably starting to wonder how the burnout was not instant, but bear with me.
  • Once I decided I wanted to move on to another opportunity and country, I buckled down alongside regular working hours and on-call schedules to study and take interviews. What this looked like was 3 to 4 hours of sleep a day for a several weeks. And when I did get the job, I hopped onto a plane on Thursday, arrived at my temporary accommodation and was neck-deep in trainings and onboarding by Monday morning.
  • Finally, I wrote a novel I am incredibly proud of (Here it is on amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Sunrise-Dusk-Story-Love-Slavery/dp/1665596414). In addition to all of the above, I scrambled for time to commit to the fiction writing career I have always dreamed of.

When I woke up, eyes red and sleepy but unable to simply go back or function, I realised how unfair I had been to me. I was wearing the badge of the workaholic with way too much pride. I was in beast mode way too often. So I came up with a few tricks to help strike that delicate balance. I still stray, but I realised the trick is to not burn out.

  • I started to find hobbies and activities with less screen time (Sorry PS5, Monopoly is quite fun too). And I rediscovered my love and passion for physical books.
  • Productive and deep work within the recommended number of hours. I am still passionate about personal development and projects, but not at the frantic pace with which I had once pursued them.
  • I listen to my smart watch. I stand up to stretch when it says to. I take a 5 minute break every one hour. I take the sleep recommendations as seriously as I take the time it tells. I have an hour of silence and quiet a day to recharge (easier for my introverted self, but probably would be difficult for some others).
  • And as a matter of luck, I think I found a country and company where i would love to spend some considerable time. So I get to pace myself just a bit, and take things one day at a time.

So, this was my road to burnout, and hopefully my way back. I hope it helps you somehow.

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