The lights were off. It’s how I liked to work.
A faint glow from two 27” monitors and a MacBook Pro reflected off my glasses. Beneath my hoodie, the steady mind-numbing pulse of screamo bass outpaced the tap-tap-tapping from my keyboard.
I forgot how long I’d been there. I’d woken up around 4:30 am and I’d be there well until the evening hours.
Half a dozen years into my career, this was a typical day.
At least, until the day I had my first major health scare…
I stacked 80–100 hour work weeks regularly. No one made me. There was no formal “work hours” policy. Success was about results. But in the breakneck pace of a hyper growth company, there is never a shortage of problems or projects to get lost in.
That kind of environment is addicting, dangerous even. There’s an almost pornographic appeal to putting in long hours. Even when you tell yourself you’re having fun – which I was – eventually your faculties erode. The warning voice of conscience “you’re overdoing it” fades the longer you allow workaholism to prevail.
It doesn’t have to be this way. And probably it shouldn’t be. But it’s a picture of what life had become for me.
I ate like sh*t. Burgers. Pizza. Tacos. Fast food.
I rarely exercised anymore. Unless switching from standing to sitting or pacing on calls counts.
Not to mention the excessive intake – coffee to kickstart the day and alcohol to shut the mind off most nights.
Health took a back seat to work – both mental and physical health.
Then one day it went too far.
Not unlike any day, I rose early and slammed several coffees before anyone else made it to the office. But I remember it was a particularly stressful day.
That’s what set it into motion, I told myself: the stress.
It started as a small ache in my side. It slowly intensified through the morning. By 11 am, I was doubled over in pain, clutching my left side.
By 11:30, my entire chest felt tight and I was gasping to breath. Fearing the worst, I called for help.
I spent the rest of the day in the emergency room, doctors running tests. Fortunately, they determined it was not a heart issue. But it was clear my lifestyle had created the conditions for this scare.
Not even 30 years of age, my extremist workaholic lifestyle finally reared it’s ugly head…
When a doctor warns you that your work lifestyle is putting your life at risk, it’s sort of a wake up call that’s hard to ignore.
I felt the only real choice I had was to reevaluate everything.
Starting with my diet, exercise, and sleep routines – like cutting back from 12+ cups of coffee per day to 1–2 max, and prioritizing healthy eating. Then prioritizing regular exercise and 8 hours of sleep. These all made big impacts quick.
But they weren’t sustainable alone. I had to set boundaries and get mentally fit, too.
It was not easy.
I began weekly counseling and engaged with my boss. This was no way to live. I needed help and accountability.
Over the subsequent year, I experimented. I tried a number of different schedules and routines. I iterated often.
I fought a guilt trap – where working less made me feel paranoid, or like I was underperforming. It took consciously combatting this to overcome it.
The withdrawal from working aggressive hours also sent me into a minor state of depression. Because I had centered my life around my work, it was extremely difficult to begin finding meaning in other areas of my life again. But I made myself explore things outside of work. Eventually, this worked, too.
The countless experiments ultimately resulted in my removing a bunch of bad habits and replacing them with intentional decisions.
In time, I discovered how much power I had in deliberately designing my life – where I could find fulfillment in and out of work and everything else.
I don’t regret a single hour I put into the work I did – that ultimately pushed me to burnout. I truly loved my work. Instead, I just wish I’d have realized how important it is to have more than just work going.
The surest way to burnout is by not allowing room for any other meaningful activities in your life.
It happened to me. May you be wiser.
*This post was originally published on Quora in response to the question What are some tips for avoiding burnout in a highly stressful career?