What Burning Out Taught Me About Prioritizing My Work
It was December 26. The day after Christmas; 10 days after my daughter’s first birthday. I was sitting on the floor coiling Christmas lights when I began to try to stand up. Almost immediately, I sunk back down to the floor.
I was tired: physically tired; emotionally tired. Even my soul felt tired.
How did I get here?
Six weeks after the birth of my daughter, I chose to jump back into the whirlwind of busyness—airplanes, travel and meetings—striving to build my consulting business. I spent the entire first year of her life haunted by my ego as I frantically tried to grow my business, serve my clients all over the world, and prove to myself that I was needed and valuable.
This was all part of something bigger for me personally. I wanted to live up to my image of the successful woman—smart, driven, professionally accomplished; a Mary Poppins mom; a loving wife; a leader in the community. That superwoman was my gold standard, and I had spent years, and especially the last year, trying to live up to it.
But now, on December 26, I’d awakened only to realize that as much as I was chasing the dream of the superwoman, I wasn’t living my life.
And the words of Socrates—"beware the bareness of a busy life"—were suddenly eerily real. It was time for me to face my fears and make bold choices about my life and the way that I worked.
I started to make these bold choices for my life with three key strategies that not only anchored me as I picked myself up that December 26, but also continue to support me today as I work to overcome my fears and build a life where I live fully.
FOCUS ON IMPACT NOT OUTPUT
For many years, I prized my ability to produce significant amounts of work—my output. It became something I was known for, however, it came at a tremendous personal cost. There is work and then there is the real work, work that has an impact on the bottom line, your clients, and your organization. Where are you focusing on output instead of impact? What would shift for you personally and professionally if you appreciated impact more than output?
HONOR THE WAY YOU WORK
I cannot sit still. I prefer to stand when writing. My brain shuts down after 9:00 pm. I do not pull all-nighters well. I am grumpy and unfocused if I do not exercise. And, if I am hungry, there is nothing that can keep me focused. It took me a long time to admit these things to myself. Then it took even longer for me to actually honor that as the way that I worked.
Honor the way you work. When do you do your best work—in the morning, afternoon, or late at night? Under what conditions do you produce your best work—when you exercise, have adequate sleep, or are listening to great music? Resist giving into work cultures that undermine your productivity. Let the quality of your work and the impact you are making speak for themselves. If you do, no one will question how you work.
STOP GETTING DERAILED BY WHAT YOU "SHOULD" DO
It is difficult for me to say no because I get seduced and derailed by something I call the "shoulds." The shoulds are those voices in your head—you know the ones—saying "You should be doing this," "You should like that," "You should spend time on this," "You should stop doing that," and so on and so forth—endlessly. The problem with the shoulds is they lead you to over-commit—and when you over-commit, the quality and impact of your work suffers. To combat the shoulds I use the "POWER No."
It’s based on the acrostic POWER—Priorities, Opportunities, Who, Expectations, and Real. Here’s how it works:
Priorities: When that voice in your head tells you that should complete this task, lead another project, attend another meeting, or make cupcakes from scratch, evaluate the priority of that message. How does this should align to your priorities, the organization’s strategic priorities, and/or your families’ priorities?
Opportunities: Explore the opportunities. What opportunities does this should create for you? Is there something that does actually need additional attention in your life? This should could be shining a light on something that you need to address.
Who: Who or what triggered this should? Was it an old script from childhood? Was it an ad in a magazine? Was it your colleague?
Expectations: Whose expectations are these really? Your manager? Your mother? Your spouse? Your child? Society’s?
Real: Get real. What is this should really about? Are there real priorities that are driving this should? Or are you taking on societal expectations that are not in alignment with your priorities?
Say no to the many things that threaten to distract you and derail you, so you can focus your energies on the handful of things that will lead you to your success. The POWER puts you back in the driver’s seat, empowering you to respond rather than merely react. Stop shoulding all over yourself and take back control.
Facing my fears was hard. I am not sure I would have done it if I had not been sitting on my family room floor that December 26. My advice to you is this—don’t wait until you reach your breaking point or there is a catastrophic event to start making bold choices about our life and the way you work. This is your work. This is your time.
This article originally appeared on FastCompany.com on June 25, 2015; read or comment on that article here.