I, like many young people I know, have a habit of being a yes person. I say yes to pretty much anything and everything.
I have a tendency to overwork myself, and this was never more true than in college.
At some points I held between 10 and 15 different jobs, including jobs on campus, freelance writing jobs, serving jobs to help pay the bills, etc. I could work anywhere from 60 to 80 hours each week, sometimes more. This was all on top of being a college student with a full class load, extracurricular activities and a life (occasionally).
In a word, it was hectic.
Not only was it hectic, but it was catastrophic to my physical and mental health. I suffered from severe insomnia because I couldn’t lay in bed without thinking of everything I needed to do. I had incredibly high anxiety, very little time to eat on any given day and was all around exhausted.
Yet I continued to keep pushing myself to the brink of a breakdown — and there were several. The worst one was what finally made me realize I needed to take a step back.
It was in my junior year of college. I was Editor-in-Chief of RIT’s student run magazine, Reporter. I also freelanced for three different organizations, worked four different jobs on campus, occasionally babysat for a colleague and tried to maintain my 4.0 GPA.
It was the week before spring break, and me and my then-boyfriend (now husband), had planned a trip to North Carolina to visit family. I was excited for the much-needed break, but in the 24 hours before leaving my to-do list was monstrous; I had three midterms to study for, an entire magazine to edit thoroughly, several meetings for my jobs, an oil change I needed to get, packing to do and I needed to somehow find time to bring my dog to the dog sitter, all before a very early morning flight.
While finally at the oil change appointment, which I had anticipated would only take me 20 to 30 minutes, I was told the wait would be more like one hour because they had run behind a bit. This messed up my entire timeline, and my anxiety kicked into high gear. To this day I’m not quite sure exactly what happened, but I believe I had a manic episode after speaking with several people well-versed in mental health and after consulting many online sources.
I remember sitting in the lobby hyperventilating and not feeling like things around me were real. I remember people looking at me a bit strangely, but me not being able to communicate with them. Then, I blacked out. I don’t remember driving home, but I do remember my boyfriend carrying me upstairs because I couldn’t move. He said I was drenched in sweat and sobbing.
I don’t remember the next hour or two, but eventually I came to in my bed, curled in the fetal position.
The entire experience was terrifying.
It took a massive breakdown like that for me to finally realize I needed to take a break every once in awhile, and it needed to be a more meaningful break than just zoning out and watching TV. I needed to do things I enjoyed, like reading, journaling, walking my dog or just having coffee with friends in a setting that didn’t involve work or school.
There are so many people I see doing this to themselves constantly, either with work or school.
I know a lot of people, and women in particular, who feel like they constantly need to “lean in” — a phrase that became popular thanks to Sheryl Sandberg and Nell Scovell’s book in 2013 — and give their all to their job or their passions, and they absolutely should.
But we also all need to learn to lean out of the world and work and school occasionally and lean in to ourselves. I’m not the only person who’s written on this subject; Katie Hawkins-Gaar with Poynter has also shared her story of learning to lean out. This lesson was one I took to heart. After that things didn’t get less busy necessarily, but I did do a better job of organizing my time and taking those moments each day or week. It’s a process I’m perfecting post-graduation, but I’m getting better at it.
I make sure work-life balance is something I’m constantly factoring in. I try not to work overtime unless I absolutely need to, and at least one day a week I sleep in and laze around a bit, doing whatever I’d like for at least a few hours.
It may seem like common sense, but I’m an anomaly among others I know. I have friends at work who consistently stay one hour later or more than they should for their work day, for free, just to get everything done. I know people who are tied to their cell phones 24/7, just in case a call from work comes through.
I know they’re trying to get ahead, and I understand the struggle. My plea to anyone and everyone that reads this is to remind yourself to occasionally take a few hours to do something you enjoy, and not just mindlessly watching TV. Learn to lean out a little bit so you can continue to grow in yourself.