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April 16, 2019
Taking a Break From Your Ambition to Avoid Burnout

Being ambitious is nearly synonymous with a perpetual state of stress and busyness. But even the most ambitious go-getter may need to hit pause every now and then. After all, it’s the highest achievers who are sometimes most prone to burnout: About one in five “highly engaged” workers in the U.S. report feeling high levels of burnout, according to a recent study conducted by Yale researchers, while a Gallup study found that nearly a quarter of employees feel burned out “often or always.” A break can also be necessary to fulfill new ambitions—perhaps you’re looking to make a career change or transition into a new role that requires a different skillset.

In these moments, stepping back to reevaluate your career—or happiness—might require a shift, albeit a temporary one, in your ambition. Here are some of the things to keep in mind when you need to take a break from your ambition, forced or otherwise:

When you feel burned out

Pulling back from work doesn’t have to mean disengaging entirely. Burnout can often be the byproduct of focusing too hard on one thing or feeling like you are falling short of your own expectations. If you need to take a breather, one way to channel your ambition might be to grow your career in other ways—through networking or participating on a panel, for example—or shifting your attention to personal growth, whether that means making time to exercise or tackling a new hobby.

“Leaning out periodically can help you appreciate where you are in your career journey and discover opportunities that aren’t in your wheelhouse but are interesting,” says Jennifer Brick, career success coach at Capdeca Solutions.

In cases of extreme burnout, you may need to make a bigger shift, either by looking for a new job or taking some time off. Ambitious people often feel guilty or like they’re wasting time when they take a break, but career coach Yunzhe Zhou stresses the importance of rethinking that mindset. “I would reframe that and say if you’re feeling burned out and overwhelmed, you should take that as a signal that your brain and body are trying to tell you something,” Zhou says. “Take that as an opportunity to do something new.” 

That can—and should—include doing something for yourself, guilt-free. When you feel spent, investing in self-care can help fuel your ambition. Brick says to think of work-life balance as a pendulum: If at times you swing too far in either direction, you’ll be pulled back the other way eventually.

When you want to make a career change

Sometimes, blindly following your ambition—say, taking a promotion that you don’t necessarily want—can lead you down a career path that isn’t quite right for you. “If you’re giving 1000% percent at your current job, and you still feel like something is missing or it’s not purposeful, it’s a good sign that it may not be the right direction,” Zhou says.

But ambitious folks may struggle with the idea of decamping from a lucrative, steady career path in favor of trying something new. “High achievers have a hard time walking away from anything,” Brick says. “They are afraid they won’t regain momentum.” But being less ambitious for a short period of time doesn’t mean your career can’t pick back up when the time is right. “The thing that accelerates your career isn’t momentum—it’s you,” she says. “You can recreate that momentum at any time.” If you take a sabbatical to figure out your next career move, set a deadline for yourself so you have a target to work towards. 

Zhou—who helps millennials work through burnout and career transitions by taking on short-term passion projects or personal challenges—says you can also start laying the groundwork for a career change before you make a drastic decision to quit cold turkey. A good way to ease into a career change without feeling like you are starting from scratch is to try something new to build your portfolio for 30 days, she says, and to spend at least 30 minutes per day on it. (That could be as simple as finding mentorship to help give you direction as you make the transition.)

“High achievers like having a clear path or something definite,” she says. “Doing these projects on the side is a great way to really explore what you think you might want to do—and it’s a nice change to your current routine.”

When you have a baby

For many people, the first time they may have to contend with temporarily suspending their ambition is when they become parents and take leave. Some women, in particular, may worry they’ll lose steam if they take too much time off.

“This is hard for highly ambitious women, because you’re stepping out of the game and into a totally different world,” Brick says. “You go from negotiating seven figure business deals to negotiating diaper blowouts.” It’s important for women in this position to recognize and concede that there are medical reasons for why they need time off. “You go through a lot physically, emotionally and spiritually as a new parent, so don’t assume you’re going to walk back into work a week later,” she says. “More likely than not, you need a few weeks unplugged from the world—and that’s good.”

With respect to your work, Brick recommends being clear on who will take over your responsibilities and what your eventual transition back will look like. If you plan on checking in via email or would like to be involved with certain projects, make sure people are aware of that—but do what feels right for you.

“Postpartum is a temporary stage,” Brick says. “Bond with your baby, and do your best to recover. You’ll have lots of time to stress about work. Your responsibilities might not be done to your standards while you are out—but that’s okay.


Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine. More


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