My personal dance with work-stress
A shiny new gadget
My first real job was 24/7 onsite support for mission-critical data center servers that ran national credit card processing.
As part of the job, I got a brand new Nokia cell phone, which was a big deal then – none of my friends had anything fancy like that. We were at a party at a nearby lake, and I proudly showed this gadget around – then it rang, and I had to jump in the car, leave my friends and drive 100 miles to the customer site. From there on, whenever I was on call, I didn’t sleep well, couldn’t fully enjoy what I was doing, and felt miserable.
What I learned from that is that I don’t do well in jobs where I get phone calls at home. I am telling this story because, for me, being called for work-stuff during my off-times is a deal-breaker. I walked away from jobs that I otherwise loved because I didn’t want this boundary to be crossed. On the other hand, I am totally ok to work into the night if it’s required – as long as the endpoint is in my control. Others don’t mind being on call and enjoy the extra money that goes with it.
Values and boundaries are personal and unique – there is no one size fits all!
Close encounter with burnout – too close
Since that eye-opening moment, for one reason or another, I ended up working in high-stress burnout roles for the coming 25+ years, and for the most part, had a lot of fun doing so.
I started my career with HP/Tandem in that 24/7 onsite support role that I talked about in the intro. I then went to Microsoft, where I had different roles, such as being the national spokesperson for crisis-PR – right in the midst of the Open Source and Linux wars and the DOJ monopoly investigation. After 17 years, I looked for new challenges and found them with Amazon, where I had several leadership positions, amongst others, leading product strategy for a 250+ people engineering team. It was always “more” and “faster” at Amazon, and after five years, I decided to prioritize my family and move to Bozeman – where I arrived right with the start of the global COVID pandemic.
Life has not been boring, and I actually like it that way.
While you’re young, you can do a lot of things that are not sustainable but are fueled by pure energy and naiveté. There was always a lot to do – more than one could humanly achieve – and I had to learn to prioritize and be more effective. That got me quite far and is a key component of achieving anything. You need to learn to make the most out of your time and have the most impact with the resources you have. Cut out the slack, ignore the distractions, simplify what you do, and focus on what matters most.
However, things get harder when you add responsibilities for others. Eventually, being effective wasn’t enough as there was always so much more to do. I also felt the increasing tension between spending time at work (up to 60 hours a week) and wanting to be there for my family and kids. I started to feel tired, lacked drive, and felt bad for not connecting enough with the areas of my life that I really cared about. I didn’t realize it right away, but I slipped deep into burnout. Luckily, I noticed the slippery slope before it was too late, and I decided to take action. I needed to rebuild how I work and learn how to set boundaries while still performing at the highest levels. I had to fix the engine while flying the plane, and I had to do it quickly before serious damage was done.
All along this journey, I’ve been a manager and people leader. I tried to create those spaces of flexibility for my team and appreciated it if team members took full ownership of their areas. It’s easy to grant autonomy when you see true ownership. However, what I learned is that you cannot do that job for other people. You cannot make others happy – only YOU can make yourself happy. You cannot define values or boundaries for other people – they are personal and unique. Everyone is different, and you can not “carry” someone to happiness – everyone has to define their own path and take charge and full responsibility for it.
There is a Zen proverb that captures this well: “The teacher can only show the door. The student has to walk through it.”
What you will find below are some essential principles and rules that helped me protect my boundaries while still performing at high levels at work. It helped me balance work and life by taking full ownership and responsibility for both. It’s showing the door – you need to decide if you want to walk through it, and if you do, you need to make every single step yourself.
Taking charge, taking ownership
Three main principles are key for work-stress management and happiness (in my experience):
- Your values are personal. What works for the person next to you doesn’t necessarily work for you. You are the only one who knows them, and you are the only one who can implement them. No one can carry you to happiness.
- You only gain autonomy if you prove ownership and accountability first. Good leaders love to delegate – but only if they are confident the job gets done.
- Achieving 1 and 2 is hard work and requires constant engagement. If you drop your focus, they will slip.
Understanding and protecting what matters to you
It all starts with YOUR values | What matters to you?
It all starts with understanding YOUR values! A solution that works for the person next to you might not work for you or make you happy. For example, I am perfectly happy dropping lunch to get things done or working late (occasionally) when it’s crunch time. However, try to make me work on a weekend for no good reason, and you’re up for a hard time. Others appreciate the opportunity to catch up on things during the weekend.
You have to understand your values and what is really important to you. It’s personal. It’s not what the other person has. A good way of doing that is to write down all the things you care about (your values) on little cards. You will end up with some 20-30 values. Now give the ones away that you care less about. Repeat that until you’re down to three – those are the ones that really matter to you. Align your life and decisions such that those values are not violated by what you’re doing.
Those values are the guiding stars for you, not to show around. They can be grand, like changing the world, but they can also be as down to earth as having fun or achieving financial stability. There is no right or wrong – there’s just what matters to you. Those values are personal, and there is no need to share them, although it can be helpful if others understand them.
My values are family, integrity, and autonomy. In that order. That is why it’s important to me that I don’t get unplanned interruptions in my off time – it feels to me like breaking a promise I made to my family. On the other hand, I’m ok to plan for extra time to get the job done, as it supports my integrity value and is done within the boundaries of autonomy.
Set YOUR boundaries | What are your non-negotiables?
Like our values, our boundaries are different for each of us. My big boundary is that when I’m home with my family, I want to be home. Period. I don’t check emails in the evenings, weekends, or on vacation. Others do appreciate the flexibility of today’s merged work/life arrangements. For some, it’s a big deal to be able to go out for a walk during lunch. You might need to come in a little later to drop your kids at school or leave a little earlier for your Yoga class.
Whatever it is that is an important line in the sand for you – it’s not one size fits all!
As you think about your boundaries, you can do a similar exercise as the one for values. Write down the boundaries that you care about. Then give up the ones that are less important to you. Work-life balance is always a tradeoff, and you need to know what you’re willing to trade and what you’re not. Know your negotiables and your non-negotiables. Don’t ‘die on the hill’ or get yourself all worked up for the former.
Compartmentalize | When you’re on, you’re on. When you’re off, you’re off.
Don’t spend energy on things you cannot fix at the moment. Once you’re off work, don’t ruminate about things that concerned you at work. Focus on the environment you’re in at the moment, enjoying the activity you’re doing, fully tuning in to your kids or friends, or just taking brain time off. You don’t win anything if you keep thinking about that work task you need to do the next day – it just ruins your time and attention for other things.
Make a clear distinction between working and being off work. Use the time off work to follow your other interests, passions and recharge. Be off. Then when you’re on again, you need to be fully on. Care deeply about work when you’re at work. Be as effective as you possibly can. Forget about work when you’re at home. Focus on the things that matter personally to you.
Give both aspects of your life your fullest instead of dabbling in inattentive mediocracy for each of them. Multitasking doesn’t work, and it burns a lot of switching energy.
Think about doctors: they need to give the best possible care to patients when they are on shift. However, if they keep worrying about them once they’re home, they will not be able to bring on their A-game the next day.
Earning autonomy and flexibility
Autonomy only comes with accountability | The work still needs to get done. You need to own it. Fully!
Everything we talked about above – living your values, setting boundaries, and compartmentalizing – boils down to work flexibility and autonomy in one way or another. However, autonomy is something that is not and cannot be granted lightly – after all, the job needs to get done, and we all have a critical function for the organizations we work in.
Instead, we have to earn autonomy. We do that by consistently demonstrating that we are on top of things, that we think forward, act responsibly, don’t drop commitments, and are accountable and reliable. We demonstrate ownership.
Ownership and accountability mean being clear about the priorities in your work, communicating those clearly, and focusing your time at work on those. It means tracking your timelines and deliverables and not getting surprised by looming deadlines. It means getting started early and not waiting until the last minute. It means proactively planning how you get the work accomplished by the deadline. Work is NOT the place for procrastination!
Ownership also means looking for better ways of doing things or proactively engaging other people who can help relieve pressure. Ownership means making good suggestions to improve your work area.
No surprises! | Communicate clearly, proactively, and early.
One of the first and biggest lessons I learned was: “No surprises!”
There is almost no problem that cannot be fixed if people are made aware of it early enough. There is absolutely no fix to a problem if you learn about it after ‘the ship has sailed’.
If you cannot accomplish what you had promised, you need to give early proactive heads-up. It’s ok that things change, it’s ok that you get other priorities, it’s ok to have unforeseen complications. It’s NOT ok to not tell anyone about those changes or risks immediately. Be proactive and give people an early heads-up if things stray from the agreed-upon plan.
If you cannot do something that you had promised, don’t just throw your hands in the air and hope that no one will notice – rather, look for solutions.
Pace yourself | Life and career are marathons, not sprints.
Sometimes we need to sprint to get things done and achieve the desired goal. Sometimes it’s crunch time, and we need to let go of our boundaries for a little while for the greater good – the challenges the global COVID pandemic brought upon us are a great example of such a time in which we need to go above and beyond for prolonged periods of time.
However, we need to also deliberately slow down afterward. Humans have a way of getting used to pressure and not noticing it until something pops. Like a sprint, you keep running until you’re out of breath, and then you drop to the floor and pant.
Instead, life is a marathon, and so is your career. Notice when you have times where you can recharge and regain your energy. Use those times! Push hard during crunch time and then focus a little more on yourself, your values, and your passions during the times in-between.
Life is a marathon, and muscles grow while we rest them! However, when it’s go-time, you need to be on your A-game.
If I can leave you with three things
1. You need to take care of yourself first!
This includes your health, the things you care about, and time for your purpose and passion.
2. You need to know what matters to you.
It’s different for everyone, and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for the other. Don’t look at what flexibilities the other person has – be clear about which ones matter to you.
3. Autonomy, accountability, and ownership go together. Always!
You can only set boundaries if you own the expected outcomes and if you hold yourself accountable for the promises you made. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help – it means YOU need to be the one who proactively brings up issues early and helps identify solutions.
If you master the tension between boundaries and ownership, you master your stress.
Trust your team and help your team! In the long run, you win as a team – you can only lose as the lone warrior.
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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
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