Burnout: a very real epidemic of the past decade. I can maybe count on one hand the number of people I know personally who haven’t been affected to some degree by burnout. We exist in a culture where 100 hour work weeks are a status symbol, where work-life balance means taking your BFF as a plus one to a networking event and monetising your hobbies. Anyone falling short of a completely full schedule could be perceived as lazy or unfocussed. This is certainly how I perceived myself when burnout first struck and I couldn’t get out of bed anymore.
That was four years ago now. All the signs were there, all the niggling symptoms I ignored because there was absolutely no way anything was going to hold me back from building my business. Or more accurately, what I perceived as building my business.
I never viewed my time as a resource. Growing my business, I was (and still am) extremely careful with money, saving wherever I could and critically weighing up where it was truly worth spending. But my time – that seemed like an infinite stream of funds – I should just try everything in case it worked and say yes to each and every request that was made to me on the off chance it was a growth opportunity. I never applied the same intensive logic to giving away my time that I applied to spending money.
That was the first thing burnout taught me. You may have heard of spoons theory – the concept that you start each day with a certain number of (metaphorical) spoons and for each and every tiny activity, including simply getting up in the morning, you give one away. If you hand out too many spoons in one day, you’re left with fewer for the following day and so on. People with a disability, chronic disease, depression or in this case, burnout, start each day with far fewer spoons than an average healthy and able person. Given that I couldn’t put my business on hold until I recovered, I had to get a lot smarter about distributing my limited spoons.
Firstly, I needed to reevaluate my productivity. Where in the past I may have felt like I was being productive, 16-hour day after 16-hour day, I was in fact just being BUSY. I needed to analyse the ways in which I was making tangible progress and focus my energy on those.
Secondly, I had to review which activities were particularly draining and didn’t absolutely require me and my personal skill set. Was my time and energy worth more than the financial cost of delegating these tasks? Generally (albeit through gritted teeth), the answer was yes and I so I began to build a support structure. This is something that my scrappy bootstrapping mindset still struggles with but I had to accept that even there’s a task I can easily do myself, if it prevents me doing what I can only do myself, it’s not worth it. The business’s ability to exist depends on my ability to work. Its ability to thrive depends on my ability to do what I’m best at. It was a hard pill to swallow for someone conditioned to work more and spend less, but I had to look after myself in order to look after my company.
The second thing burnout taught me is that I’m not invincible. It’s clichéd, but an absolute fact that you don’t truly understand the importance of your health until you lose it. As I started to get sick, I had health professionals telling me left, right and centre that burnout was inevitable if I carried on down this road. But I, like so many others, convinced myself that I was the exception to the rule – and that they just didn’t understand that I had to be working this hard for my business. I didn’t see a choice, so I just blocked out the signs telling me that my body was shutting down.
There has been no opportunity for me to take the complete timeout needed for a full recovery, so whilst I’ve pulled myself back from final stage burnout, I’m still in the early stages to a greater or lesser extent all the time. This means I’ve had to get really good at listening to my body and understanding when I need to step back, delegate more and rest. The temptation to push through is no longer more powerful than the fear of a breakdown because now I’ve been there, I absolutely never want to feel that way again. Unfortunately I know that had I not learnt the hard way, I’d still be burning the candle at both ends with zero compassion for my own wellbeing.
I also now grudgingly appreciate the ridiculousness of work hours as a status symbol. What does it really mean to be busy? Tangible results are so much more meaningful and if you really, really dig deep, I bet you can find a more resourceful way to achieve results than by filling every minute of every day with STUFF. Getting comfortable with saying no is an exceptionally valuable life lesson, both personally and professionally.
They say every failure is a learning opportunity and my body failing on me has, so far, been the biggest learning curve of my life. I’m much more efficient, make far smarter decisions and have infinitely more respect for my own health. Recovery is an on-going process and I have a long way to go, but burnout has absolutely forced me to adapt and evolve in a way that never would have happened without it.