While it looks different across jobs, we all know the signs when we see them: drinking Red Bull at three in the morning, sleeping in the afternoon, and responding to every email but getting next to nothing done.
Most people think burnout is just what happens when you commit to too many things and work too much. They’re wrong. Besides, you can find advice for dealing with overwork in plenty of blog posts that have already been written.
The worst kind of burnout happens to people who are entirely game for working “too much.” It happens not because they overcommit but because reality sometimes smacks overcommitters in the face (I’m one of these people, so I feel justified in saying that).
Overcommitment a slippery slope and an easy slide for someone who is ambitious and hardworking – you overcommit here because you want to “challenge yourself.” You over-promise there because you really want to help a teammate out. You overestimate your speed to complete a project – because naïveté, I guess.
The real danger here isn’t the delays or damaged quality of work – it’s the psychological wear.
You’ve probably gotten into a position where you’re overcommitting because you’re so valuable to the people around you. You can excuse the first few times you fail to deliver, but then you find that you’re making excuses. You’ve never been the kind of person to make excuses.
To make up for it, you promise to yourself that you’ll work harder. And you intend to.
That rarely works when you’re already on the wrong track with the wrong habits for controlling your time and limiting your obligations.
After your fourth or fifth failure, you start to think that you’re the kind of person that can’t keep a promise. And when your word is without value, your work starts to lose value, too.
This is the kind of burnout you really should be afraid of. It’s the kind that a long vacation won’t fix. It’s also the kind that can’t be solved with a few bullet points of advice.
It’s probably a cliche to say that you should underpromise and overdeliver (and it’s something I struggle with), so I won’t advise just that. This is a battle of mindset and mental habits, so you need to do whatever it takes to keep your self-regard as a get-shit-done kind of person. That can look different for everyone – maybe it’s outsourcing work, maybe it’s cutting back, maybe it’s finding ways to work more effectively.
In the end, your metric isn’t hours worked. Your metric is your quality of life and your quality of work, and that’s tied directly to your ability to do what you say you’re going to do in the time you say you’re going to do it.
If you’re trying to do any more than that, you’re heading toward burnout. That’s not something to be proud of.