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Don’t Be A Tool: What I Learnt from Overworking & Burning Out

Several years ago, I was working as an owner builder and struggling to complete a job with my battery powered drill. The battery kept smoking and I needed more grunt. I needed the “The Ken”.

It wasn’t called “The Ken” back then, but it is now.

“The Ken” is a super-powerful electric drill that I borrowed from a friend named Ken. He warned me that it was “a bit fast and hard to use,” yet this, I discovered, was an understatement.

“The Ken” is so powerful that it is effectively useless for precision work. Most drills (even electric drills) come with various speed settings, yet “The Ken” had only one setting, that of ridiculously fast.

As soon as I squeezed the trigger, the chuck rotated so quickly that I needed to brace my arm to maintain control. No matter how much I practiced, “The Ken” made a huge mess and was impossible to control.

As it turns out, I still have this power tool sitting in my shed (my friend didn’t seem to want it back!) Whenever I see “The Ken” gathering dust on my shelf, it reminds me of something. An on-switch, without an off-switch has its limitations. Go, go, go, is risky without the capacity to slow down and shift gears.

A number of years ago, I was like “The Ken.” I found myself working three jobs, pushing myself so hard across work and life that my health suffered, both physically and mentally.

I started to experience breathing difficulties related to anxiety, over-stress and under-sleep. I loved my work and was achieving excellence across various roles, yet physically my body shouted “stop!”

Following my doctor’s orders, I eventually accepted a two-week period of stress leave, yet this didn’t resolve the underlying issues – a lack of healthy boundaries, an unsustainable mix of roles, and an ever-increasing drive to complete tasks from my to-do list.

I discovered, painfully, that my life lacked cadence and rhythm, particularly with respect to my work and rest. I found myself “always accessible” to clients, contractors and my team, jumping at every text message and email vibration as it arrived. I allowed other people to interrupt my weekends, my evenings, even my holidays, frustrating family, friends and myself. Work was intense and 24/7. I was rarely unplugged and constantly on demand. Like my hyper-active power tool, I knew but one speed – there was no habitual rhythm for pausing, thinking, mentally slowing down, or indeed, switching off.

This period of life was formative for me. It encouraged me to re-think the meaning of work, the value of rest, and the rhythms required to be productive.

As I enter a new year, I am reminded yet again of the lessons learnt nearly a decade ago when I first borrowed “The Ken.” As work ramps up and projects begin, it seems a logical time to rethink, replan and recommit to the patterns that enable a sustainable life. I am reminded to work from a place of rest and thankfulness, rather than fear and driven-ness. I am reminded to book my holidays before I book my work, locking in camping trips and personal retreats before meetings clog up my calendar. I am reminded to keep a regular date night with my wife, to spend time with friends, to swim, ride and stay active as a pattern.

There are other rhythms as well; some common (like a weekly planning time), and uncommon (like turning off my phone each Saturday to focus on other things). There are also daily disciplines; morning rituals such as journaling, praying and contemplating to help me remember who I am and why I do what I do.

The bottom line is this. There will always be more work. There will always be more things to achieve from your ever-growing to-do list. Slowing down won’t happen by accident but requires a different mindset and set of habits.

Don’t be like “The Ken” which is always on and never off! Take time to slow down and breathe as a rhythm. Prioritise activities that bring rest, renewal and refreshment. Create annual, weekly and daily patterns to help you think and act with clarity.

Make space as a habit, and as a pattern, to enjoy a wonderful, refreshing and productive new year.

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