You’re a responsible human–a reliable person who does everything that’s expected and more. Congratulations! Here’s more work to do.
Yep, that’s the rub. If you’re good at your job and other people notice, you get never-ending opportunities to prove once again how good you are. More work to do, and more work to do, and more. The balance in your life is lost as you drown under a pile of opportunities and challenges with deliverables, due dates, and project managers scheduling recurring meetings to get status updates.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
If you’ve been through a few jobs, no doubt you’re familiar with this cycle. You leave the old job with a sense of relief, having transitioned your projects to others in a ceremony known as “the hand-off.” You chuckle a bit to yourself as your co-workers and manager who clearly didn’t grasp what all you were handling go glassy-eyed as you talk them through it.
You start the new job with a lightness in your heart. No projects. No due dates. No recurring meetings. The anxiety of getting familiar with a new company, figuring out your role, learning the politics, sure–there’s all that to contend with. But compared to the crushing weight of a line of dump trucks constantly leaving fresh loads at your desk, a little anxiety is nothing.
After a week of going to Zoom lunch with your new co-workers, you see where you can contribute and pipe up, eager to demonstrate your value to the team. A few relieved smiles appear on the faces of your new teammates, and they gladly let you handle this and that to see what you can do and reduce their own workloads.
Nothing blows up. In fact, things go well, because you really know where your towel is. “Hey, you’re a great addition to the team. So, um, can we get you on this other project?” There’s loose ends from the first project that will take a few weeks to tie up, but that praise felt good, and you want more of it. “Sure,” you say, like a caged rat self-administering morphine.
And so it goes. After a year at the new job, your success translates (once again) into an endless line of dump trucks, some driven by people you’ve never even heard of, but all of whom seem to know who you are…and where your virtual desk is.
You’re overwhelmed. You become inefficient. You juggle as many tasks as you can, trying to keep all the projects moving, but you spend more than half your time on administrative tasks around the projects. Meetings. Email. Vendor management. Status updates. You struggle to get the deep work done the project demands of your expertise.
You somehow meet the deadlines by working more hours, but your personal life suffers. Your significant other is understanding, but only to a point. Your relationship is under stress. You’re not there emotionally for them–you don’t have the energy. You’re not there physically–you don’t have the energy for that, either.
Worse, you’re not there for yourself. Self-care is the first thing you let go, trading in hobbies, exercise and meditative moments for junk food at lunch and alcohol at night to burn off the stress and get some sleep. Not that the booze helps your sleep.
It’s happened again. You’re in over your head, a victim of your own competency. It’s all too much. Despite this, your personality puts enormous pressure on yourself to perform, so you’re constantly anxious and short of temper. Your mind is a grim, emotional hellscape of extremes that leaves you and the others in your life exhausted.
Break The Cycle
I recently posted a LinkedIn Pulse article about Saying Yes. I meant that piece, but you have to set boundaries around how much you can do. When your mental health suffers, it affects everyone around you.
Your friends and family will become victims as you lash out. They’re supposed to get you, right? To understand how hard your days are? How much stress you’re under? So, it’s okay to get wound up, right? To take your frustrations out on them? No, it isn’t okay. By putting your work life above everything else, you’ll end up sacrificing your other relationships.
You must break the cycle by setting clear boundaries on what you can and can’t take on in the workplace. Own your own destiny by working aggressively with your management about what you can and cannot handle based on your workload.
Before working for myself full-time, my habit with my managers was to share my project list with them, and ask them to place the new project on the list in priority order. “What do you want me to do first, boss? I can’t do all of these tasks in the timeframe you’ve requested, so what’s the most important to the business? I’m not trying to be difficult, boss, but there’s only one of me. I want to do my best, and to make that happen, something’s got to give.”
A decent manager will understand, assuming you’re raising a valid concern and not just whining. They’ll distribute the work to someone else, or help you prioritize your project load so that you don’t lose your mind. You’re not at your best running ragged all the time, and the business wants you at your best. Not racing along the edge of a precipice, where one wrong move plunges you and possibly the business into the abyss.
Stop Prioritizing Everyone But Yourself
You need to change how you think about work, your workload, and your need for approval.
The working life means that you are a sort of caged rat, if you’ll forgive the metaphor. We’re imprisoned by our loans and need to make money. We’re trained by social media to seek approval. Worse, some of us have personalities or histories that make us crave the accolades of others. You’ll go to great lengths for someone to tell you what a good job you did. Somehow that feels like the right thing to do, because we need to get paid, don’t we?
What you’re doing is trading in quality of life for sporadic moments of acknowledgement from others. It’s a cheap trade leaving others with the benefits of your work and yourself a used-up mess. You’ve sacrificed physical and mental health and compromised interpersonal relationships…for what, exactly?
In your carefully planned schedule where you list professional certifications, workplace projects, and all the rest, make a new entry. One for self-care. Place that at the top of your endless to-do list. “Selfish” you say? No, self-care isn’t selfish, at least not in this context. We don’t mean “selfish” as a vice, where others are excluded because you’re so into yourself. Rather, self-care is the foundation the rest of your life of giving to others is built on.
You can’t provide for others if you’re a withered husk.
Be Okay With Not Doing Everything
When you properly prioritize yourself, you’ll realize that you don’t have enough time, mental energy, or physical stamina to do everything others will ask of you. And that’s okay. You need to be okay with that, even though that’s not your personality. Even though you crave approval. Even though you want everyone to like you and think what a swell, wonderful human you are.
Not doing everything might mean saying no. Pushing back. Negotiating with your boss. It almost certainly means prioritizing more effectively so that the important work is sure to get done while other people’s pointless priorities fall down the list.
Inevitably, some things just won’t get done. Someone’s going to be bummed out about that. Again, that’s okay. It’s not your job to make everyone happy. Your job is to bring your unique skills to bear in as effective a way as possible for the largest possible benefit.