I'd be willing to bet that there isn't one of you out there who hasn't violated some basic work/life principles at least once in your career. I can say with certainty that at various times, I have committed some cardinal sins when it comes to getting burned out. Looking back on my career from a slightly different viewpoint these days, I can see where I went wrong. And fortunately, I can learn from those mistakes so that I'll remain happy, healthy, and productive (in that order) throughout the remainder of my career. Here are 10 things you might be doing that will ultimately lead to poorer performance and an unhealthy lifestyle.
1: Never say no
As the saying goes, "You can't please all of the people all of the time." Trying to do so will result in certain failure due to over commitment, missed deadlines, and having everyone upset in the attempt to make everyone happy. Instead, commit to pleasing "some of the people some of the time," through existing governance structures. Both you and your organization will be the better for it.
2: Skip the vacation
American workers get and use less vacation than our global counterparts. This is a travesty, but it's one over which workers might exercise some control. Time away from the office is absolutely essential for recharging the batteries and renewing the spirit. Failure to "get away from it all" leaves workers with no opportunity for renewal and can also negatively affect family and personal relationships.
If your boss won't leave you alone on vacation, turn off your phone and don't check your email. Obviously, you should make sure that you boss knows that when you're away, well, you're away. This is setting the expectation ahead of time. If you're not allowed to simply get away for a period of time and your company insists that you be on-call 24/7/365, you need a new job.
3: Skip lunch
Early in my IT career, I used to work through lunch every day. I didn't feel like I needed it, and I was more interested in getting work done than in eating. However, I soon learned that lunch is about more than lunch. Everyone needs food to make it through the day, and that short break can be as good as a 15-minute catnap in helping you remain productive the rest of the day. If you constantly skip lunch, you're also missing an opportunity to engage with coworkers in a different setting. Over time, failure to take these short breaks might make you more easily stressed out — and eventually burned out.
4: Work insane hours
Logic would seem to indicate that you could accomplish twice as much in 80 hours per week than in 40. However, in the case, the Vulcan would lose the argument. At some point, more time results in diminishing returns. If you push it too much, you'll end up constantly tired and sick and not doing anyone any good. There will probably be crunch times during the year when crazy hours will be the norm and expected. But if this happens year round, your organization will quickly burn itself out. Constantly working crazy, insane hours should not be a point of pride. It should be a sign that something is wrong and a warning that you'll probably get burned out at some point.
5: Disregard family time
For years, articles have been written about jealousy between those with families who need "family time" and those without families who are left to "pick up the slack." I started my family 10 years after getting into IT, so I've seen and understand both sides. Those with families who attempt to forgo family time will pay the price in a lot of ways. Stress levels will increase as they try to make up for this lost time. And those all-important family ties will begin to suffer, leading to an employee who is bitter and disengaged and wondering why he can't ever eat with his kids. If you want to avoid burnout, embrace and enjoy time with your family.
6: Fail to watch your health
How many of you exercise every day? How many of you watch every calorie you eat? How many of you weigh more than you did when you started your current job? This is one rule I've broken so badly it's not even funny. Since leaving my previous position, I've made it a point to eat better and have started losing weight. If you're in a stressful job, you may be a "stress eater," and you may suffer from the fact that stress can lead to weight gain and other health problems if not properly managed. So do what you can to get some exercise (take the stairs, walk to lunch, etc.) and try to eat better and not chow down on junk food while you work. This is much easier said than done!
7: Forgo hobbies
For me, tech started as a hobby before becoming my career. But I sometimes wonder if I need something else outside IT to keep me going. I'm an IT executive by position, but I love playing with tech toys every so often. That's one of the reasons I write. I get to learn more and play with cool new stuff. Find something you enjoy doing and make a point of doing it! For Christmas, my parents visited me and my family and brought us a cool new radio-controlled helicopter. It's really nice and could be the beginning of a new hobby for me.
8: Go it alone
Being a CIO can be really lonely sometimes. A lot of people in the organization really have no idea what we do and we're often left to our own devices. Still, there are a lot of ways you can keep the solitude at bay and make your job easier at the same time:
- Find a trusted colleague and become friends. This works if you're both at the same level in the organization or outside each other's chain of command.
- Attend local users' group meetings for things that interest you.
- Find a network of peers in other similar organizations and work together, if possible. (This is common in higher ed, but it might not translate to other verticals.)
- Use consultants when you need to. Not everything needs to be "built here."
If nothing else, these people can be good sounding boards to help you keep your direction positive.
9: Create unrealistic expectations
Expectation management is one of the hardest things to get right. You need to make sure that people realize you're working with a sense of urgency. But at the same time, you don't want to burn yourself out or overtax your staff. If you create unrealistic expectations by overpromising or under-delivering, you're going to stress yourself out to the point of exhaustion and your staff will not thank you for the extra work.
10: Pull all-nighters
There was a time when I would pull all-nighters to get a job done. With the very rare exception, I don't do this anymore. Besides the fact that I pay the price for days afterward, I unintentionally set an expectation that this is the norm when, in fact, it's not. Constant all-nighters are a sign that something is terribly wrong. Either your organization has no clue how to schedule work or you've taken on too much. Fix it before you burn yourself out. Sure, the occasional all-nighter may still happen from time to time — but don't let it become routine.
Other habits that lead to burnout?
Do the things on this list sound familiar? What other practices have you followed that stressed you to the breaking point?
Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive with CampusWorks, Inc. Scott is available for consulting, writing, and speaking engagements and can be reached at email@example.com.