In May 2015, I took a two week vacation. Not to go dancing with my wife. Not for a trip with friends. To try to escape burnout – a slowly creeping manifestation of many hard to define and even harder to accept symptoms. Taking a vacation to escape burnout is roughly equivalent to placing a cone on your dog's head so it doesn't bite it's body while it's wounds heal.
In October and November 2015, I took a two month break. With the support of my wife, business partner, and team, I made my best effort to hand off everything I could, turn on my autoresponder, and stop worrying. I still found myself involved in work-related responsibilities in six of the eight weeks I was out, but the two-month period was helpful for buying myself enough time to start to see clearly again.
Admitting I had reached a point of burnout felt like an excuse. But I understand all too acutely now: the symptoms are real and the symptoms don't go away unless you take the time to accept them for what they are.
This post is written as a reminder to my future self of what burning out feels like and to share my story as honestly as I can in hopes to help a few others avoid the trouble.
Over the past year I've done a lot, but the roots of burning out date back farther than that. My company Barrel Strength Design has grow over 100% in the past two years. In addition to a good amount of design and development work, we launched a community website and plugin store, 3 commercial plugins, and a website and data migration service.
Between our client services and software development work, we have clients in 25 countries and our team has grown to over 8 people across 6 time zones.
Within the business, my time has been split across just about everything – technical tasks, operations, management, sales, outreach, marketing, product development, and more.
On the personal side, a diversity of roles exist as well – from individual to spouse to family member to friend to community member and so on.
The joys of growing a business are plentiful. You grow as an individual, learn to empower and trust others, and, with some persistence, you get a front-row seat to see things that you believe in and would never have had the time or knowledge to accomplish on your own come to life.
However, along with a growing business comes a lot of change, and the rate of change can easily outpace you. In my case I started in a technical role (as a designer/developer) which I was comfortable and experienced in. I quickly had to transition into roles of sales, operations, management, and leadership, where I was not nearly as familiar with my strengths and weaknesses. This type of transition led to a feeling of imposter syndrome and does not improve when you try to solve everything yourself.
Our team at Barrel Strength was growing. I was proud of our team members and our accomplishments. But as my role changed, my original goals became increasingly misaligned with what I had to spend my time doing day to day. As I tried to take responsibility for my new roles, I didn’t know how to relieve myself of responsibility from my previous roles. My time became spread thin, my ability to meet my own expectations and the expectations of others grew harder, and the quality of my work suffered.
When I started designing and developing websites as a one-person shop, I took on a variety of projects that matched up well with my experience or fit within my reach. My leads came from my personal networks and word of mouth referrals and the promises I made relied mostly on my own ability to get things done.
I’m generally a financially responsible person and one of the first things I believe in buying myself when I have extra cash on hand is several months in my savings account. It makes it easier to say "no" to a project that is not a good fit or pursue personal growth opportunities. It also helps iron over the volatility of business cycles and gives me peace of mind. No project this month? No worries! Pull a little out of savings and keep pressing forward.
As our company became the primary source of income for more members on our team, I was no longer responsible for only my own finances, but also became responsible for factors that affect the financial stability of others. No project this month? No worries! Pull a little out of savings and… wait, how many people do I need to pull money out for?
It's a scary amount of responsibility for which it’s easy to overcompensate. While I already had a full schedule, I felt I had to do more. I increased my responsibilities and it was easy to come up short.
I worked all the time, attempting to make sure things were well with clients, employees, contractors, customers, community, friends, family, … spouse…
… and myself, right?
Over the course of 2015, I slowly began to exhibit the following symptoms:
In retrospect, I can only wonder why I didn’t try to course correct sooner. Having the most trusted people in your life tell you every day that what you are doing is unsustainable and having your body exhibit physical manifestations of your level of stress should be a clear enough signal that something needs to change.
Obligation and responsibility are strong influences as well, and, as I didn’t know how to change myself, my outdated personal expectations and efforts to come through with my promises to others got the better of me.
It was only when I began to accept that I wasn’t coming through with my promises or meeting my own expectations that I realized that I had to figure out how to take several steps back and reset.
The slow path to burnout ingrains itself in a much deeper way than the physical symptoms it manifests. The small decisions you repeat daily for years of time become a part of you. They become part of your expectations, emotions, and what you feel is normal. As the symptoms become deeper, they also change the composition of your relationships – personal and professional.
As they say, practice makes permanent.
There is no silver bullet or spa-day that will unwire the entangled depths of what years of deliberate, unintentional practice has ingrained.
With time and patience and the support of people close to me, I was able to identify the environment contributing to my burnout and many of the bad habits I had practiced for years that helped maintain it. It was time to begin to consciously take steps toward a more healthy balance. For me this included:
Sleep, pause, exercise, eat well
It’s usually some combination of all of these that is the foundation of good health, healing, and a clear mind. Over the years I’ve invested a good bit of time on good practices in each of these areas. Learning to more quickly observe and accept imbalances in this foundation as a signal for change would probably be worth my while.
Find a support network
Once I began sharing my situation with more people I was surprised to learn how many people had gone through a similar experience. As with most things, it turns out my situation wasn’t very unique at all. I just didn’t know what words everybody used to talk about it. I reconnected with old friends I had been neglecting and strengthened new friendships with others who could closer identify with my current situation. Everyone encouraged me to take steps to change, and I needed to hear it over and over.
I’m very thankful to my business partner and team at Barrel Strength who encouraged me to take a break, stepped up and helped take responsibilities off my plate, and convinced me I should be trusting them more.
Get re-aligned with the right values and goals
This was the hardest component for me. I had to acknowledge where I had ended up and how different that was from where I wanted to be.
As I identified new goals that aligned better with my current roles and re-discovered old values which had lost focus, I had to find the strength to publicly change my actions and opinions to re-align with them (personally and professionally). This type of change can’t happen without hard, honest conversations with people you care about on things you’d prefer to not have to say.
The benefit of being persistent and getting this right however is immense. It renewed my motivation; relieved a lot of the pressure to do things in the ways that were dragging me down; and was the foundation of stronger, healthier relationships moving forward.
Make sure your roles really complement your goals
With growing responsibilities, you can’t do everything the same way you have in the past. I’ve learned I’m not happy unless I’m able to do some technical work. So, I need to have some time each week where I get to sketch an idea, help out with support, or fix a bug. It helps me feel connected with the products our team is designing and understand the workflows and tools we use.
But you can’t pursue many big ideas or manage a multi-person business with technical skills alone. If you try, you run out of hours in the day. My goals have had to shift to embrace more managerial and leadership responsibilities. I’ve been putting more energy into my responsibility to do those roles well, including working with our team to get the right people into leadership roles where I am not the best person to be the lead any longer.
While I've probably represented it the least in this story, my role as a husband was probably the role where I was most out of line with my goals, and where my self-referential story of burnout imposed the most hardship on somebody else. As my role in the business got the better of me, my roles in my personal life got the short end of the stick. Before my wife and I got married, her mother offered one of my favorite bits of advice. To paraphrase: Some days a relationship is 80/20. Some days it's 20/80. In the long run, a good relationship is 50/50.
The amount of emotional bandwidth I've taken in our relationship in the past few years is significant. I can express gratitude and appreciation all day long but, at the end of the day, my role has some catching up to do.
I don't propose to have a solution or claim to have any expert knowledge around the topic of burnout. I'm sure I will continue to struggle with boundaries and limits in many ways. There are problems you can fix and ongoing problems you learn to manage. Imbalance in life is not a problem you fix; it's a problem you learn to manage.
To my friends and family and community, it’s nice to be enough months down the road that I can share some reflections on this experience. Thanks for looking out for me before I was looking out for myself.
To anybody reading this who wonders if they are burning out, you probably are. Now you just need to convince yourself. A talk by Fred LeBlanc at Peers Conference, Surviving Digital Overwhelm & Burnout, helped convince me I was in that camp and ready for a change.
To my future self, take your wife dancing!