How can you develop habits early in your career that will help you create a good work-life balance and avoid burnout?
Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here.
At some level, we’re all aware of the negative effects of overwork on our health, relationships, and social life. And yet, many of us still have difficulties slowing down and getting rest.
Social pressures, demanding bosses, imposter syndrome — there are a lot of reasons we choose (or feel obligated) to push ourselves to work longer and harder. Especially when you’re just getting started, you may feel an increased desire to prove your dedication and ability to succeed in your chosen path.
Spoiler alert: “Putting in the work now” in the hopes of reaping the benefits later won’t work. The habits you create early on, like poor work-life balance, can follow you throughout your career.
If you want to develop a healthy work-life balance and avoid burnout long term, you need to make smart choices now. The first step is understanding why it’s so challenging to choose rest to begin with.
Why do we work long hours?
Prioritizing work over rest isn’t always a choice. There are many factors that influence us to work long hours despite the evidence that burnout is bad for our health and relationships.
Take a look at these phrases. Have similar thoughts ever crossed your mind?
“Well, everyone else is doing it.” When everybody in your office works long hours, it can be difficult to deviate from the culture. You may feel social pressure to mimic this behavior, exacerbated by mobile technologies that make it easier for our jobs to follow us everywhere and at all hours of the day. Your boss may tell you not to respond to their late-night messages, but if they’re working, you may feel obligated to do the same. It’s common to feel insecure about signing off when your manager or colleagues are working later, which can often lead to overwork.
“If I want to succeed, I need to put in the time.” Early in your career, you may feel an increased need to work long hours to prove yourself or gain experience. In a recent study on professional firms — including audit, law, and consulting companies — the authors found that some consultants believe that working long hours and “having no life outside work” will lead to a fast promotion or early retirement. Junior consultants, in particular, voiced the sentiment that five to six years of sacrifice are necessary to gain the experience needed to move to another company with a lower workload. The misconception here is that prioritizing work now will reward you with rest in the future.
“I have to prove to others that I’m a hard worker.” Many of us have been socialized to believe that working hard is the “right” thing to do. Having a job, and succeeding at it, is often seen as a necessary part of being an “upstanding member” of society. As a result, you’ve likely heard phrases like this thrown proudly around your office: “I worked all weekend.” “I haven’t taken any of my vacation time this year.” “I checked my email every day while I was on break.” You may have even said these phrases yourself in the hopes of receiving praise or recognition from your colleagues.
Unfortunately, research shows that many professionals, especially men, do not disclose their personal commitments outside of work to their colleagues for fear of being judged as less competent or capable of mastering their tasks at work. There’s nothing wrong with caring about your work or being passionate about your job. But putting too much emphasis on how others interpret your dedication can lead to work-life imbalance.
“I like being busy.
It makes me feel important.” For some, work can feel like an escape from the tolls of everyday life — tedious chores, boring routines, or relationship tensions. Are you afraid of having free space on your calendar? Do you overbook yourself with meetings, coffees, and business trips? This behavior is common for those who rely too heavily on work to feel purpose, and it’s a dangerous approach.
For example, take Clint Eastwood’s character in the movie The Mule. As he approaches his wife on her death bed, he explains why he spent so much time at work and very little at home: “I thought it was more important to be somebody out there [at work] than the damn failure I was here at my own home.”
Studies also show that having a busy lifestyle, rather than a leisurely one, has become a sort of aspirational status symbol. (The busier you are, the higher your status.) But while being busy may make you feel good in the present, overwork can have long-term negative effects on your life and relationships.
How can we prioritize rest?
Even if you love the work you do, a greedy job that leaves you no time for friends, family, hobbies, or other non-work activities is bound to burn you out. But given all the reasons you may choose work over rest, how can you start to create the work-life balance you need?
Gain self-awareness. Take a step back and ask yourself: What’s driving my desire to work long hours? Does being busy give me a sense of purpose? Am I just following the crowd? How do my current work habits make me feel?
Emotional reflexivity, or the ability to understand how a situation impacts you emotionally, is key to achieving a better work-life balance. Determining why you overwork, and exploring how you truly feel about it, will help you design the life you want. This isn’t a static process — it’s a cycle. We all live through several life stages, and our priorities change based on them. Think about what you need right now to feel engaged and enriched both at work and in your personal life.
Regain control over your time. Remind yourself that even if everyone else around you works long hours, that doesn’t make it “normal.” It can feel challenging to create work-life balance when you feel that the reasons you overwork are not in your control.
But small changes can go a long way. Try leaving work on-time (or early!) two days a week to do something you love. Let your boss know that you won’t always be available after hours to respond to their emails. And only take on projects that you know will add value to you and your work. Learning how to say “no” is an incredibly useful skill. Although it will be challenging at first, it will feel good to take back some of your time.
Redefine “leisure time.” Shawn Achor makes a point of this important principle in his book The Happiness Advantage. Instead of labeling your free time as “unproductive time,” remind yourself that the time you take for leisure is needed to recharge your energy and make room for new ideas and creative thoughts. Instead of finding pride in working late or never taking vacation, try celebrating the moments you take to rest. Research shows that leisure activities, mainly those that different from your work, can have a positive impact on career sustainability. But reminder: The sole purpose of leisure is not to help you work more. It’s okay to enjoy leisure for what it is — time spent on the things you love.
Quit your toxic workplace. When all else fails, you may realize that your workplace is toxic, and it’s the culture that’s pushing you toward overwork and burnout. Consider quitting and finding another job. Do not let yourself get overwhelmed with pessimism or the idea that you’ll never find a job that will give you better balance. Healthy work environments do exist. Despite your negative experiences, the talents and skills you gained at your current job will help you find them.
However, keep mind that it’s very challenging to figure out the culture of a workplace before you are hired. You will have to do some serious vetting to ensure that you’re making the right move. Check out reviews for companies you’re interested in on Glassdoor, ask questions in your interviews about workplace flexibility, and try connecting with former employees to get their perspective. Keep in mind that even at a new company with a great culture, you’ll have to set boundaries to create the work-life balance you want.
Learning to prioritize rest isn’t easy. But reminder: You’re not Benjamin Button. You will not magically get younger and full of energy when you retire, just in time to enjoy your life. You must begin enjoying your life now.