A few weeks ago, I was strapped into a rowing machine at a bootcamp-style workout studio, nearing the end of a ten-minute row. I was only a few minutes in, but my palms were already so sweaty I could barely grip the handle, my lungs struggled to take in a full breath, and my legs had long stopped burning—instead, they were numb, shaking with exhaustion. A screen on the studio's wall indicated my heart rate was at 99% capacity.
Finally, an instructor walked by with a stopwatch and announced that we had less than one minute to go. "Now is not the time to pull back—now is the time to push forward," he shouted into his mic, encouraging us. For the next sixty seconds, I pushed my legs and pulled my arms with more strength than each previous row. Overhead, my heart rate monitor indicated I was at 100%. By the time the instructor began a five-second countdown, my muscles were screaming for me to stop. I pushed through the end of the countdown, but felt far from triumphant; I just felt exhausted and ill.
At my therapist's office a week later, I relayed the experience to him, and he asked, "Why did you give 100%?" My heart rate fit neatly into a metaphor that applied to my entire life, but his question felt ridiculous to me: Why do anything if you aren't willing to give it your all? Why go to a workout class if you aren't going to spend that hour pushing your body as hard as it can go? Why go to work if you aren't going to work your hardest?
Burnout, that's why.
After calmly listening to my slew of reasons for giving 100%, my therapist explained that, beyond a certain point, too much effort actually yields diminishing returns. Then, he gave me an assignment: Give no more than 97% effort at anything for an entire week. "Leave work without answering that one final email. I promise, no one is going to notice you aren't giving that extra 3%," he reassured me.
It was a truth I already knew—but it didn't make me any less uncomfortable. I've always approached everything I do with a 100% effort, even when it's to my own detriment. I'll work through lunch, only to feel too fatigued to join friends for drinks after work. I'll schedule back-to-back plans every evening after work, then cancel the plans I was most looking forward to because of exhaustion. I'll work out until I can barely stand up from a rower. The thing I appreciate most about myself—my desire to try everything and do everything all the time—was hurting me.
In college, my stress-induced abdominal cramps were so severe that doctors misdiagnosed them as gall bladder disease. While most people don't need to go as far as literally having an organ removed to realize they're stressed, I'm far from the only person over-exerting herself. In her viral piece for Buzzfeed News, Anne Helen Petersen wrote about how impossibly high expectations combined with overworking has created an epidemic of burnout, especially among Millennials.
On a particularly busy, recent Friday, I took meetings straight through breakfast and lunch (despite company policies that encourage us to take frequent breaks and an hour for lunch). At 4 PM, I sat down, tired and hungry, at a coffee shop and instinctively took out my laptop.
As soon as I opened my inbox, I felt overwhelmed. It was packed to the brim with emails that needed responses—but I didn't have the energy to answer them. So I closed it. I ordered a latte and cookie, put my computer away, and flipped through recipes in a cookbook I'd just purchased.
When I opened my phone twenty minutes later, I was sure there'd be thousands of texts, Slack messages, and emails I'd neglected during my break—but there weren't. The sky hadn't fallen from my decision to momentarily exert less effort. In fact, I felt so refreshed from my break that I cruised through my inbox, then felt inspired to create a grocery list around one of the recipes I'd found.
It's taken time to recalibrate what a healthy "max effort" looks like for me, and I'm nowhere close to mastering it. But for now, it means occasional unstructured mornings, stopping to eat lunch away from my desk, reserving one night a week to be "plan free," and no longer using a heart rate monitor. So far, no one's indicated that I'm not working hard enough or running fast enough—and I still feel productive at the end of the work day and sore after a workout. The only difference is: I have enough energy now to enjoy it all.
Do I wish there were 25 hours in a day? Absolutely. But for now, I'm focused on slowing down the 24 I do have.