When something you don’t like happens to you over and over again, at some point you have to look hard at the part you play in it.
At the beginning of this year a larger company bought the company for which I work. Most acquisitions seem to be about neutralizing a competitor or reducing overall costs through layoffs, but this one was different. The company that bought us wanted our products and our people and treated the acquisition almost like a merger of equals. At about the same time I got a new boss, which would have happened merger or not. So on top of merger activities – new processes and systems, getting new computers, a switchover to the acquiring company’s computer networks and IT policies – we also embarked on a very aggressive project, and I had to figure out how to work for my new boss.
The stress was intense. By the time the project ended in early August, I was teetering on the edge of burnout. My boss comped me an entire week off to recover, but it wasn’t enough. I’m still feeling aftereffects of the exhaustion, and am trying hard to get my head back into the game.
The thing is, I’ve been here over and over again. I took an inventory of just the last ten years and counted six times I’ve been exhausted like this, and some of those times have been for long periods. This has unintentionally become a theme on this blog; check out the stories here and here and here and here and here. I tended to finger external causes – it was the divorce, or a lousy project at work, or too many commitments. While external forces certainly played in these stressful times, I was overlooking the common denominator: me. As I took stock, here’s what I learned about myself.
- I love to start new things. I am excited by a new venture’s potential and tend to say yes even when I’m already plenty busy. This is how I came to manage three separate departments and own a few side initiatives – the opportunities sounded exciting, so I said yes. I juggled these responsibilities well enough until the merger, when expectations and workloads spiked, and then I couldn’t handle it all.
- I want to look like I can handle whatever is thrown at me. While all this was going on, my new boss wanted me to start several other side projects. I wanted her to see that I was in her corner so I took them on, but I was already behind the eight ball and this only made it worse. I ran frantically from meeting to meeting and watched my e-mail inbox fill faster than I could respond. People who worked for me could never get five minutes of my time.
- I think that unless I’m killing myself, I’m not working hard enough. This has to come from my parents, because they both will work ridiculous overtime and go in even when they’re so sick they can hardly stand, as if their health and sanity is less important than their work. I’ve never been one to work overtime unless someone holds a gun to my head, but I multitask like a madman even though all the research says multitasking doesn’t work.
- I am a perfectionist. Actually, I’m a recovering perfectionist. I know that what I consider to be my best work is often far more than what the situation calls for. But it still bothers me when I have to deliver less than my best. I had to do a lot of that just to survive this year, and it added to my stress.
I’ve finally had enough of this repeated exhaustion. In April, I asked my boss to narrow my responsibilities. She’s worked steadily on it and now I have a workload doable by a mortal man. Here are some things I’m working on so that I don’t wind up back in this mess again.
- It’s time to learn to say no. My new mantra is, “I’d love to take that on, but something else has to come off my plate first.”
- I have a new daily goal of not coming home from work feeling fried. This means I will pace myself every day, and this actually scares me. I’m afraid that if I don’t work ridiculously hard (or at least look like I’m working ridiculously hard) I’ll get bad reviews or end up fired. I’m going to face this fear head on. Logically I know that if I slow down it won’t result in unemployment, but I don’t feel it. But I’m already thinking about the extra energy I’ll have for my sons when I come home.
- I will relax in the evenings. I feel like I need to work when I get home, too – cleaning, writing, cutting the grass, paying bills, or any number of other things. From now on, every evening will contain at least some time to read or watch TV or sit on the deck and watch the lousy golfers on the course behind my house hook balls into my back yard.
- I’ve taken up meditation and yoga. The meditation helps me relax; continuing to practice it will help me cultivate staying present even when stress naturally occurs. The yoga is helping me accept my limitations – I’m unathletic and have terrible balance, and so many of the poses don’t come easily. But however well I can do the pose is inherently okay. And I find that without striving, over time the pose comes a little easier. Maybe life’s the same – stretch gently, listen to yourself for signs it’s time to stop, and try again next time to find you can stretch just a little bit farther than before.