Six years ago, I got close to burn out for the first time. I was in college, it was exam week, and I had my last exam the following morning. It was for the course Psychopharmacology, probably the most difficult exam I’ve ever taken. I had studied so much that I knew I’d do well, but nevertheless I was miserable. I lay in bed, trying to sleep, but names of pharmacological compounds and various brain areas were swimming in my head incessantly. What was more, I had a fever, and I kept tossing and turning in bed. My stress levels were through the roof because I couldn’t sleep, and I knew how important sleep is for performance at an exam. Needless to say, trying to make myself sleep only made things worse.
It was a truly terrible night. I felt exhausted beyond belief but still unable to rest. My mind was incredibly anxious, and every single thought was torture. Perhaps the worst was that I felt helpless to change anything or to make myself feel better. None of my usual tricks worked, so I just had to lie there, waiting for morning to come.
Lying there, I thought about what I had done to bring myself to this place. The answer was clear: I had overworked myself. I had worked hard for many weeks and months on end, without taking proper breaks and without letting myself rest. I was taking five classes instead of the recommended four (because of course I could do more), and I had three side jobs (because I could do it all!). My only time off of studying and working was Friday and Saturday evenings. Literally.
I still can’t believe I did that to myself. I know how important it is to get some rest, exercise, and have at least a little bit of free time. But I found myself in a situation where every single minute was crammed full of things to do, and I felt constantly anxious about whether I’d manage to complete everything I needed to do.
I think it had a lot to do with the environment. When everybody else appears to be pushing themselves to their limits, it seems to be the right thing to do. And since my self-worth was on the line, i.e., I felt like I would not succeed if I didn’t do that as well, it seemed like the only thing to do. There was no choice, I just had to keep pushing.
On that night when I lay in bed and couldn’t sleep before my last exam, I felt incredibly sad for us humans. We push ourselves so far, to the point of breaking, and we usually only realize it once we are broken. We feel that the only way to be happy, or to deserve to be happy, is by completing that impossibly long to-do list. But we never quite get to that happy point; instead, we just pass out at the end of the day, utterly exhausted. The next morning, we have a new to-do list to complete.
That experience (and many others like it) have led me to make some changes. For me, that sleepless night marks a ‘before and after’ point. Before it, I used to take on as much as possible on my plate, trusting that I would figure it out somehow. After that night, I knew that I was able to do all those things, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. What’s the point of succeeding at a bunch of stuff if I broke myself in the process? To me it was clear that it wasn’t worth it.
What followed was an extended (and still ongoing) search for how far it’s good to push myself. It must be a dynamic balance: I don’t want to sit around and do nothing all the time, but I also don’t want to burn myself out. So what’s the right balance?
I immediately made some changes after that psychopharmacology exam. For the following semester, I signed up for four courses (apparently, it’s the recommended number for a reason) and dropped one of my part-time jobs. I also made time to exercise regularly and to meditate. Moreover, I prioritized sleep: I made sure I got seven hours of sleep each night. (Side note: seven hours a night was still not enough for me, but I only realized that a couple of years later when I started sleeping eight hours a night and suddenly I didn’t need caffeine anymore! How surprising!)
Nowadays, I am much stricter about taking care of myself. I monitor my energy levels and my anxiety levels to make sure I steer clear of ‘the danger zone.’ It’s still a struggle sometimes when other people are (or appear to be) so much busier and doing so much more, but I need to do what works for me. Even if I feel that anxious urge to do more, I force myself to do less. For example, at the end of the work day, I know it’s time to get up and go to the gym, but I feel guilty leaving my work. If I could only stay and do a couple more hours of work… but no, I get up, go to the gym, get moving, and give my mind a break. I inevitably feel better than if I had stayed at my desk and kept working until I felt exhausted. And the next morning I’m actually excited to do my work again! What’s more, in this way I have more energy for the important relationships in my life as well.
There are several simple things I prioritized to make sure I don’t overwork myself:
- Good food
- Rest/free time (at least a little bit)
In the next blog post, I will describe specific things I do to ensure I don’t overwork myself and to maintain stable energy levels and a fulfilling lifestyle. Stay tuned!