This is a talk I gave at Open Source & Feelings in Seattle. A heads up on this talk for those that need it - it gets into chronic illness, and it has flashy animated gifs throughout.
How many of you have answered “busy” when someone asks how you’re doing? Yeah? I’ve done it too. Our culture glorifies being busy. Our ability to endlessly labor, to hustle all day every day is something that we’re expected to take pride in.
Stanford sociologists have actually identified the concept of an ideal worker. They say it’s someone who works 40 hours a week or more, preferably more, without interruption, until retirement while devoting the majority of their time and energy to work. They are always available, and prioritize work above all else. I am not an ideal worker.
I learned the hard way that working constantly, while ignoring my body’s own needs isn’t a lifestyle that I can sustain. It cost me my health, and I spent a lot of years recovering from it. I have Lyme Disease, which for me, has ranged anywhere from an annoyance all the way up to debilitating. Self-care is essential for everyone, but as a professional sick person, I’ve learned through my many bad decisions that self-care is totally non-negotiable for someone with a chronic health problem.
When I first got sick, I thought I could just will myself through it. If I just kept pushing, my body would just work it out somehow. None of my doctors seemed to know what was going on, so I figured everyone else must just feel like garbage too, and they still managed to work and have full social lives. I was very much about that hustle - I finished an accelerated grad school program, worked long hours at a full time job, started my own business…
managed to get mono somehow, spent any time I wasn’t working barely able to move, and got so sick that I slept for 22 hours straight. Turns out all that hustlin might not be great for you.
We’re obsessed with busy. And we live in a world that facilitates it. Modern communication makes it easy to always be “on.” There used to be an easy, physical barrier to constant work - it was called an office, and you would leave it. Now your office can be anywhere, anytime, you’ve got email and wifi and slack and texting and social media and there’s no such thing as “I missed your call.” Because you can always be accessible, you’re expected to always be accessible. But is anybody actually benefiting from all those extra hours?
Employees certainly aren’t. Organized Science did a study showing that most employees who experience that pressure to be the ideal worker find it difficult to fulfill and/or distasteful. So they either feel like they’re failing, they’re miserable, or they feel like they’re failing AND they’re miserable. Research shows that the best employees are healthy, happy, and well-rested. Go figure.
Your brain needs downtime to function. We know this, and yet, we treat rest as a sin, and sleep as something that can be put off with coffee or totally ignored. We say “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” which will be soon, because I am not sleeping. Giving up sleep for work is viewed as a point of pride, but it’s just being cruel to your body. Healthy sleep is one of the best forms of preventative medicine, and just one night of sleep deprivation makes you more vulnerable to illness and infection - and for these studies, they qualified sleep deprivation as less than 6 hours a night, which is a pretty regular schedule for some people. Longer term, skipping sleep can mess up your short and long term memory formation, decision making, attention, and coordination.
We don’t value rest. We view leisure not as an essential part of being a human, but as self-indulgence reserved for the privileged, or straight up laziness. But some our our most significant achievements came from downtime - there’s plenty of research to show that the brain needs that rest and psychological distance to do complex work. A design professor introduced me to the bed, bath, and bus theory - that you have your best ideas when your brain is occupied by other things. Our friend Jeremy helped me make this point:
He was working on solving a problem, took a step back from it to do something else, and bam, solved the problem. This is how your brain truly works, running background processes while you take some time to go pet dogs at the park. Stepping away for a bit helps you recover from mental fatigue, and you’re more effective when you come back to it. I’ve often called a coworker over to help me with a design because I’d been staring at it for too long. I’d have probably spent less time working on that project if I’d just taken a break when I got burned out.
So we’re not benefiting from all this extra time working. But our bosses must be, right? We need to put in long hours to get the work done. Actually, most of those extra hours are just for show, we’re not getting any more work done. The average salaried work week in the US is 49 hours, and 25% of us work more than 60 hours. Economists have found what they call a productivity cliff.
Productivity drops pretty steeply after a 50-hour work week, but after 55 hours it drops straight off a cliff. Many workers are spending an extra 10 or 20 hours at the office and getting absolutely nothing done. Exhausted employees are, not surprisingly, more prone to costly errors and accidents. So you’re actually getting less than nothing done, when you account for all that time spent fixing those mistakes.
When the Harvard Business Review did a study at a consulting firm, they found that some employees were pretending to work an 80 hour week. Workers reported that success there required being this ideal worker. So some employees started working less without telling anyone, yet were still congratulated on what great work they were doing.What does that tell you? That some people are shady about their work practices? Yeah. I’m definitely not suggesting you should just pad your timesheet and lie to your boss. Please don’t do that.
But it also tells us that even in client services, where supervisors will tell you that there’s just no way around being constantly accessible, working long hours isn’t necessary. Studies show that many kinds of work - from running meetings to doing cardio - benefit from spending less time doing them. Because you have less time to accomplish something, you’re more focused, and more aware of how you’re using your time. The experience of these employees, who make a show of devotion but are secretly working reasonable hours, shows that it is possible to work in a way that has a consistent schedule, and takes up less of their time, while still hitting all the metrics that their company values.
So we’re ruining our health and missing out on our own lives, and our bosses are getting shoddy work, and everyone’s miserable. Why are we doing this? Well, we’re rewarded for it.
Often leaders who have made personal sacrifices of their time or health to advance may have trouble accepting that there are other ways to succeed, even when confronted with evidence of it. So even with solid research showing that you’re effectively wasting all those extra hours at work, we still FEEL like that’s a measure of success. People that succeed in this kind of environment, where they spend all their time at work, are praised and given promotions. When in other countries where people actually take their vacation, they’d be chastised for being inefficient.
We reward it, and anyone who speaks out against it is just lazy. The flip side of this reward for constant work is a sense of guilt we get when we’re not productive. The idea of a productive person as a virtuous person has roots as far back as ancient Greece. Protestants turned work ethic into a religion that tells people that the only way to get to heaven is to constantly be busy working. It’s even shown in Thomas the Tank Engine cartoons, where the only good train is a useful train. Is it any wonder that when people curate their social media existence, it’s focused on hashtag hustlin?
And so “busy” is no longer a complaint, it’s a point of pride. Keeping that pace is an adrenaline rush for some. If you’re this busy, you must be very important. We don’t even honestly value WHAT you’re doing, as long as you’re always doing. We’re confusing basic self-care, like rest, with laziness. When really, chronic overwork is a failure of project management. We’re equating busy with productive, choosing quantity over quality, and valuing hustle over living a healthy life. Rest, instead of being something passive, is now an act of resistance.
So let's resist.
Ideal workers don’t take care of themselves, healthy workers take care of themselves.
Here’s my too long, didn’t read on self care, If you get just one thing out of this talk, I hope it’s this: Taking care of yourself doesn’t make you lazy. It doesn’t make you weak, or indulgent, selfish, a bad employee. It makes you a person with needs. And doing it right makes you a happier, healthier human and a better employee. It’s better for everyone.
Self-care can take a lot of forms. Maybe it’s filtering your social media feed to avoid things that raise your anxiety with no benefit. Maybe it’s asking for help - from friends, or in more formal ways like taking medical leave. Maybe it’s doing things that bring you joy - these can be small, easy to accomplish things. For everyone, it’s basic care, like sleeping enough, eating and drinking enough, moving your body in a way that makes you happy, and taking time to relax. And I know that these things are important, because for a time, I was not doing… any of them.
I was keeping up appearances, and refusing to admit that I needed more rest than my friends did. That I couldn’t pull all-nighters, or live off of Dorito tacos or whatever and still function. I’d been repeating a cycle of pushing myself too hard, then crashing. I didn’t ask for help, I didn’t even tell any of the people I worked with that I was sick, and really even some of my family and close friends still don’t know how much pain I was living with, or how sick I really was. But eventually, I got on a treatment plan that worked, and I got better, and I learned absolutely nothing about taking care of myself.
I took it as an opportunity to work nonstop. I worked a full time job, and I ran my own photography business. I was easily pulling 60 hours a week, I spent my weekends shooting, I was always working. I had to set alarms to remind myself to eat lunch, or I’d work straight through. Instead of my previous cycle of pushing myself too hard and then crashing, it was pushing myself too hard and then pushing myself harder. The hours have to come from somewhere, so I wasn’t getting enough sleep, or exercise, I wasn’t doing any of the things that keep my immune system from just giving me the finger and walking out. A year later, I was sick again. In fact, I got much sicker than I’d been the first time around.
Because I had to see a specialist, and I live in the boonies, starting treatment again meant a 5 hour round trip to see him at least once a month, and my sick time didn’t accrue that fast. I couldn’t keep my illness from the people that I worked with anymore. This is the part where I finally learned about self-care.
Making time to take care of yourself matters, because it’s your health. Protecting that is serious business.
An Indonesian girl worked herself literally to death, tweeting all the while about how she’s got her hustle on lockdown. These were some of her last messages, maybe to anyone, ever.
A combination of not sleeping and pounding energy drinks to stay awake killed her. It’s not common, it’s an extreme example, but she’s also not the only one this has happened to. This stuff matters. Caring for your brain and your body matters. The work you do can be a huge part of who you are, but it is still a part. And it’s something that you can’t do if you don’t look after yourself.
When we get overwhelmed and stressed, we tend to let the things that are easiest to overlook slip. And self-care is easy for us to overlook. We leave ourselves as the last, lowest priority, and we suffer for it.
It’s important to remember that your body is not the enemy, it’s working hard to support all this other stuff that you’re doing. It deserves a little compassion from you. Give your brain and body the resources they need to support your work, and your life. Because you’re busy - we’re all so, so busy - you might think that you don’t have time. But your immune system gets wrecked by bad diet, no sleep, and too much work. Eventually it’s gonna give, and you’ll waste more time being sick than if you’d just blocked out the time for self-care in the first place.
I had a baby last year, which is mostly an excuse to show you this adorable picture. Once or twice a day, my son wants to sit with me. Not for long, maybe 10 minutes, he just wants to relax and be near me. It’s a small request, much like most things that would make your day better are small requests. Remembering to eat lunch, or going to bed at a reasonable hour. Tiny little bits of self-care. I’ve learned that I can either give him what he needs, this very small thing that helps him get through his day being a tiny person in a world that’s still pretty new to him, or we can all suffer the consequences.
I can try to keep writing, or doing the dishes, or whatever it is I’m in the middle of, while he clings to my legs. I’m stressed because he’s upset, he’s stressed because he’s not getting what he needs, and we’re both miserable. But to my point, instead of taking that 10 minutes with him, giving him the affection and downtime he needs to function, I’ve spent twice as long muddling through this task, while my blood pressure creeps ever higher, and then have to sit with him anyway to get us both back to a calm and happy place. Like he wanted to do in the first place. It’s a lesson I should have learned a long time ago, when I’d skip lunch to work on my graduate thesis, only to end up sleepy and hangry. I was much less productive than if I’d just taken five minutes to make a sandwich. You can finish most any task faster, more effectively, and more happily if you keep yourself in good condition to perform it.
The thing is, you know this. You know what’s best for you, you know how to do it, so the real trick is in making the time for it. Now, I didn’t say “finding the time for it” because you rarely just stumble upon a magical pocket of free time. You’re making decisions about how you spend your time.
So it’s one thing to say that you should spend time taking care of yourself, and live your life to the fullest while you can, and there are tumblrs full of memes about it, it’s all very inspirational. But many of us either want to work or have to work, and so it becomes a matter of making time to both do the work and care for yourself. So how do you do that?
The first step is admitting that you have a problem. The second step is telling people that you have a problem. When you’re working from home with a kid, it’s easy to turn to the internet, and get wrapped up in parenting instagram, with their pinterest worthy parties and bento box lunches and perfect clean children. Seeing that all day can make you feel like surely you must be doing it wrong, with your filthy kid eating a corn cob while he walks around the room half dressed.
But then, Jennifer Daniels tweets about her kid pooping on their patio and you think “see, this happens to other people too, it’s not just me.”
In the same way, uh… kind of, seeing people posting about their long hours, and their hustle, and how much they love that grind and never take vacations makes you think that surely you must be doing it wrong.
You who needs basic things like sleep and food to function. You who is able to recognize that you work more effectively if you keep your anxiety levels down. You who knows that you can’t pull all nighters, and instead schedules your work realistically so that you have breaks for sleep, and food, and socializing, and petting dogs. This culture makes you think that you’re the one doing it wrong. So I’m standing up here to tell you that I need that stuff too. Breaks, and vacation, and dog petting. I’m telling you - and scientists are telling you - that you can be successful, and still do those things. I work for myself, I’m our kid’s primary caregiver, and I make time for self-care.
So much of this culture is implicit, so actually explicitly stating your needs, your concerns, it can start to change your workplace. And it can help normalize policy change for other people. When my husband was deciding how much leave to take after our son was born, he talked to other dads that had taken leave. People that were public about it helped him to get a gauge of what his company was really okay with - which can be world’s apart from what’s offered, or even what you’re legally entitled to. You taking more parental leave encourages others to do it, actually using your vacation days encourages others to do it, opening up conversations about your needs encourages others to do it.
If you’re in a position where you have some power, or even just the privilege of pushing back, you can help to spread that kind of attitude. And if you happen to be in a position of authority where you work, if you’re a manager or supervisor or running the joint, know that your habits set the tone for your workplace. You have a lot of power just in how you choose to work.
Speaking up also lets the people you work for know what matters to you. Bright Horizons did a study that found that fathers stress over their work/life balance more than college savings or career advancement - which were two issues that employers had assumed that fathers cared about more. So their study really found out two things - that dads stressed over work/life balance, and that their employers didn’t know that. They had assumed that other aspects of their work were a higher priority, and they were wrong. Your boss can’t help you if they don’t know there’s a problem. Many employers have reported that they’re so afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, they don’t do anything at all when they see an employee struggling. They don’t want to invade your privacy or make things worse for you. You can open up the conversation and focus it on solutions that can help you do well.
Ideal workers don’t have boundaries. Healthy workers have boundaries.There’s no one right way to fight for boundaries. How much you can afford to push back is definitely related to how much you need your current job, how you think they’ll take it. There’s a lot of very glib advice to just quit your job if it’s not utterly perfect, that’s not practical or helpful to anyone. Maybe you need that job, or maybe you just really like a lot of other things about it, and would rather stay and try to make things better. I can’t stand up here and say that there are no risks to rocking the boat, there are. But setting healthy boundaries is an important step in fighting burnout.
One place that I worked, everyone worked through lunch and ate at their desks. That was just the culture. Then one of my coworkers said “hey, I’d like to take a walk, anyone else wanna go?” And then we became an office that went for lunch walks. Sometimes all it takes is one person speaking up, or showing others that they have needs outside of work. And sometimes you have to fight a bit harder than that.
But there’s a lot of room between begrudgingly accepting your work culture while it slowly ruins your health, and - on the other side - rolling in singing “Take This Job and Shove it.’ There are degrees of rebellion. You might rebel in small ways, like being that person who suggests a lunch walk, and helping to normalize that practice for others. That’s some fairly minor boat rocking, you’re probably not going to get called into the boss’ office for insubordination for that.
You might set a precedent for not answering emails at midnight or taking calls after hours. If you’re telecommuting or freelancing off site, just setting work hours at all is a boundary many of us don’t enforce. This is usually an implicit boundary that we set with our behavior. You’re conditioning people on what availability to expect from you. When you immediately respond to an email at 10pm on a Sunday, you’re telling people “I’m fine with this.” Now that you can work from anywhere, anytime, it’s really important to set boundaries, or else you WILL work from everywhere, all the time.
I was doing contract work for a university, and I’d been working hours that I wasn’t getting paid for. It wasn’t just me, everyone on the team was doing the same thing. For my mental and physical well-being, this was a boundary that I needed to set. So I gave them some warning, because communication and managing expectations is really important when you’re changing a policy. I’m saying that this is a problem, even though I’ve been doing it for weeks. I only worked part-time for them, 20 hours a week, so when I’d already put in 15 hours for the week, I reminded them. Hey, I’ve only got 5 hours left this week.
Often, they needed more work than they could afford. Of course, they’d ask me if I couldn’t just… you know… do it anyway. And the temptation is to explain yourself - oh I have this other project, or another job, or an appointment or whatever. But a great tip I’ve learned for saying no to something is to stop at no.
Don’t say “No, I don’t have a ride” because then the person will just offer you a ride, and you’ll have to come up with some other reason you can’t do the thing. Say no, and then stop talking. So I’d tell them “I’m sorry, I only have 20 hours a week, and they’ve been used up.” I had always kept a time tracker, so I could even show them how long I spent on each aspect of the project, where all of those hours had gone. My boss wasn’t excited about it, they were losing free labor, but she understood that I didn’t want to work hours that I wasn’t being paid for. It’s not an unreasonable request.
You don’t always know how your company will react, and that’s where setting boundaries can be hard. Even if they don’t react poorly in an overt way, you may be penalized in more subtle ways, like being passed over for promotions, raises, or important jobs. On the other hand, you may find that they’re amenable to changes, and that you’ve been killing yourself to work inside parameters that other people don’t require, or even care about. For my first internship I ever did, the bus schedule allowed me to either get to work half an hour early, or 5 minutes late. So I showed up half an hour early. Months into it, I mentioned it in an offhand way to my supervisor who said “Why didn’t you say something, just come in 5 minutes late. Who cares?” Speaking up has risks, but it can also have huge benefits.
When you’re setting boundaries due to illness, whether it’s a mental health or a physical health issue, it can add another layer of difficulty, but it can also be that much more necessary. You have to consider things like whether you’ll need an outside agency’s help to keep the job? What accommodations do you need, and can your workplace do that?
Sometimes you avoid speaking up because you’re uncomfortable talking about your health, or you don’t know how to answer the questions. I don’t know when I’ll be back, I don’t know if I’ll be back, I don’t know if I’ll be okay. Health issues can get pretty heavy. But how stressful will it be for you to hide this? Living a double life, hiding the fact that you’re struggling from everyone that you work with can be incredibly stressful, which is also bad for your health.
So you need to be mindful of those risks, but not completely paralyzed by caution. And if you’re not able to push back at work, or they’re not able to make the kind of accommodations that you need, it’s important to find other ways to get that support, whether that’s through family and friends, or a support group or outside agency, to make your job work for you. It’s important to weigh the benefits of speaking up against the risks.
The second time I got sick, because you remember I didn’t learn anything the first time, when I relapsed I was in a position where I was absolutely going to get fired for missing too much work if I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have enough time off to cover even my doctor’s appointments, let alone all the other testing and medical procedures I had to do. So for me, the benefit was much greater than the risk. I didn’t have anything to lose.
The hard part then is admitting that I needed the help, and I needed it in a pretty formal and official way to avoid getting fired. So I filed for FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) partial leave.
Now, getting into the details of setting that up is outside of my scope today, but there are a lot of free resources that can help you develop a plan - who to tell, what to say, when to say it, you can even Google sample scripts that can help you get started.
But I will say that as with any of these other boundaries you’re setting, there are two really important steps. One is getting very clear, and very realistic about what you need. You have to take the time to figure out exactly what you need to continue doing your job, while still allowing yourself to be a healthy human outside of work. The second part is that you need to ask for it, and not feel guilty for needing it.
So some of the problem with us working ourselves into the ground is external, if you’re working for someone else, you work on their schedule. But some of it’s us. That Protestant work ethic that makes us feel like it’s not okay to stop working.
One of my worst work habits is that I would feel constant, crushing guilt for not working on a project every waking second until it’s done. But feeling that guilt is exhausting, so it’s like my downtime didn’t even count in terms of my mental health, because the whole time I was relaxing, I was actually drowning in anxiety over the fact that I was being unproductive. So I’d work crazy hours and burn myself out, then spend too much time procrastinating because I was tired, then because I felt guilty I’d work crazy hours and that cycle just continued for months. It’s super unhealthy.
So how do you combat that? A good first step is figuring out exactly what work is even worth doing. I’m a huge list person, so I have to-do lists for my business, for our household, for our kid, for this talk I’m giving right now. I love lists. But there are things that find their way onto my to-do list that don’t belong there.
I’d seen this chart a few times before, I used it in my book (cough cough out September 13th cough you can preorder it on Amazon or find out more info at www.mooredesign.us/book *cough*)
it’s called an Eisenhower box. It’s a way to prioritize your to-do list, you separate everything into urgent or not, and important or not, then you sort it. This bottom right box is gone, take those things off your list and never think about them again. This is where busy lives - you’re doing this stuff, so it seems like you’re being productive, but none of it’s actually important. Your urgent/important box gets done right now, these are fires you need to put out. These other boxes are for planning - either trying to delegate tasks, or finding space in your to-do list for them. Because if you don’t make the time, they get pushed down on the list and never get done. Self-care goes in one of these top two boxes, depending on how badly you’ve been putting it off.
So at the end of this exercise, you should have a pretty well-prioritized to-do list, that’s filled with things that are actually important, that you actually care about doing. But even after you’re whittled your list down to just those things that truly matter, it can still feel never ending.
Finding ways to knock out tasks efficiently can free up some hours in your day. I’ve gotten really good at this, because I’ve had hard limits on my time and my energy. It used to be because I was sick, now it’s because I am responsible for the care of a tiny person. My work time is short, and precious, so I am laser focused on doing it. To make time for the non-work things that you need in your life, getting crazy efficient can help give you back some of your time.
Whether you use a Pomodoro technique or use systems to speed up recurring processes, or focus on monotasking. We’re used to doing a million things at once, but multitasking is, scientifically speaking, not a real thing. You’re just quickly switching between all those tasks.
Multitasking is an El Camino - it’s supposed to be a car AND a truck, but instead it’s bad at both. Anyway, however you do it, the point is to maximize the time you spend working, so that you can spend less time working. It’s a sprinter’s tactic, so you can’t keep this up long term without getting burned out. So the hard part is not filling this free time with more work.
You can always find more work to do, and find yourself spending another two hours at the office working on something that could totally wait until tomorrow. But eventually you start to hit diminishing returns.
You can’t run anymore. So you need to give yourself permission to be done.
Right now I’m keeping a part-time schedule, so I’ve figured out how many hours a week I can devote to whatever work needs done. My to-do list has time estimates, because I track my time and I’ve got a pretty good idea of how long these things will take now.
I schedule tasks in one hour blocks on my calendar, and when my time’s up, I’m done. I did the hour that I scheduled.
Knowing that as long as I do that I’m on pace to complete the project keeps me from getting all that work anxiety that used to drive me to just plow through a thing until it was finished. I limit how much work I commit to, and I’m realistic about how much I can do in a day. It’s weird to think that being super scheduled and organized would make me less stressed out, but it’s what works for me.
Before my schedule was dictated by how long my kid naps, I gave myself permission to be done with tasks. I’d pick 3 things that needed to be done that day, usually sub-tasks on larger projects, and when they were finished, I’d declare myself victorious and play video games or watch Netflix or whatever.
A friend in grad school instituted Film Fridays, where every Friday was devoted to finishing up all the personal projects that he was forever in the middle of. He gave himself permission to work on those things. Find what works for you, what allows you to feel like you’ve done enough for the day, so you can relax without guilt about clocking out.
I’ve had to continually reevaluate what works for me. It changed when I got sick, It changed again when I relapsed, and it changed again when I had my son. I’d spent almost my whole career working 2 or 3 jobs, and eventually I recognized that working that way mean that any time I wasn’t working, I was crashing to recover. All of my energy went to my job, and there was nothing left for the rest of my life, there was no space for me to do what I needed to stay healthy. So I stopped being an ideal worker.
When your work is important to you, and I know I’ve always thought of the work I do as a big part of my identity, you want to do the best job of it that you can. And to do that, you have to realistically assess what you need to do the best possible job. Identify the things that you need to thrive, in all areas of your life. Because your life is about more than just work. I’m not just defining my success in terms of how my work is doing, but by how all the areas of my life are thriving. Life is about balancing, for everyone, it’s about what you have to give up to get the things you need.
And since I’ve been in remission this time, I learned how important it is to take care of myself. How taking on more work and running myself into the ground to get it done can set me up for years of my life hooked up to IV poles, taking so many pills that I had to organize them in a tackle box. That second time I got sick - the time I should have known better, that I should have done better to help prevent it by respecting my limits and taking care of myself - that time I was sick for 5 years. Five years of IV antibiotics, and constant pain, and ER visits and sure, maybe I didn’t cause all of that, but I made it worse because I wouldn’t slow down. I learned that these small pieces, these small concessions to self-care had huge ramifications if I ignored those needs. The next time you power through a 60 hour week, or brag about how little you sleep or how hard you’re grinding away, really consider what you might be giving up.