Lessons from burning out
I did a Q&A last week and got asked a couple questions that made me want to share my answers more broadly.
I got asked one that I didn’t have time to answer, and I promised to write it up, so we’ll start there:
The question was: tell me about the time you burned out and what you learned.
I left Facebook because I burned out. It was EPIC burn out to the point where I had physical symptoms: I couldn’t lift my head out of my hands in meetings, sending emails or doing work took 2-3 times as long as normal, I had a regular eye twitch, I was exhausted even if I slept well, etc.
Burn out looks different for everyone — what the symptoms are and how they manifest — but my experience says that once you’ve started to feel true symptoms of burn out, you are probably past the point of being able to solve them inside your current circumstance. I took a month off and it made zero difference. I physically and mentally could not summon the energy to keep going inside of Facebook. I had to leave in order to reset. I actually strongly believe that allowing myself to get burnt out shortened my work-life span at Facebook by a couple years.
And yes, I did write “allowing myself”. No one else made the choices I made that led to me getting burnt out. Don’t get me wrong, Facebook was an intense place to work at the time, but I’ve come to believe that even in intense working environments, you can choose to set boundaries that let you manage your energy for the long term. More on that below…
So what would I do differently looking back?
2.5 years before I burnt out, I was asked to be one of the first people on a project that felt like the opportunity of a lifetime. And I remember making a very conscious decision that I was going to work all the time in order to take advantage of that opportunity. For 2 years, I worked 18-20 hour days, traveled non-stop, and learned more than I could have imagined.
Eventually, I had an amazing manager (Dan Rose) who said to me: “you are working as if the product launch is the end of this journey when actually it’s the beginning.” It completely blew my mind at the time and has since shaped how I think about managing your energy at work. If I could go back in time, I would follow that advice from Dan from the beginning of the project. Fwiw, I burnt out and left FB before the project shipped.
So, main lessons:
1) You think this is a marathon, but actually, it’s a marathon followed by an Ironman, followed by a swim across the English channel, followed by a half marathon, and so on. You HAVE to manage your energy assuming that the journey is 4 times (or 10 times) as long as you think it is.
2) What you do in 24 hours matters way less than what you do over the course of a week or a month or a quarter. I used to stay up late sending emails or messages or cranking out presentations for deadlines that I had set for myself. They weren’t even other people’s deadlines! Once I got better at managing my energy, I started asking the question, “What is the worst thing that will happen if I wait til tomorrow morning to send this email?” Usually the answer was nothing. At one of my jobs, I ran a more extreme experiment: “What happens if I work at 80% of what I expect of myself? Will anyone notice?” I let myself be what I thought of as a “bad employee” for a month and the answer is: no one noticed at all.
3) 50% is you and 50% is the company. There are companies that expect you to work 24/7. You can set boundaries there, but it will be a battle and will require a lot of strength and confidence from you. I have seen people do it so I know it’s possible AND it is impressive. That said, I have also seen people burn out at companies that are GREAT at supporting work/life balance and personal boundaries. The game of longevity and energy management at work is getting good at defining what YOU need in order to re-charge and then holding yourself to those boundaries. The boundaries are not the same for everyone and require experimentation to figure out what matters for you.
4) Ask for help. If you are new at trying to set boundaries and manage your energy for the many Ironmans in your future, talk to your manager or your friends. Come up with small goals that feel achievable and ask someone to help you be accountable. At Facebook a friend said to me, “what if you take off two nights a week?” It was so much easier to imagine than trying not to work at night at all. Baby steps are fine. The important thing is trying to get to healthy before you burn out.
5) It’s all fine until it’s not. Unfortunately, burn out often shows up suddenly but it is the result of many decisions over the course of months or years. And once you get there, it’s hard to get back to fine without doing something dramatic like leaving the company. I would definitely encourage anyone that thinks they are burnt out to take a two week vacation and completely disconnect from work before deciding to quit, but if that vacation doesn’t get your gas tank back to at least half full, it might be tough to get back to healthy inside your current company.
As I said above, at the end of the day, each of us is responsible for our choices, and our choices can lead to burn out. (That includes choosing to stay at a toxic company.) That said, great managers can make a huge difference in helping employees not burn out (see: Dan Rose).
These days, as a manager, I do the following with folks that work with me:
Talk to them about their boundaries and what helps them re-charge.
Ask what I can do to support those boundaries.
Gently nudge them when they are violating their own boundaries.
Proactively push them to plan vacations of a week or longer.
Suggest/push them to delete Slack/Email/etc off their phone during longer vacations and remind them that working during a vacation is mostly unproductive and annoying to the people who are not on vacation.
I probably do some other stuff but those are the big ones. I do this because I strongly believe that having high performers stay with the company for 5 years is more important than anything they can contribute in a given week. I also care about the people that work for me as… people.
So anyway… there you go! Burn out lessons learned the hard way.