A couple of weeks ago I texted my boss to say I was struggling to cope and needed to speak to her. I hadn’t been able to stop crying that morning as I thought about the day ahead. My partner told me that I had to tell her. I’m glad that I did as it opened up communication between us and we worked together on strategies to put out the “fires” and make my workload more manageable in the longer term.
Since then I’ve changed the way that I work and think about work. I’m still feeling stressed, but I’m not having sleepless nights any more or fantasising about quitting all of the time.
I wanted to share my thoughts about dealing with overwhelm at work on the route to FI because having ambitious financial goals can be a double edged sword.
On the one hand it can be any extra motivation. It can help you to “suck it up” if you can see how your time and effort will result in more freedom in the future.
However, it can also add to the feeling of pressure. Chances are, if you are passionate about gaining time freedom, you are probably already feeling conflicted about how you are spending your working life. You may have a tendency to obsess about your FIRE journey, make sacrifices and not prioritise your wellbeing in the here-and-now (or maybe that’s just me projecting!).
In any case, having other “goals” and a personality that’s not very good at self care, can create a “perfect storm” when the pressure is on at work.
So what can you do if you are finding yourself in this situation?
If you do have a boss that you trust then do try to share how you are feeling. You don’t need to be sobbing into your hands like I was – there’s probably a point about six months earlier than that when you can start to share your concerns before you feel emotionally overwhelmed.
Your line manager is ultimately accountable for the areas that you feel responsible for, so it is up to them to help you when the going gets tough. It’s helpful to think beforehand about what they could do to improve the situation. Is it reassigning some of your responsibilities, bringing in more resource to support you, or being more flexible on timelines? It might be that they simply give you some slack, or help you to think through your priorities.
One thing my boss and I realised is that if we had been going into an office every day as we did pre-Covid this probably wouldn’t have got as far as it did. As we are both working from home we can’t see the impact that a difficult meeting, an aggressive email or a manic day will have on each other. Although we make some time for “small talk” on meetings, it’s always curtailed as the meeting will have another purpose, so we miss a lot of personal life updates that we might have if we were chatting in the morning when we come in or having lunch together.
I realise I’m lucky in that I have an understanding boss who I know values me. But if I hadn’t communicated with her I would not have given her the opportunity to demonstrate this and to help me.
I realise this might not be an option for everybody depending on your personality and/or the culture of the organisation.
Prioritise your basic physical needs
Another contributing factor to my feeling of overwhelm is that I do have workaholic tendencies. I can easily spend the whole day at my desk without taking a break. I systematically work late. Even on days when I start early so that I can finish early I end up working until the same time. I became so stressed and wound up that I couldn’t stop thinking about work in the evenings and at weekends. It was a few sleepless nights that led me to feel overwhelmed and unable to think straight.
So I prioritised sleep and took a sleeping pill for two nights in a row. I also made sure that I had a big flask of water on my desk (which I drank) and started to take a decent break at lunch.
I find I’m more likely to stew on things if I’m indoor or inactive, so I am more active now at the weekends to make sure I can recharge. Starting the weekend with an outing as a type of “circuit break” helps. Otherwise, I will easily spend the morning still thinking about work from that week.
Focus on what’s really important
The Squiggly Careers Podcast did a fantastic recent episode about dealing with overwhelm at work. One of the tips that really stuck with me was thinking about “what needs to be great this week/today” and prioritising that. This podcast is brilliant for giving practical advice on almost every work challenge you could face. Definitely check it out if you haven’t already.
Remind yourself of your motivation to work
I have a sheet of paper on the wall in front of me listing out my motivation to work and make sure that I read it before starting work each day, at least. Of course, as a FIRE enthusiast, one of the items on the list is that I’m finally starting to build wealth rapidly, but it’s not the only thing. The others are that:
- the company I work for is making a positive difference to peoples lives
- I’m making a positive impact on the company (even when I’m feeling overwhelmed!)
- I’m still learning and enjoy working with most of my colleagues.
It’s easy to lose sight of these things when you are knee deep in the day to day.
Next to my list of my motivations I also have a list of skills that I want to develop, such as presentation skills of specific technical areas. Some of these overlap with the most challenging aspects of my job. So, making a conscious choice to improve in these areas helps me to frame these challenges as learning experiences and see the longer term growth they could trigger.
Make time for “life admin”
Often it’s the combination of being busy at work and feeling like I’m letting the household slip that causes the most stress for me. I think about the “life admin” jobs that I need to do over the next fews days. They might be arranging a new insurance policy or getting a present for a family member. I then make sure that I do it just before or after work, when I’m in professional/efficient mode.
Ease off financial goals for a while and focus on other interests
There are elements of my FIRE strategy that can go on autopilot, like my monthly investing at the moment. Others require more effort, like building up new side hustles. Often when I’m stressed at work I dive even more into learning, blogging and hustling as it makes me feel more in control, less dependent on my day job and a bit better about myself.
However, one adjustment I make when I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed is not setting myself any financial goals for a while, such as earning or investing a particular amount. If I do set goals, they are around wellbeing and self development. If I do work on side hustles then I do the ones I enjoy the most and that allow me to build skills. This has been a critical part of me enjoying the route to FI.
I also make sure that I have a few evenings off and some weekend time where I don’t try to be productive. Gardening has been great for me over the last couple of years as I totally switch off. Part of my dream future lifestyle now is having a greenhouse and enough space in the garden to be semi self-sufficient. Having a clearer image of how I would spend more of my time, if I had more time freedom, is so motivating.
All in all
This post is the epitome of “self-help” as writing this has helped to clarify how I will get through this period. I’m not out of the woods yet. I realise a lot of this is personal to me, but I hope that there is something useful in here for anybody else going through a similar experience