After fifteen years of nonstop hustling, I crashed. I’d heard of people with hardcore, stressful careers—like mine—having breakdowns. But I never thought one of those people would be me. I thought I was tougher than that. Stronger than that. Until I had a breakdown. A complete and total mental, physical, and emotional breakdown. I experienced horrible burnout and only then did I have no choice but to rethink . . . everything.
Burnout is a state of physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion—when the demands of your job or life in general have become so overwhelming that you don’t feel like you can cope. It’s often caused by extended stress but feels like its opposite. Instead of feeling “up,” you feel empty and unmotivated.
How did I know I was burnt out? Well, a quick way to tell if you’ve ventured into burnout territory is by noticing how you feel after you go on vacation: Do you feel re-energized and recharged after returning to work? If so, you just needed a little time to step away and rest. But if you still feel exhausted, cynical, and inefficient within days (or even sooner) after your return, you may be experiencing burnout.
If you’re so immersed with your job or other people that your needs get ignored, you should realize that they don’t say “put your oxygen mask on first before helping others” on the plane just to fill time before takeoff. You’re not going to be any help to anyone else if you are crashing and burning. I didn’t realize I needed to overhaul my life until I hit rock bottom. But for you, now’s the time to take your life from burnout to balance.
Decide what balance means to you
When we hear “balance” we typically think of a scale with two bowls, like Lady Justice holds. Maybe this is why we think in terms of balancing just two things. How many times have you heard the phrase “work/life balance?” I hate that term. What about balancing a new relationship and your most important friendships, plus work and your burgeoning side hustle and your pottery passion? Is that “life/life/work/work/life balance?!” Let’s ditch that standard image we have of “balance.” Go ahead, break that scale. Balance looks different for everyone and true balance doesn’t mean spending exactly the same amount of time and energy on each area of your life all the time. Instead of a scale, think of balance as a pie chart with five categories–for me it’s career, romance, family and friends, physical health, and emotional wellness, but maybe for you it includes education, fame, impact, public service, religion, or wealth. So, how are we cutting this pie today? Each day life gives you choices for how to spend your time. To decide, go back to your values. If you actually value what you say you do, the choices become easy. Then keep taking that pie out of the oven to re-balance your slices as you go.
Set boundaries and stick to them
Your personal boundaries are like your bill of rights. What do you have the right to do? What do you have the right to expect from others? If you’re working for someone else, you probably think that your boundaries are not up to you. But whether you’re a VP, entrepreneur, 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 earn you the respect of others. If a colleague has an issue and genuinely needs your help, the Super Woman thing to do is help a sister out. But, if this becomes a regular thing and starts to eat up your time or makes you uncomfortable, then you gotta tell that woman to fly on her own. Just like little kids test boundaries to see what they can get away with, the people you work with and for will test yours. The boundaries you set and enforce—or don’t—set up a framework that guides people on how to treat you. If you keep saying “yes” indiscriminately, why wouldn’t someone keep asking you to do something? I would.
Work smarter, not harder
The idea sounds terrific, in theory—but WTF does “smarter” actually mean? I’ve since learned that “working harder” means having a calendar full of back-to-back meetings but not actually getting much done. That’s being busy. On the other hand, “working smarter” means being thoughtful and efficient about scheduling. That’s being productive. Being “busy” isn’t the way to reach the goals but being “productive,” however, is what will allow you to sustain yourself and your schedule so that you can actually achieve those goals.
There are some days your exhaustion may still feel overpowering. That’s okay. Remember: You don’t need to be perfectly balanced every day, and over time, even small changes to your lifestyle can make a big difference. You can take baby steps all the way to the finish line.
A version of this article was originally published on Thrive.