When work is fun, but it still burns you out

Right to it: I quit my job. I took a new job at a smaller company called Abstract, which builds a design system and collaboration toolset for product design teams. This is a job I have sought for years – not specifically this one at Abstract (since the business is only about two years old), but one that actually truly ticks all the boxes:

  • Small company, but not too small
  • Growing and relatively well-established in its niche
  • Thoughtful culture and approach to how it works – not one about obliterating the competition, working hard playing hard, you get the idea
  • Flexible to life situations, including the possibility of remote work
  • Compensation that reflects the value I believe I provide, without the noise of “benefits” I don’t truly need or value

It was a really hard thing to walk away from my job. Wayfair did have many of those boxes ticked. Those boxes also had big, painful asterisks associated with them which ultimately burned me out, despite having most recently been working on arguably the best team I’ve ever worked with on the most exciting product I’ve ever worked on.

But I also was getting no more than two or three hours at home by myself before my brain compelling me to fall asleep. Those 2–3 hours were usually zombie-like. My wife and I would haphazardly throw a dinner together – which is critical to do given my wife’s celiac disease and other food intolerances – and stare mindlessly at the TV most nights while we ate in near-silence. When she spoke for more than fifteen-or-so seconds, I would get short and my head would throb. Not because I didn’t want to listen to her for hours – because I did – but because my job had worn me out.

If I was lucky enough to spend those few hours with my wife, I had to be careful not to spend too much time with her, because I needed to sleep. I wanted eight hours of sleep, but realistically got six-and-a-quarter hours on average. (I know this to be true – my watch told me.)

Most people seem to get this amount of sleep regularly. I got stuck in a routine where I would be so tired on a Friday evening that we’d go to bed by 10pm, and then sleep in on Saturday morning. Then, my weekend routine of sleeping in to catch up gradually ceased because I couldn’t wake up later than 6:30am.

Waking up during the week was always the same routine: shower, dress, coffee, smoothie, read email, go. On most days I would wake up Alicia at steps 1 or 2, purely by accident. The “go” part could be anywhere from 45 to 75 minutes, depending on timing and other unpredictable things.

Virtually everything at home suffered as a result of all this. My wife’s mental health, my mental and physical health, our relationship in multiple ways, our willingness to travel, the cleanliness of our apartment, the diversity of meals we ate, the enjoyment we felt eating those meals in our unclean apartment. We constantly talked ourselves out of doing countless things because it felt like too much work after all the work we had each put in: me with basically nothing but my job, her with struggling to move her health and solo business in the correct direction.

The weirdest part about all this to me is that this all feels so first-world. I still had weekends, I still have a relatively nice apartment with meaningful flaws I could ignore, I make quite a bit of money, I have a life partner that I really truly do love.

Also, tons of people live like this. Literally every Monday was rife with colleagues of mine – mothers, fathers, driven 24-year-olds – half-asleep on the first day of the week. I have a neighbor who commutes and hers is thirty minutes longer than mine. I genuinely don’t know when she spends time with her children. Colleagues of mine often arrive home only to put their children to bed; sometimes I’m receiving emails from them after this time, clearly indicating they’re back at work.

By the way, this is not an indictment of my previous employer. This is on me. I truly enjoyed my time there, I tackled some really interesting product and organizational problems, and most of the people I work with are amazing people. I would happily work with or for several of them again in a heartbeat.

But what kind of life was I building for myself? What happens when roughly 80% of the interaction I have with my life partner are over text messages? Is this part of what leads to half of married couples divorcing? What kind of life is spent feeling mostly like a zombie?

A shitty one. And I’m fortunate to no longer feel like I’m building one of those.

I start on Tuesday. This will be good.

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