“Work smarter not harder”: it’s a cringe-worthy business cliché on par with “working outside the box” and “snackable” content. It finds its origins in a misguided 1970s campaign to get more high school students out of trades and into college (which hasn’t exactly worked out for us). So I am not going to use it here, or ever.
Instead let’s take less jargon-y look at how to keep work from destroying your life. Better known as “business burnout,” ruthlessly working yourself to the bone doesn’t just affect how you perform at professionally. It negatively impacts your mental health, physical health and your home life. Your job is important, it’s a big part of who you are, but it is not worth wrecking yourself over.
Know the Signs
Researchers have characterized burnout as a “syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment among individuals that work with people.” You might characterize it as being tired and pissed off all the time. The Mayo Clinic has a pretty straightforward job burnout checklist if you need some help facing reality. The basics: Are you becoming cynical about your work? Do you have to justify going to work every morning, then whip yourself to get going once you get there? Do you feel disillusioned about your job? Have your sleeping, eating, or drinking habits changed? If you answered yes to any one of these questions, you might be suffering from burnout. And if you answered yes to all of them, you might be in hell.
While one of those results involves consulting a preacher or other spiritual guide, the other you can still rectify. Talk to your boss about how you’re feeling and adjust your workload or expectations accordingly. Together, carefully examine your resources and see what changes you can make. You might even consider that your job just doesn’t fit your skill set. But before you go off that deep end, there are some things you can do to prevent going down in flames in the first place.
Know When to Say When
It’s an old adage that works just as well with work as it does with whiskey. Especially since too much work will inevitably lead to too much whiskey. If you work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, it’s just impossible to leave work at work. The tiredness, the negative attitudes, the stubborn determination—they all follow you home. Seriously, just ask the significant other that is scowling at you over there. We all have to buckle down for marathon workdays sometimes, but it’s not sustainable to do it every day.
A reasonable life-work-balance is the best way to manage work-related stress and prevent burnout. And most companies these days at least say that they will respect the balance, so try and hold them to it. Make a concerted effort to work 8 hour days whenever possible. Duck out early when you can (remember those 12 hour days you worked? You are allowed to make up for them by leaving. Now.). If a vacation is out of the question, take a Friday or Monday off and hook yourself up with a three-day weekend. It doesn’t make you lazy, it keeps you human.
Don’t Make Hard Work Harder
If you’re doing it all because there is no other way to get it done right, you need to take a hard look at the people on your team. But it’s more likely that you are playing the hero card and taking on more work than you need to. You have this whole team thing for a reason, so delegate whenever you can. That way, everyone on the team does what best fits their skills and you unload something that could bury you for another day. Also check that you aren’t creating stress for yourself by creating unrealistic schedules. Yes, it feels good to say “I can have that for you tomorrow,” but the overwhelming dread of knowing you really can’t kinda kills that.
We all have different views on multitasking, but most can agree that too much of it reduces performance and causes anxiety. Sometimes it can help to “go dark” when you’re knocking out a big task. If you don’t need the web for research anymore, close your browser. Then put your phone in airplane mode and close your email. That way, you’re forced to focus on your most important task. And you get it done faster. Even just taking the short view can help your outlook. Yes, that project is huge and it’s going to be kicking your butt for the next three months, but the tasks you have to do today aren’t all that bad, right? Personally, I’m feeling better already.