Catherine shares the story of her wake-up call and tips on avoiding burn-out
A friend and I were talking about people’s different thresholds of “busy.” She has a full-time office job and teaches fitness classes 3 to 4 days a week. A colleague of mine has a full-time job, teaches an extracurricular class once a week, oh, and has a husband and four kids to care for. I attest my own desire to fill my days to my early training in elementary school. My mom had my sisters and me in after-school activities galore—from ballet to swimming, speed reading (an excuse for me to spend more time at the library) to student council. Once I left school for the real world, I felt the need to continue being “involved”… I became my high school alumni association’s class representative, joined my sorority’s alumni chapter and took on a leadership role, then found other ways to use my marketing knowledge by joining my sister’s company’s team part time and decided to get back into writing by launching The Single Diaries with Jen.
The only sure thing is that we have 24 hours in a day and, when you have an inflexible office job, you have to wake up at a certain time every morning. For someone like me who can stay up all night, it is a challenge to stay committed to a bedtime when I can find other things I want to do but didn’t have time to earlier in the day (write or edit a post, read a book, watch Melrose Place). There were evenings when after work I thought I could do it all: run off to an early barre class, stop by a book club meeting, then finish editing a post scheduled to go up the next day. Other days I had to make sacrifices. Instead of organizing a boozy brunch (one of my favorite pastimes), I committed to a Saturday work session at a local cafe.
Jen recently wrote about taking up a side hustle, which is great in the years after college when making money needs to be your priority to pay for student loans and to get your feet off the ground. In those years, most of us need to work a traditional full-time job to learn the value of a paycheck and to garner experience to build our resume. A side hustle is a way for you to find your passion and develop the skills you need to make your dreams a reality. But what happens when your full-time job and your side hustle leave you with little to no free time?
Reaching Your “Busy” Threshold
In one installment of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills reunion, Lisa Vanderpump makes a very interesting statement about the contest of being busy as the ladies are arguing about who was the busiest. She said that she wasn’t finding time to do everything she wanted to do, so therefore she was losing. Last year I hit my limit on “busy”—I couldn’t find enough time for the things I enjoyed. I’m a gal who values quality time with friends and, more recently, time devoted to fitness. It’s great to have interests and hobbies (and let me tell you, being up-to-date on The Good Wife or Mad Men absolutely qualifies), but as we’ve all learned: balance is key.
The real issue, however, wasn’t only that I had spread myself thin and was constantly racing the clock. The real issue was that I was spending too much time in an unhappy environment that left me with little time for the activities that made me feel alive. Stress is a real part of any career, and for years I dealt with mine by discovering these instant mood lifters. However, similar to a doctor treating symptoms rather than the root cause of a health issue, these quick fixes could not accomplish what needed to happen: leaving my job.
Over a year ago, I started to feel a shift in my sentiment towards my job. It became increasingly difficult for me to wake up and go to the office every day. Something deep down told me that I was meant to be somewhere else, that staying in my current position was breaking down who I was. I knew that I needed a vacation, a full-on zone-out to reenergize and refocus. I thought about going on a yoga retreat, I thought about going on a road-trip somewhere in SoCal just to get away for a weekend, I thought about leaving the country for a couple weeks. While I did plan a brief staycation for myself, I didn’t end up taking the time I really needed or spend the money to invest in my own well-being.
Instead I stayed in an environment that I knew was no longer advantageous to my healthy mindset. Eventually I started to feel dread on the drive to work, and while I did what little I could to make the day bearable (audiobooks and favorite songs on the commute back and forth, actually taking lunch breaks, chatting with friends and making an effort to really laugh), the weight of the work day left me with little energy to do anything else during the week.
The Burn Out
My anxiety got the best of me. Now, we all deal with stress differently. Unfortunately, I take pressure to heart, and being hundreds of miles away from my family left me without that support system to remind myself how small my troubles were in the scheme of things. I knew I had to get out of my job, but the job search just added another side project that I didn’t have the time or energy for in my “free time.” I struggled with the decision to either escape my situation by spending time looking for a job, or to escape the worry by doing something I loved. Eventually, this took a toll on my system, and I collapsed.
The first time I fainted, I was at the office. I had taken on the work equivalent of three positions, and with a slim team and one member out of the office, another responsibility seemingly fell on my shoulders. I walked back to my desk and felt the world going dark. Luckily I made it to a couch before I lost 100% of my sight. For the next two hours, any time I tried to simply sit up or walk to the door to get some air, my vision would start to go again. I refused to go to a hospital because I knew that fainting is often a result of dehydration, so I opted to go the self-medication route. I survived work the following day but came home with a tension headache—another result of dehydration and stress.
The next day, after seeing an unsympathetic doctor who told me I was simply dehydrated, I grabbed a bite with a friend to talk about my situation. After a passionate discussion about how I needed to get out of my job, I got up to use the restroom and felt myself getting weak. The world around me went dark again, and I literally walked into another person who I couldn’t see right in front of me. I spent half an hour on my back in the restaurant before my friend drove me home. On the walk from the car to my apartment, I started to faint again and had to lay on the ground halfway to my front door.
After these two episodes of fainting, I knew something had to change. Clearly I was dealing with something bigger than dehydration. After a weekend in bed without the energy to stand up for more than 10 minutes, I called in sick and gave my general practitioner a call. After a few tests, my doctor wrote me out for two weeks of work and encouraged me to leave my job. On top of a health condition that I’d developed in the last few months, the stress was shooting adrenaline through my system and had depleted my reserve energy. My body shut down, and I had to start building myself up again.
Tips For Avoiding Burn-out
Before I had gotten to that point, I had ignored the signs. I ignored the need for a mental break. I ignored my lack of motivation and purpose—something that had always been so important to me. I let negativity manifest physically, and I needed that wake-up call to remind me that my lifestyle was no longer conducive to being my best self. Ultimately, it was the way to kick start my new life. But heed the warning of my story; stress can be a real deterrent to health. Keep these tips in mind when you’re starting to feel unhappy and unmotivated in any situation.
- Practice conscious breathing. As Megan says, deep breathing can get you through anything. Take a minimum of five minutes for yourself at the start or end of your day when you can just be. Feel free to set an intention for yourself, and then focus solely on your inhaling and exhaling.
- Practice conscious eating. It’s common in modern office culture to eat lunch at your desk and continue working through your legally given break. When work is taking a toll, do yourself a favor and step away from the computer screen. Bring your food to a break room, or treat yourself to a healthy but hearty lunch. If you are actually working on a deadline and can’t take more than 10 minutes, use the time to get some sun, take a walk, or call a friend who can brighten your spirits. The point is to avert your attention to something simple, an easy reminder that any stress you’re feeling is small in retrospect.
- Pay attention to your health. Prevention is much simpler than treatment. Take your vitamins. Eat nutritiously. See your doctor. Call in sick; you are doing everyone a favor by taking a day or two to get well. When you are ill, the way to a speedy recovery and the most important thing you can do for yourself is to rest.
- Put any conflict in your personal life on hold. In the midst of my full-time jobs, side projects, and job search, there were inevitable scuttles with friends that arose and held my attention. At a certain point, I accepted the fact that I had done everything I could and had to let go of the drama. It’s so easy for that kind of noise to be the loudest when you don’t want to change the root of your problem (for me, it was quitting my job). Take it from the pro procrastinator; if you want to succeed in changing your life, just let it go.
- Focus on priorities. “Don’t be busy; be productive. Make your time and presence count. When things aren’t adding up in your life, start subtracting. Focus on what matters and let go of what does not.”
- Quiet your mind. When your mind is racing, you will have the tendency to latch on to the “most important” thought. However, when you quiet your mind, breathe consciously, and just be, your mind will automatically sort through thoughts on its own. When you are at peace, you’ll find that you can focus just on what matters.
- Lean on your support system. We all need somebody to lean on. My friends listened to me complain about my job for x amount of months, and I was lucky that instead of tiring of my complaining they became more and more encouraging about the chapter in my life to come. There were moments when I got sick of hearing myself talk about the same things over and over again, so be aware of your friends’ reactions. Remember that you are the only person who can change your situation, so don’t cross the line of burdening someone else with a problem that they can’t fix. Once I made the final decision to quit, my friends were more excited for me than I was for myself.
- Make time for activities and people that you love. It’s easy to get caught up in negativity, but as we know one of the biggest luxuries of working versus being in school is that we can usually leave work at the office. When the going gets rough, remember that nothing (no side hustle, no obligation nor commitment) is as important as your health and happiness. You may have to miss an event or a deadline, but “time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” And you’ll realize that the world doesn’t end when you don’t show up or when you turn in something a little late once in a while.
- Listen to your instinct. Take the vacation. Take a mental holiday. Go on a yoga retreat. Do what you need to do to recuperate on a regular basis. For some people, that vacation can save their soul in terms of realizing they are where they should be. Vacation days are there for a reason, and in a professional setting the truth is no one is looking out for your well-being except for yourself. This stands true as well when you decide it’s time for you to move on.
The Next Chapter Begins
I gathered up the courage to resign from the only company I’ve ever known. Immediately after leaving my office for the last time, I picked up my cousin from the airport and we headed to Indio for my first Coachella. Amidst the chaos of dealing with health issues and leaving my job, I was anxious about being fully ready for the festival both physically and mentally. As it happened one chapter of my life ended and a new one began before I had a moment to turn around.
On day two of the festival, Solange asked us to live in the moment for her last song. With a quick reflection I realized I had been doing just that over the last two days—really focusing on the music and moving my body to the beat (so much so that I almost missed her bringing Beyoncé out on stage). On day three, I had a moment of realization that any annoyance about rowdy festival-goers or temper tantrums about the weather or missing an act would not matter the next day… that soon we would no longer be dancing in the desert. I would be at home, continuing on my path to a new life. And I let go.
I don’t know where the universe will lead me, but I know that my trust in myself and my trust in the energy of the person I want to be will bring me to a place where, from this point forward, I can always feel fully alive.