The perils of pushing yourself too far

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about how important it can be to switch off – you may have noticed an increasingly frantic tone to my posts! As a society we put a lot of pressure on the people who make decisions for us. I can’t imagine David Cameron’s summer holiday this year will be quite as relaxed as you or I might hope for, and everyone knows the stories about Mrs Thatcher’s three or four hours’ sleep a night when she was PM. The received wisdom about leadership seems to be that only those working their fingers to the bone can get to the top, and can get the job done when they get there. We like to think of our leaders as superhuman, but the truth is no-one can keep pushing themselves indefinitely.

So what does that mean for the rest of us? In my first job I never understood the concept that anyone could get addicted to work. Work’s boring, right? You put in the minimum effort possible, you go home at the end of the day. But after a certain point you start to care. You start to realise that the more you put into your job, the more you get from it – and before you know it you’re in the office at midnight on a Friday night, you’re checking your Blackberry halfway through your favourite TV show, you’re skipping appointments with the dentist for the slimmest excuse – well, in fairness that last one might not have much to do with work.

I blogged last week about the importance of switching off. That’s all well and good in principle, but what does it actually mean? There’s a few established tricks for forgetting about work, re-energising, getting yourself back into that creative streak; as I mentioned, I’m off to a silent retreat next week, and we all know the value of an extended break away from home, work, whatever’s stressing you out. But you can’t always just store up all your stress until it’s holiday time – learning to step away in a small-scale way is just as important, if not more so. And I have a hunch that how you do that is up to you. You might find it works to build a daily meditation session into the routines of work and home life. You might prefer to take a micro-nap at your desk every couple of hours (though that might be a bit harder to explain to your boss). Or you could promise yourself something new at least once a week – whether it’s a trip to the theatre, a walk in the country, or just calling an old friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. Whatever you do, it’s important to think about it – because permanent stress won’t make you good at your job, and it certainly won’t go away by itself.

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