On boundaries as the antibiotics of burnout

On boundaries as the antibiotics of burnout

April 6, 2021


Boundaries are the antibiotics of burnout

Adding on to

On imposter syndrome

A possible side effect of imposter syndrome is burning yourself out, trying to influence other people's perceptions of you (or your own perception of yourself). Setting good boundaries, I have found, is one of the best ways to prevent burnout relapse, in addition to setting more reasonable expectations of yourself and reevaluating how you evaluate yourself. These are some thoughts on how to go about setting some of those boundaries.

Acknowledge the (stereotype) threat

For folks from marginalized groups, there is what I can only assume to be a natural response to the knowledge of stereotypes about our identities - work extra hard to prove them wrong. Be on top of your game at all times and never let them see you sweat. This, I assure you, is a losing game to play.

Even if you change a person's mind about you as an individual, unless they are willing to retrain their mental models of your whole group(s), they may simply see you as an exception to the norm, continuing to cling to their beliefs.

It's a trap because no one can be indefinitely flawless. People need room to fail, learn, and grow from their mistakes. I'd go as far as to say that I don't think it is possible to be innovative if you aren't willing to fail.

Acknowledge how knowledge of stereotypes about your identities makes you feel.

Acknowledge the pressure that they create.

Then it go, one step at a time.

De-program the "twice as hard for half as much" narrative whenever possible.

Set internal boundaries

There will times when you need to stretch yourself and dip into deeper energy reserves. In order to make sure that you have that energy reserve available to tap into, strive to be clear with yourself about when, why, and for how long you need to stretch yourself.

For example, "I'm going to put in some extra hours for a two weeks to make an MVP for this hack idea that I think will be really impactful."

Short term hustle can be beneficial for hitting aspirational goals. Long term grinding can have real health consequences and otherwise make you less effective.

Set external boundaries

Especially with the work from home situation imposed by the pandemic, healthy boundaries are essential for protecting mental and physical health.

Transparency is the key

For example, one thing that helped me to reduce the feeling of work and the rest of my life blending together was to clearly sign at the beginning of the work day and sign off at the end. Before and after those hours are my personal time, which I communicated to my colleagues.

Create physical boundaries

E.g., I physically close my work laptop and leave it out of sight at the end of the work day.

Calendar blocks are your friends

At the height of the pandemic, I noticed that I was sometimes spending a full work day physically seated at my desk or close to it, stuck in a loop of looking for the next productive thing that I should be doing. I recognize that this was, again, a counter-productive coping response. Part of the solution for me was to create and honor calendar blocks for non-work activities, primarily lunch. For example, as a team, we all agreed that meetings aren't to be scheduled over people's lunch blocks and that lunch doesn't only have to happen at 12.

Role Crafting, or, Make the non-core work into core work

Expectation setting is a form of boundary setting

One thing I've caught myself doing is trying to do non-core (i.e. side projects) initiatives in addition to a full commitment of core team work. If this sounds ridiculous to you, it should. After all, we're talking about doing extra work at work. Even if it is work that you find interesting or important, it is still work. But unfortunately, it seems to be a common (or at least not unique) counter-productive tactic.

To counter this, if you find yourself in a prolonged state of side hustling, stop and escalate. Work with your manager to see how to integrate that "extra" work into your core work. This is, in effect, the essence of role crafting. Explain the value of the thing you want to work on, amount of time needed (e.g. hours per sprint) and the duration of the commitment if applicable.

E.g., "I'd like to explore an opportunity to share knowledge and improve code quality across disciples by developing a new course. It would take about 3 hours per week. At that rate, we should have a pilot ready in 2 months, at which point we can reevaluate the commitment based on the feedback."

Long running and non-core? Consider dropping it

Jamming with a mentor, we reflected on how when heroics go right, it's seen as being a proactive team player. However, when that same motivation doesn't work out, it may be seen as going rogue or detracting from planned work (the opposite of being a team player). A take away?

If that all proves to be unfruitful, well, to quote a mentor...

Sometimes people need to see sh*t burn down before they give you room to come in and throw water on it