I honestly feel like I am the least qualified person to write about leadership burnout. I am the queen of taking too much on. In fact, I ended up in the hospital twice last semester since I ran myself down so much. It was a low point in my college career…between schoolwork, SWE, job searching, and much more, I was running on about five hours of sleep for three days and hadn’t had a proper meal in days, either. Since I know you are all high-achievers, I don’t need to sit here and list all my activities and issues that were going on at the time…I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about. But as I sat on the hospital bed, completely overwhelmed and crying, I realized I had to make a change.
My own leadership burnout resulted from two main things: my inability to tell anyone no, and my inability to trust others with work.
It’s so easy to say yes to giving another presentation, that new-student tour, or putting extra hours into that outreach project. It’s hard to say no when you are afraid you will disappoint people and it’s nearly impossible, if not impossible, to say no when people depend on you. It’s nice to feel important, or needed, but it shouldn’t be at the sacrifice of your health or happiness. This is where prioritizing comes into play. Above everything else, your own well-being should be paramount. Sure, it is okay to have a rough week or pull an all-nighter every once in a while. But when getting less than six hours of sleep a night becomes the norm and you constantly feel anxious or overwhelmed, that is when it’s time to scale back. Of course you will have those extra-challenging days, but 5 Hour Energy and Red Bull should not be used as a crutch to get through the day. You can only squeeze so much into one day, and if your life consists of waking up, working nonstop, and getting a little sleep, only to repeat weeks on end, is that really living at all? Sure it’s important to try hard and do well, but do you really need that one extra thing on your resume or do you really need to give up every Saturday AND Sunday volunteering? Take that Sunday off and sleep until noon. Catching up on some laundry or tidying my room (although not relaxing) always helps to clear my mind. Spend some time doing something you enjoy, whether reading Game of Thrones, watching Pretty Little Liars, or shooting clay pigeons with your boyfriend. Taking some personal time is not selfish, it’s necessary for you to do your best work. Get some sleep, eat a few square meals, and skip out on a few opportunities that really aren’t necessary. Looking back, I could have probably done way less and scaled back on a lot of stress. I’m not saying that you should do your best, but if you are like me, you don’t need to give 110% all the time and burn yourself out. You’ll be glad for the recharge, and your work will be even better when you can actually give 100%.
The second thing I’ve learned that I need to do it to trust other people, both that they will do work and do the work well. It’s so easy to say, “Oh, I’ll just take care of it myself.” You know the quality of your own work and it’s so easy and convenient to depend on yourself. However, similar to what was previously discussed, it is way too easy to have a bunch of these “little things” pile up into one big thing. This issue is often even harder than the first one. You can regulate your own priorities, but you can’t regulate others’ priorities. Maybe the work they do is not quite to the standard that you would have done it, or worse, maybe they don’t do it at all. This is a bit of a double-edged sword, but it’s important to not do everything yourself. Not only do you overload yourself, but what will happen when you are no longer there? An important part of succession planning dictates that your successors are properly trained and have the knowledge necessary to complete the work you leave behind. If you take on too much, your knowledge and experience grows, but no one else’s does. Even though you may worry or doubt, it’s important to trust others with work so that others will learn.
For me, these were my two main reasons for leadership burnout…yours may be different. Still, if you want to make sure that you can continue being an effective leader, you can’t let yourself get burned out.