When I landed a job as a business news anchor at 21 after graduating with a broadcast degree from Northwestern, I was thrilled. But I hated the beat that was assigned to me: business and finance. All I thought about was how I could use the experience to get to my dream job as an investigative reporter so I could really make a difference. Instead of racing off to a new job, I sat down with my boss and realized I could find a way to do what I love through a segment series I pitched about investigating business crimes. It fit my goal of uncovering issues that mattered, but also fell under my beat. My boss liked it and gave me the freedom to work on it after the markets closed. I spent my nights and weekends working on these segments, regularly skipping social events and even sleep to plug away on my reports. I was exhausted, but I knew all the hard work would ultimately get me ahead.
The series got me out into the field, allowed me to focus on people and not numbers, and would ultimately get picked up by more mainstream news outlets. From there I moved onto anchor roles at CNN, CNBC, Bloomberg Television, and CBS Insider before I launched by own production company, Nothing But Gold Productions. Then after fifteen years of nonstop hustling, I crashed. I experienced horrible burnout and only then did I have no choice but to rethink everything. I couldn’t keep promises to myself and my company. I knew it was time to own up to my personal limits.
I never expected to have a breakdown from burnout, but I did. That’s why I’m sharing what I learned from my experience to help other journalists, and ambitious professionals like myself.
If you’re working for someone else, you probably think that your boundaries are not up to you. But whether you’re an entrepreneur, editor-in-chief, or just starting out your career, you can and should set professional boundaries. Drawing the line at the office will not only help your own sanity, it will make it easier for you to keep your promises. And that’s what every boss wants: an employee who can deliver the work they say they can on deadline.
Instead, ask for space to stay laser focused on the task in front of you when you just can’t handle one more thing on your to-do list. Just like little kids test boundaries to see what they can get away with, the people you work with and for will test yours. So set and enforce your boundaries. There’s no need to clap back when your boss encroaches on a boundary (don’t forget, they’re not psychic and may do so unintentionally). A calm, clear, and concise response is better than an emotionally driven diatribe. Checking your reaction can help you assess whether or not you can realistically take on more work.
Determine Where You Draw The Line
After taking a break from my production company to find my balance, I set some big rules in my work life so I wouldn’t burn out or feel uncomfortable at work again. Remember, while no one wants to feel uncomfortable, “uncomfortable” means something different to everyone. Think about what makes you “uncomfortable.” If your threshold for “uncomfortable” is high, then don’t pretend like it’s not. If you’re actually totally cool crafting your boss’s kid’s science fair project, and that doesn’t make you uncomfortable whatsoever, that’s fine. Or maybe it’s not fine, and you know that in your gut you don’t feel right doing it. Figure out your personal comfort zone first, so you can draw your own boundaries in a way that makes sense for you.
Err on the Side of Open-ness
My first rule in maintaining balance at work was to be open to myself and my team about how I felt. For you, this might also mean being open to your boss. You have the right to express when you are overwhelmed and if you are unable to accomplish something asked of you. It’s easier to do than it may sound. Remember how I said your boss will respect you if you keep your promises and do good work? The same can be said if you are upfront about what you will not be able to accomplish. The worst thing you can do at work is to say “I got this” when you really, really don’t.
I remember when I was early in my career a boss asked me to update the handbook we give to incoming interns by the end of the week. Instead of telling him that I was already committed to two other projects and needed to keep my focus there to meet my deadlines, I took on the additional assignment. Though I tried to work on everything, I didn’t have the bandwidth to complete any of the assignments on time. Needless to say, my boss was not pleased.
The right move when you are asked to take on something new and are already overwhelmed is to tell the person simply and clearly that you can’t commit to it at this time. This sounds obvious, but especially as women, we are often so concerned about being nice and not hurting people’s feelings or getting in trouble that we tie ourselves into knots trying to find a way to say anything but “no” to avoid disappointing them. Most people at work, especially your superiors, will appreciate your honesty about your resources—it’s way less “disappointing” than having you overcommit and do a shitty job.
It took me years—decades, really—to realize that trying to do everything meant I didn’t do anything well. And, trying to be everything to everyone meant I was nothing to myself. Learn from my mistakes and I know you’ll gain all the respect at work.
A version of this article was originally published on Ed2010.