Like many young professionals, I possess a somewhat grandiose sense of confidence. I just typed that, and I’m ok with admitting it. It’s that kind of confidence that sees me dodging late fees with my gym membership, altering menu items at restaurants on the weekend, and speaking publicly about my sex life in front of 500 people. My confidence helps me navigate parts of life with ease, like when I quit my job in 2014 to become an SEO copywriter. But it also made me very, very sick this year.
Because I am young (and I am – I’m 29-years-old), I’m prone to dreams of invincibility. I blame the Mark Zuckerbergs and the Sophia Amorusos who earned their first million at an age far younger than I am now. It’s a comparison that we’re all guilty of as we scroll through Instagram, and for myself, this lack of self worth led to burnout. It’s this burnout that saw me sick in bed staring at the ceiling, developing an addiction to Vanderpump Rules, and yelling at my cats to quit jumping on me. I even started to hate Melbourne and blame my lethargy on the city’s weather, of all things.
Like many overachievers, I tried to deny it for some time.
But truthfully, this control freak was losing her grip, knuckles white with failing determination.
What is burnout?
Otherwise known as physical and mental exhaustion, burn out is caused by a state of chronic stress. And what is chronic stress? A prolonged state of anxiety and depression that persists over time.
Now, stress can be hugely beneficial to productivity and problem solving. But when you’re waking up dreading phone calls and yelling at your phone company, stress is getting the better of you. You think, “Aha! This is not going to happen to me.” And so too did I.
I’d felt the instability of this tipping point coming for months as I teetered over the edge of irrational thinking and 24/7 grumpiness. Every time a friend mentioned burn out, a caricature would spring to life in my brain like an inflatable air dancer at a car dealership, flailing its arms in an attempt to have me heed the warning signals. I’d ignore it, and soldier on into entrepreneurial martyrdom. Armed with three cups of coffee a day, my bullet proof oil and the determination of a puppy with a pair of fluffy slippers, I was adamant that I would pull through, dammit. Just you watch me try to manage three businesses on my own.
And if you were watching me, you would have seen me teetering over the edge of sanity like a baby giraffe walking in high heels.
My moment of revelation? When did I finally realise I needed to slow down?
A collection of moments gathered together to reflect a complete picture of a woman over extending herself. Here are the common signs of burnout which I suffered from most acutely:
- Lethargy (I was sleeping around 10 hours a night and was still exhausted).
- Cynicism and detachment (You know something’s up when not even your martini can perk you up).
- Withdrawal (Sorry I didn’t call for months, ma).
- Forgetfulness (I was forgetting meetings, deadlines, people’s names, always my keys, when bills were due – basically everything.)
- Increased illness (I had bronchitis for over a month).
- Anger and irritability (I’m a particularly hot-headed person, and during this time completed many apology tours as a result of my rage).
There wasn’t one event that led me to realise I was completely burnt out. Like clinical depression and generalised anxiety – burnout’s close cousins – mental and physical decline happens gradually, and then suddenly. The onset is a slow and steady decline in happiness and fulfilment, and then one day you realise you’ve been seeing the world through turd-stained glasses for quite some time.
A year ago last Wednesday, I took a 3-month trip around Europe. And in April of this year, I booked myself in for another adventure in August. This time I went for a much shorter period, and the reason is two-fold: I thrive in stability and couldn’t mentally handle another long-haul jaunt, and I knew that taking 5 weeks off work wouldn’t be too hard to manage in terms of cash flow.
So on the 10th of August, I headed off to London, Amsterdam and Italy for over a month of relaxation. And if I’m to be honest here, a lot of pizza and Aeperol.
For the first week, I barely left my friend’s couch in Hackney, choosing to watch Game of Thrones and to listen to podcasts over pub-crawls and rides on the London eye. I know, I know, London’s not exactly a city to find zen, and its appeal lies within the endless list of activities on your doorstep. So I did make time to see a play on the West End, visit Hampstead Heath, go shopping, and ensure I checked out London’s prime vegan restaurants…eventually.
I didn’t manage to fully unwind until halfway through my trip, when I found myself moving throughout the day without a sense of urgency. I was no longer checking my phone on autopilot, and no longer opening my computer first thing. Entire days were mine, and aside from completing a bit of work for regular content marketing clients, I was a free woman.
This was the first proper holiday I’d had in over 5 years.
As a self-employed copywriter, I generally work public holidays, my birthday, other people’s birthdays, New Years, every day up until Christmas, and even when I’m sick. An entire weekend off is what I would call a retreat.
But as a pair of phlegmy lungs most recently taught me, time off is essential to your productivity and mental health.
Here are just a few of the ways I’ve noticed my health improving over the past few weeks:
- Improved cognitive capacity. I’m able to concentrate for longer periods of time…as long as I turn my phone off.
- Increased creativity. When your mind is darting off in other directions – my podcast, my friends, family, dating, what to eat for lunch, have I bought cat food? – it’s hard to produce high quality work. When you’ve given your brain a chance to regenerate, it’s been found that you can produce your most creative ideas. This is why meditation is proven to be so beneficial. https://www.wired.com/story/googlers-avoid-burnout-secretly-boost-creativity/
- Stronger ability to solve complex problems. When you’re stressed out, even the smallest problem can turn into an emotional volcano. With a fully rested mind and body, I found little hiccups like cancelled accommodation and misplaced items easier to manage.
- Renewed motivation. After almost 5 complete weeks off work (bar a few blog posts for regular clients), I’ve found myself actually EXCITED to return to my computer and begin writing. Nothing makes you appreciate your job more than spending time away from it (and realising that the reason you CAN take 5 weeks off work is because you’re your own boss).
All of this isn’t to say that I didn’t have my sacrifices to bear. In order to enjoy this trip, I turned down a very high-paying contract job, a speaking opportunity, two podcast interviews for All We Cannot Say and a writing job for a luxury property development. But these are the brunts one must bear when self employment is your status. Taking a holiday without passive income streams means decreased cash flow. But for the sake of my health and happiness, it was worth it.
I want to know why, in this age of busyness, and despite all that we know about chronic stress, we’re still making ourselves sick with productivity. If we’re not making time for the normal, daily things that bring us joy outside of our pay checks, when does work become life? When work time stretches into Me Time, it’s easy to lose your identity and sanity amongst a sea of open tabs. It’s my greatest wish that our literal and our internal hard drives don’t crash before we lose our mental bandwidth.