In Chapter 5 we looked at productivity. While it’s true that you can use productivity tools and techniques to work more efficiently and effectively, there is no magic productivity hack that will solve an excessive workload. Even the most efficient system won’t work if there is too much input for the available resources to process. If you have optimized your productivity and still genuinely have an excessive workload that doesn’t fit into a reasonable amount of daily work hours, then it’s important that you recognize the problem upfront before it develops into burnout.
You might be reading this and feel that while you’re working longer hours to manage your workload, it isn’t burning you out. I’m not talking about a sprint to deal with a short term spike in work. Those times will come along now and then. As will those times where a colleague falls ill and is away for a few days. Or someone quits, and there’s a brief gap before their replacement is able to start working for you. Those situations are fine, as long as they are exceptions.
Problems arise when the exceptions become the rule and you find yourself lurching from crisis to crisis, in a chronically short-staffed state, with constant promises of things getting better ‘once you get over this latest hurdle.’
Stress is good, in reasonable amounts and with adequate rest to compensate for it. Periods of manageable stress, followed by rest, are how we achieve growth.
But we simply can’t handle extended periods of overwork without suffering a negative consequence. We do not have infinite capacity in us to work harder to compensate for overload. Persistent stress does not lead to growth, it leads to burnout.
Burnout is a very real problem in the technology industry. Ironically, denial of burnout is one of the symptoms of burnout. People who are starting to burn out usually don’t realize it, until they end up physically and emotionally crashing.
There are many signs of burnout. Some are more obvious than others. Most signs of burnout can be summarized into a few general categories. They are:
- poor life/work balance
- negative attitude
- declining mental health
- declining physical health
The main trigger for burnout is workload. Too many tasks, with not enough time to complete them, and no support or resources to achieve what is expected of you. Sadly, much of the technology industry accepts excessive workload as the norm. Martyrdom is commonplace, with workers sacrificing their personal time to work longer hours for no additional compensation.
Burnout is not always an obvious condition. When we think of burnout, we often think of someone ‘snapping’ or ‘hitting the wall.’ That type of total physical and emotional breakdown does happen. But for those people, burnout started well before they reached that point.
A negative attitude is one of the early signs of burnout. Most people will start a new job with enthusiasm and joy. That lasts anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Eventually the reality of a job sets in. Stress starts to accumulate. Little things about the job start to annoy you. Questions or problems are approached with a cynical attitude.
This doesn’t happen at every job. Some companies have successfully solved most of the problems within their control that lead to employee burnout. But it happens at enough companies that I know many of you are nodding your head as you read this.
The negativity begins to degrade our mental health. Normal responsibilities start to seem like a chore. The prospect of more work starts to drain us of energy. Instead of feeling excited about new challenges, we dread them. That feeling can spill over into our personal lives as well. It’s hard to wake up in the morning and feel unhappy at the prospect of another day at a job you don’t enjoy, and not have that unhappiness manifest itself at home. Some people just go quiet, others become irritable and snappy with family and friends. Similarly, coming home from work feeling stressed out and exhausted leaves us no energy to spend that valuable time on hobbies or with loved ones. The mental rest and regeneration that we need, and that our hobbies and idle time provide, is no longer taking place. Without realizing it, a lot of people on the verge of a breakdown just feel miserable all the time.
Self-doubt creeps in as we start to question whether we’re cut out for this type of career at all. Feelings of meaningless, and a desire to just quit, are often internalized because of workplace cultures that don’t encourage open communication about stress and mental health.
The physical symptoms also creep up on us slowly. Weight gain, recurring illnesses, loss of fitness, headaches, fatigue, inability to sleep, and other physical symptoms are often triggered by burnout, but don’t appear all at once. Unfortunately, they also contribute to a vicious cycle. When we’re overloaded at work, it’s common to spend more time working and less time taking care of ourselves. Without adequate sleep, we’re less prepared to tackle the next day’s challenges, which increases the feeling of overwhelm. And as stress leads to compensation with things like fast food and alcohol, our bodies start to take an even bigger battering.
Too many people these days embrace a ‘hustle and grind’ mentality. If you just work hard enough, you’ll get on top of everything. And if you aren’t there yet, then you must work even harder to get there.
But that’s not the nature of IT work. Our job is an endless stream of new work coming in. You’re never finished. All you can do is keep the work moving through at an acceptable rate. Pick up a new task, do it well, and close it off with no lingering bits left over to worry about. Draw a line at the end of the day and go home, satisfied that you’ve had a productive day. Enjoy your personal time, get some rest, and come back refreshed the next day to take on the next challenge.
Tips for Dealing with Burnout
Hopefully you recognize the signs of burnout before they become a serious issue for you. Stopping the problems before they become harmful is a lot easier than recovering from a breakdown. Sadly, many of us will get to that point at least once in our careers before we learn the lessons. To stop burnout in its tracks, here are some tips.
- Keep your work hours at a sensible level. 40 hours is reasonable for a full-time employee. Unplanned excess hours should be rare. Planned excess hours should also be uncommon, and should be compensated by overtime or paid time off.
- Take breaks during the day. I try to take a rest pause at least once per hour. Go for a short walk, use the restroom, drink some water, then work out what you’re going to focus on next and go back to work. This is also good for undoing some of the damage that a desk-bound job does to our bodies.
- Take your meal break. In a normal work day a 30 to 60 minute break is crucial. Get away from your desk and eat some food. Don’t take calls or check emails. Ask your boss or teammates to text you if something critical comes up.
- Take sick days when you’re sick. I consider presenteeism to be one of the worst habits of office workers. If you’re sick, don’t spread that around the office. Don’t drag it out longer by continuing to exert yourself. Rest at home for a day or two and come back healthy. Work remotely if you feel able to. But you’ll recover much faster and return to productivity sooner by resting.
- Take holidays and short vacations throughout the year. My family plans for a weekend getaway three to four times per year. You don’t need to go far, just somewhere that breaks up the routine and provides some physical and mental refreshment. At least once per year we also take a longer vacation of a week or more. This can be as simple as a week away in a cabin by the beach, but we also enjoy saving up for overseas holidays every few years.
- Treat your personal time as sacred. Spend time with family and friends, being fully present with them and not distracted by work. Take up hobbies that are fun and give you energy. Use your free time to eat healthy and have an active lifestyle.
I don’t like the term ‘work-life balance.’ I think it is a backward way of looking at things. A good life is more important than your work. Yes, some people love their jobs, and are passionate about their work. I love helping people solve problems. But I won’t sacrifice my entire life to do it.
Having a life is crucial to avoiding burnout and maintaining your health and happiness. But a good life-work balance won’t simply be handed to you. You need to fight for it, and once you have it, you need to defend it.
Andrew was a network administrator at a mid-sized company. He was the only person who could make changes to the network firewalls. The head of IT wasn’t willing to pay to hire or train someone else to help Andrew, so all firewall change requests needed Andrew to do the work.
With many projects ongoing at any time, there was a steady stream of firewall changes being requested. On top of his daily workload, Andrew was being asked to design firewall changes based on a project’s requirements, get the changes approved through the change management process, and then perform the change.
Of course, you wouldn’t want to make too many changes to a firewall at once. One change to the firewall configuration was permitted each day. The company was risk averse, and all firewall changes had to be performed outside of core business hours. Each change also needed to be tested, usually the next day. If the change didn’t work, Andrew had to try again the next night.
Andrew’s job soon became an endless backlog of firewall change requests, working each night to implement changes, and then reshuffling the backlog any time one of the changes didn’t work. Andrew was constantly fatigued, getting home late each night after his kids were already asleep, and often working a few hours on weekends as well. The stress was piling up, and Andrew couldn’t see a way out of it.
What if you just say no?
That was my advice to Andrew. Just say no.
I have worked for managed service providers (MSPs). Anyone who has worked for an MSP knows the workload is ridiculous, and expectations are that you will work 50+ hours a week so you can bill at least 40 hours on client work, if not more. Burnout is very common for MSP employees. I suffered from it myself. On one outrageously underestimated project I stayed awake for 37 hours straight, until I simply could not stand up. It was unsafe, but I didn’t know any better at the time, and the project managers only cared about getting the work done.
After burning out from MSP work, I later found myself working for a mining company. Mining companies take employee safety very seriously, because mine sites are dangerous places. The same focus on safety extends all the way to employees in office buildings. Offices are a lot safer to work in than mine sites, but still have a surprising number of hazards.
The first thing I noticed was noone worked excessive hours. I was contracted to work a minimum of 36 hours per week and if I got all my work done in that time, I could call it a week. Meanwhile, the maximum hours I was allowed to work in a week was capped at 50 to prevent fatigue.
When I later joined an operations team at the company, the same focus on health and safety continued. If a teammate was up late dealing with an on call alarm, they simply messaged the team to let everyone know they’d be in late the next day so they could get some rest. Skills were shared among the team, so that no single person had to manage the entire load of a particular type of work. And if you had an evening change planned, you were encouraged to leave work early to make up for it.
That company taught me a lot about healthy workloads. The quality of my work increased because I wasn’t tired all the time. When work requests came my way, I was free to say no and propose a different target date that wouldn’t require me to work excessive hours. My moods improved to an almost zen-like state of calm, even when critical incidents occurred. I made better decisions and enjoyed the feeling that work would end each day, and resume the next, without the constant pressure to squeeze in more billable hours. I was home on time for family dinner more often than not, and always knew which weekends I was responsible for on call so that we could plan around it.
Which is why I told Andrew to just say no.
Now, obviously Andrew couldn’t just refuse to do any work. He was responsible for making firewall changes, and those changes were critical for the projects that were happening. He needed a strategy to manage his workload while still keeping project managers happy.
But nobody else was going to solve this problem for him. Andrew went to his manager with a proposal.
- All firewall changes for projects must be made on Tuesdays and Thursdays. No other days. This would allow Andrew to get his other work done without as many interruptions by projects.
- Andrew must be provided with the change details seven days ahead of the change window to allow him time to complete the change management process, which involved a weekly meeting of the change approval board.
- The project must supply someone to perform testing at the time of the change, so that any problems could be identified and fixed immediately instead of having to reschedule the change for another night.
- To make up for the two evenings of firewall changes, Andrew could leave the office early on Fridays.
Andrew’s manager agreed to try it, but said that if it caused any project delays they would have to go back to the old way of doing things. When I caught up with Andrew a few months later he gave me an update. At first, the project managers didn’t like the new policy. They felt that it would slow down their projects. Andrew assured them that their requests just needed to be submitted about two weeks before they needed them, which was reasonable considering these projects were designed and planned months in advance. And by testing the changes immediately, they would cut down on the number of failed changes that needed to be retried later.
And it worked. Andrew felt (and looked) much better. The firewall changes were getting done, and Andrew was spending less time at the office in the evenings. He told me his family life now worked around his two planned evenings of work. Simple pleasures like reading books and watching Netflix were back in his life. On Fridays he was able to leave the office early and pick up his kids from school, and on weekends they could plan fun activities to do together as a family.
By not letting work consume his entire life, Andrew achieved a healthy life-work balance. And all it took was one small change to how he handled project requests.
If that sounds like an impossible outcome to you, I would ask you to really think about what changes you can make in your work that would make it possible. Remember, nobody is going to solve this problem for you. Come up with a plan that keeps your boss and your customers happy, and that gives you back control of your life.
If your plan is rejected, at least you tried. And now you can think seriously about whether it’s time to move on and find a new job.
YOUR PHYSICAL HEALTH
I was 30 years old when our first child was born. Having a child puts a lot of things in your life into perspective. My mind was racing as I held our son in my arms for the first time. Suddenly we had a whole new set of responsibilities, me as a father, and my wife as a mother. I wanted to help provide a good life for our son. I wanted to play a role in his life for as long as possible. I’ve always enjoyed life and had reasons to live, but now I had a reason to live for a long time.
The biggest risk to me living a long life was my physical health. The last time I had weighed myself the scales read 115kg (that’s 253lbs for you imperials). For a male of my height, that put me in the obese category of the BMI chart.
You know what’s really hard to do? Look at yourself in the mirror and for the first time realize you’re obese. Not stocky, big boned, or barrel chested. Obese.
It was no mystery how I’d become obese. My eating habits were terrible. I consumed too many calories each day, and a lot of them came from takeaway food, beer, and other junk. And my exercise habits had declined to the point where I wasn’t even walking the short distance from my house to the train station each day, preferring to drive because it was a bit hilly and I didn’t want to get sweaty.
Being overweight puts us at a high risk of a range of health problems including heart disease, kidney problems, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. Excess weight puts pressure on our vital organs and joints, causes sleep disorders, and can lead to chronic health conditions that severely diminish the quality and duration of our life.
Being overweight wasn’t just a risk to my health. It was also having a negative impact on my career. To put it simply, the fatter I got, the less confident I became. Going to a new customer site used to be one of the parts of the job I enjoyed, but now I felt a sense of dread at how people would judge me when we first met. Standing in front of an audience to deliver a presentation became a nightmare. My energy levels were low, causing my motivation to decline, and I was starting to have trouble delivering good quality results on time for my projects.
I even started to notice the avoidance habits I’d picked up, like waving off a crowded elevator because I didn’t want to be that fat guy that squeezed in last and made everyone else uncomfortable.
I decided to make a change in my life. I’d made that decision before, tried to change for the better, and failed. This time I had a big reason to succeedour son. I joined a gym near the office and started working out every day. I hired a personal trainer, told her I wanted to get healthy for my son, and gave her permission to push me harder than any other client she had.
Not all personal trainers are good. Some of them take their clients through the motions, knowing that most of them will quit in a few weeks anyway. Some of them take a deep interest in their clients, build a strong personal connection, and help their clients succeed in their goals. My personal trainer was one of the latter. She was the first one to tell me, “You can’t outrun your fork.” What that means is, no amount of exercise will overcome a bad diet. She laid out a plan for me. I would see her one session a week, work out on my own three to four other days each week, and log all my exercise and food in a small notebook. This was before the days of smartphones and health apps like MyFitnessPal. We had to do it the hard way, with pen and paper. Each week she would review my notebook and give me advice on where to make adjustments.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EATING RIGHT
Have you ever logged your eating and drinking for a week to see what it looks like? If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. When I started keeping a food diary for my personal trainer, I realized just how much bad food I was eating. When you’re tired, busy and stressed, it’s easy to grab a burger and a Coke from the local takeaway for lunch, scoff it down fast, and get back to work. When you have to write ‘burger, chips, and Coke’ in a diary and show that to your personal trainer, it’s a lot harder.
Most people fail at changing their eating habits because they screw it up, badly. Before I had a personal trainer to offer nutritional advice I’d made dozens of attempts to establish a healthy diet myself. They usually went something like this:
- Saturday, after a rough week and a big night out, I’d decide to change things.
- On Sunday I’d do my weekly grocery shop and buy ‘healthy’ foods.
- On Monday morning I’d eat a breakfast of eggs and fruit juice. I’d pack a chicken salad and take it to work with me. By lunchtime I’d be starving and wolf down the chicken salad in no time. I’d drink water all day, avoiding sodas and other sugary drinks. At home in the evening I’d cook up a chicken breast, make a salad, and eat it for dinner. I’d then fight the sugar cravings until bedtime, and go to sleep hungry.
- On Wednesday, having suffered through two whole days of this plan, my willpower would crack and I’d grab a muffin for morning tea. By mid-afternoon, with my energy levels cratering, it’d be off to the snack machine for a packet of chips or a candy bar.
- By Friday night, no surprises, I’d be ordering pizza for dinner and after eating it, push the whole idea of getting healthy out of my mind. You can’t feel guilty about failing if you just pretend you never tried in the first place.
Naturally the first week of my food diary was embarrassingly bad. But my trainer was expecting that, and had a lot of great advice to give me. The first thing she told me to do was eat eggs for breakfast. I’ve already tried that, I told her. I get hungry a few hours later. Besides, it gets boring.
Of course, she had an answer for that. Add some extra egg whites to boost the amount of protein. Add a piece of wholemeal toast (no butter) for some slow release carbs. And use things like tabasco sauce, curry powder, or some cracked pepper to add flavor. Change it up day to day and you won’t get bored, she told me. Besides, most people are happy to eat the same breakfast cereal every single day. The problem is, they’re addicted to all the sugar and processed carbs, so they’re willing to keep eating it. Health foods need a bit of dressing up sometimes to keep them from getting boring, because they don’t always give us the same dopamine kick that highly processed foods do.
She then told me to try to eat something every two to three hours to keep the cravings from overcoming my willpower. A morning snack of some fruit or veggie sticks with cottage cheese, wholemeal crackers with some cheese, or a protein shake if I was short on time.
Lunch was where the magic happened. My trainer gave me a simple formula for creating lunches. A portion of lean protein, a portion of complex carbohydrates, and a portion of mostly green vegetables. Each portion was to be about the size of the palm of my hand. For protein I used chicken breast or lean beef. I simply cooked up a batch of it at the start of the week with some spices, and portioned out what I needed each day. For carbs I used brown rice and wholemeal pasta. And for vegetables I used those little bags of frozen veggies you can steam in the microwave. Because of the variety that was available I almost never ate the same meal twice in a week.
Throw in one more afternoon snack some days, and dinner that followed a similar formula to lunch, and before I knew it the weight started to fall off me. I kept track of my weight milestones in the food and exercise diary, and after a few months I proudly handed it to my trainer at the start of a session and pointed to the weight on the page – 97kg (213lbs). I had lost 18kg (nearly 40lbs). She didn’t let me celebrate for long. The session that day was brutal.
These days there is so much information available online for how to lose weight, it’s hard to know where to begin. Ask around and you’ll get all kinds of advice. Try a whole foods diet, plant-based, Paleo, vegan, Keto, low-carb, no-carb, no sugar, intermittent fasting. Install this app, track your macros, read this book, sign up for that program, eat these bars, drink these shakes.
It’s crazy. And a lot of it is unnecessarily complicated. When my trainer moved away to a different city I kept going at it alone. I did more research into workout routines, macronutrient ratios, and zeroed in on habits and routines that worked well for me. A year after I had started, my weight loss had exceeded 30kg (66lbs) by following a simple system. You might have read about this system online as CICO – Calories In, Calories Out.
- Work out your daily calorie intake for maintaining weight.
- Track your eating and drinking (calories in).
- Burn more energy than you consume (calories out).
- Keep a balanced macronutrient intake of around 40% protein, 20-30% carbs, and 20-30% healthy fats.
That was enough for someone like me (who was obese) to start losing weight. Once you get some momentum going, you can then dive into more nutritional detail such as cutting out refined carbs and sugars, and eating a diet that is made up of mostly unprocessed foods you prepare yourself. Some of that will just happen naturally as you make adjustments to stay within the boundaries of that simple system. For example, reducing your carb intake will have you cutting down the amount of breakfast cereal you eat. But in doing so, you’ll realize just how small a single serving of most cereals is, and you’ll likely end up hungry an hour later. Instead, you’ll go looking for alternatives that are more filling, give you better energy throughout the morning, and don’t blow your entire daily carb budget on a single meal.
The rest you will pick up as you go along, making adjustments as you learn more about your body and what type of fueling it responds well to. After a while you won’t even need to track your eating, because you will have developed good habits. And that’s the key to sustainable weight loss. A diet built around deprivation, or based on expensive meal replacement shakes and bars won’t last. Either your willpower will crumble, or once you go back to eating regular food you will gain weight again because you’ve learned nothing about healthy eating.
I won’t tell you that you have to follow a specific system. I’ve tried vegetarianism, Paleo, no-carb, no sugar, and many other variations. But what I’ve settled on, and what works for me today, is a lifestyle that cuts out most processed foods and is based on food we prepare ourselves from simple ingredients. I don’t even track calories or macros at this point. If I eat right, I have energy to get through the day, and I don’t gain weight. If I eat badly, I’ll notice immediately. Fatigue, headaches, moodiness, stomach problems, gas and bloating. Any of those things are a sign that I’ve let something unhealthy into my eating. When you consistently eat healthy over a sustained period of time, you realize just how bad all that other food was for you. Suddenly the free pizzas for staying late to work on a project are a lot less appealing.
Here’s an example of a typical day of food for me now if you’re looking for ideas:
- Breakfast is a glass of water straight away, then a coffee with a dash of milk and a breakfast burrito. I make a batch of burritos each week. Some are bacon and egg, and the others are chicken or turkey with black beans, corn, and a little salsa and cheese for flavor. They freeze easily, and it’s just a matter of defrosting them overnight and toasting them up in the sandwich press for a few minutes. My kids love them too. They haven’t eaten packaged breakfast cereal in a long time.
- I exercise early in the day before work starts, so depending on what my workout was I’ll have a smoothie for a mid-morning snack with some coconut water, half a frozen banana, berries, and some protein (hemp protein powder is my current favorite). If you don’t have access to a blender, get your hands on a protein shaker and just eat the fruit along with it.
- Lunch will be leftovers from dinner, or a simple salad with some protein added, and some carbs like brown rice. My wife cooks a whole chicken on the weekend, so there’s always shredded chicken ready to add to salads and wraps.
- With my afternoon coffee (although I’m trying to switch to tea instead) I’ll have a little snack, such as a date and almond energy ball that I make at home each week, or apple slices with some almond butter.
- Dinner will depend on the day of the week. We have a mixed routine during the week. Some nights there’s time to cook a whole meal, other times we’re taking the kids to after school activities and events and we rely on slow cooker meals or prepped meals that just need reheating. As an example, tonight we had a simple Thai beef stir fry. No processed, sugary stir fry sauces involved. Just fresh ingredients, a little soy sauce, some basil, and some brown rice to go with it. Each weekend we also try one new recipe that we’ve found online, and if we like it then we add it to the rotation.
- Throw in a piece of fruit or some coconut yoghurt for dessert if necessary.
And that’s it. All of that food is delicious and healthy. I have consistent energy all day without the sugar spikes and crashes that a diet high in processed carbs and sugar causes. Better energy means better focus, which improves the quality of my work. Producing quality work provides a feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment, which in turn helps to maintain happiness. And being happy in our daily lives is the goal here.
There’s no need to punish yourself with low calorie diets, or strictly exclude certain foods. Deprivation just leads to resentment and unhappiness. We never feel deprived or bored with the food we eat. There’s still the occasional restaurant meal or treat thrown into the mix, but even at restaurants we tend to choose healthier options. If you build a lifestyle around healthy food that tastes good, I know that you will start to look and feel a lot healthier.
Tips for Healthy Eating
It’s not easy to change from an unhealthy diet of packaged, processed foods to a healthy lifestyle all in one go. Here are some tips to help you make the transition.
- Solve one problem at a time. Pick one thing, such as snacks or breakfast, and focus on changing that in the first week. When you have that under control, move on to lunch, then dinner.
- Try one new healthy recipe each week. We find that weekends are perfect for this because there is more time to go shopping for fresh ingredients that we don’t already have at home, and slowly work through an unfamiliar recipe.
- Save time and avoid decision fatigue by meal planning and prepping. Instead of worrying each day what you’re going to eat, plan out your entire week’s meals and do some meal prep on the weekends to get ready for them. We make batches of snacks, lunches that can be frozen and reheated, and even dinners for nights that we know we’ll be home late with little time to cook.
- Cook extra portions for dinner as well, and freeze those for lunches and emergency dinners later.
- Track your calories with an app like MyFitnessPal, at least for a few weeks while you learn what works and what doesn’t. In the long term your goal should be to have a healthy lifestyle that runs on autopilot without constant tracking. If you feel like you’re starting to slip a bit, start tracking again for a week or two and make the necessary adjustments.
- If you’re trying to eat healthy and you’re constantly hungry it means you’re eating too much of the wrong things, or not enough of the right things. Eating healthy doesn’t mean starving yourself.
Good nutrition is the foundation of a healthy life. But exercise plays an important part as well. For people who are trying to lose some weight like I was, exercise is a key part of burning off more energy than you consume in a day.
My gym membership and personal trainer got me started on my fitness journey. But getting fit in the gym with no other goal in mind is not how I personally am able to maintain motivation. Sure, for a while it was enough to set goals such as improving my bench press or deadlift. But I needed more than that.
The two changes that provided the biggest motivation boosts for me to continue exercising were:
- Exercising as a means of transport
- Exercising as a social activity
Making exercise a form of transportation was fairly simple for me. I’m fortunate to live in a part of the world where the depths of winter involve wearing a coat for three to four weeks. For the rest of the year, the morning and evening temperatures are mild enough for outdoor activities. We also have bike paths on many of the main roads that run in and out of the city, and most suburban areas are pretty safe for cyclists as well. I happened to be working in a building with shower and locker facilities, so after a few chats to my colleagues I decided to stop taking the train to and from work and take up cycling instead.
A decent bicycle and accessories cost about the same as a year of train trips, so financially it was an easy decision. Logistically it took a few weeks to adjust. I had to store my work clothes in my locker at the office, and started using a dry cleaner near work to clean them. That just left my lunch and a clean pair of socks to carry in my backpack while I was cycling.
Physically the rides were brutal to begin with. Cycling uses different muscles than weight lifting and running. But my body adjusted quickly and before long I was cruising in and out of the city each day on my bike, getting a decent workout each time.
Exercising as a social activity took a little bit more effort. Since I love basketball I decided to put my name down at the local club to see if I could get onto a team. I got a call within a few weeks, but ended up on a team that was pretty hopeless. I’m no superstar myself though, and I’m only average height. So I just treated each game as a good excuse to get out and run around, meet people, and have a few laughs. We won maybe two or three games that year.
These days I have retired from basketball and am an avid trail runner. Running trails is a very social activity. I can run alone, or with a friend, or with one of many running groups in this area that organize group runs on Facebook.
Exercise has a funny way of adjusting your nutritional intake for you. Once you’re hooked on running, you start to push your limits and try to see how much further or faster you can run. The more you run, the more aware you become of how your body responds to the fuel you give it. Eating a diet of processed food results in poor performance. Eating a diet of clean, healthy foods will have you running further than you ever thought possible.
Exercise is also great for your mental health. I’ve lost count of the number of big, complex problems I’ve solved in my mind while out for a run. And even a quick jog at lunchtime is enough to remove the morning’s stress and set me up for a more relaxed, productive afternoon.
Tips for Fitting Exercise Into Your Day
The most important thing with exercise is to make time for it. Don’t wait until you can find time. I know not everyone can get to the gym in the morning or evenings, so here are some tips on other ways you can fit exercise into your busy day.
- Join a sports club or cycling/running/ walking group to make exercise a social event.
- Add exercise to your normal routine. Get off the bus or train one stop earlier, and walk the rest of the way to the office. Or turn your whole commute into a workout by running or cycling to work.
- Use your lunch break for exercising. If you have a nearby gym, it’s possible to walk there, get changed, do a 30-minute intense workout, shower and dress, and be back at your desk within the hour. Eat your lunch afterwards while you work.
- To save even more time at the gym, ask your boss if you can take lunch earlier to avoid peak times at the gym.
- If your office has showers and change facilities, put on some running clothes and shoes and take a nice easy jog for 30 minutes during your lunch break.
- If the weather is bad, find a place to exercise in your building. Try a bodyweight workout routine in the basement carpark. Or just put on some music or podcasts and walk up and down the internal stairs.
- Not all workouts need to be intense. Change things up by adding in yoga or a good stretching session. There are lots of routines available for free on YouTube that you can follow along with.
DRUGS AND ALCOHOL
Here in Australia the legal age for drinking alcohol is 18. So, by the time most people leave high school, complete some tertiary education, and enter a professional career, they are already old enough to drink.
When I started my first IT job I had no money, and a lot of debt. I was also living in a new city, so I didn’t have any friends yet. That kept me away from the after-work social scene for quite a while. Eventually I started to get my finances under control, and a beer or two after work became a regular event. I worked in the city, so leaving the office on a Friday night and heading to a bar was pretty easy to do. Naturally that grew into a regular Friday night drinking session with the same people.
About 18 months into my first job I was offered the chance to move to Sydney to work on a project. I decided to accept the role, packed up my belongings, and moved into a room at a house I shared with two other guys that I’d never met. They were friendly, but had their own separate social lives, and were never around on weekends. I realized pretty quickly that the reason for that was there was nothing to do on weekends near our house. I had chosen the location because it was easy to get to the office every day. I hadn’t thought about whether there were fun things to do nearby on my down time.
Not that it mattered. The project I was working on was not very challenging, and I was working less than 40 hours most weeks. I was enjoying the quiet time, and had taken up running as a hobby. With no Friday night drinking to recover from, I suddenly had a lot more time and energy on weekends. I settled into a routine of coming home from work each day, going for a run, cooking a simple meal, and then watching a movie or playing some games. On weekends I would run some more, do my laundry and other tasks, study a little, watch more movies, and play more games. I lost a heap of weight, felt healthy and energetic, and aside from a little boredom now and then, was generally feeling pretty good.
That continued for six months until the project finished and I moved back to Brisbane and my old job again. That meant returning to the same social scene, so of course I started going out on Friday nights again. Pretty soon I was back to my old habits. My health started to decline, though I didn’t notice at the time.
Fast forward a few years, and I was working in a pretty high stress role for a managed service provider. One day I took stock of my situation and realized something. Like the rest of the team, I worked under a lot of pressure during the week. By Friday afternoon everyone was strung out and exhausted. Then the drinks fridge would be unlocked, and everyone would let the stress out by drinking heavily for an hour or two before heading home. Some of us kept drinking and would head out into the city to continue.
I found myself in a weekly cycle of being stressed to breaking point, and then using alcohol as a release valve to let it all out. I wasn’t drinking because I wanted to, I was drinking because I felt like I had to. This didn’t sit well with me, and one Saturday morning as I literally looked at myself in the mirror, I didn’t like what I saw.
Overweight, bags under my red eyes, pale skin. I looked terrible and was spending every weekend recovering from my big Friday night out. I wasn’t studying or learning anything new. I was really going nowhere at all.
If this was a perfect story I would tell you that I turned my life around at that point. But that’s not what happened at all. Instead, I tried to go one month without drinking any alcohol. It was hard, especially on that first Friday afternoon when all my colleagues were opening their first beer. I had a Diet Coke instead. I got through those four weeks without drinking. And then I started drinking again.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I worked out a better solution that balanced my enjoyment of drinking (I have a small whiskey collection, and enjoy good beers), with my desire to not use alcohol as a means to offset to the stress and pressure of work.
I attacked the problem in two ways. The first was to reduce the stress and pressure that work created. Earlier in this chapter I wrote about life-work balance, and the need to fight for good working conditions that don’t have you constantly overworked and under pressure. I fought that fight for years, slowly improving my situation through a combination of standing up for myself, and finding employers who treat their employees well.
The second method that I used was to adopt a simple rule. I would no longer get drunk in front of customers. As a consultant or project engineer I felt it was important to maintain a good, professional relationship with customers. Getting drunk in front of them would undermine that. Seeing the customers drunk would also undermine it. It was acceptable for me to have a beer or two with customers, but I always left before the event started to get a bit loose.
Working for internal IT departments was a bit more of a challenge. Going to the company Christmas party would mean being surrounded by colleagues who were actually your customers. So again, no drinking. In fact, I found it easier to either skip the party, or volunteer to cover for my team and keep an eye on our systems so they could attend the party if it was being held during business hours.
Once I had the work-related drinking under control, I started to look at ways to deal with social drinking. I’m not uncomfortable drinking around my friends and family, but I have made my health a priority in my life now. So I have a rule for that as well. I can drink as much as I want to, but I still have to get up the next day and exercise. That keeps me from blowing out and having a big night, most of the time. I’m not perfect, and I still slip up. But one of the things I’m proud of in my journey to better health is waking up the day after my 40th birthday celebrations and still managing to get a 4km (almost 2.5 miles) run done at my normal pace. That is a far cry from the old me who would have spent three to four days recovering from the party.
Why am I telling you all of this? It’s simple. I don’t want to dictate to you whether or not you should be drinking or taking drugs (legal or otherwise). You’re a grown up, it’s your life, and that’s your personal decision to make. As long as you can show up to work and do your job well then that will keep most employers satisfied.
What I’m suggesting, and what I’m trying to get across from sharing my personal story, is that you should look at your habits and ask yourself whether they’re holding you back from achieving your goals, growing your career into what you want it to be, and living your best life.
Say you’ve been meaning to lose weight, maybe you joined a gym and started bringing your lunch from home. But if you’re then drinking on weekends, and eating lots of ‘drunk food’ or ‘hangover food,’ you’re undoing all that good work during the week.
If you’ve been meaning to learn to code, maybe you have your eye on a training course to follow. But then if you’re spending your free time out partying, and you’re too tired and hungover to sit down and do the training, you’re not learning much at all.
If you want that promotion, but you spend half the week recovering from all the partying you did on the weekend, then you’re not going to be performing at a high enough level to impress the powers that be.
Decide what’s important in your life. Then give the important things in your life the priority they deserve.
Chapter 6 Recap
- Poor life-work balance, negative attitude, declining mental health and declining physical health are all signs of burnout. Be alert to them because making changes before a total breakdown is easier than making changes after a total breakdown.
- Don’t aim for work-life balance, aim for life-work balance. Having a life is crucial to avoiding burnout and maintaining your health and happiness.
- Sound physical health is underpinned by a healthy approach to eating, a commitment to regular exercise, and consuming alcohol in moderation. You need to find sustainable approaches to all these things otherwise you won’t be able to maintain them long-term.
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