How to keep up your stamina in a demanding job?
September 15, 2018 5:39 PM   Subscribe

I recently started a job that is, in many ways, an absolute dream. However, it can also be demanding, taxing, and the hours can be long. How can I keep up my energy and stamina while working an intense job?

After going back to school with the intention of changing careers, I recently landed an awesome, highly coveted role in a huge company (in technology! Woohoo!). The work is complex and engaging, the people are awesome, the pay and benefits and other perks are top notch, and there is tons of room for advancement. However, the job can ask for a lot from you. People in my role routinely work 10-12 hour days and work through their weekends. It is generally expected that you are available to handle urgent requests outside of work hours. Also, the particular team I’m on is largely quite young and very close, with a prevailing “work hard, play hard” mentality (not in a gross, bro-y way!), meaning that both formal and informal social events take place frequently.

I started just over a month ago and, you guys, I love this job. I feel welcomed and engaged and well compensated and excited for the future. I have been told that I am standing out among my peers and I’ve already been granted cool opportunities for even more interesting work. But I am already tired! I feel like I have totally run out of steam every day about 4pm, which wouldn’t be a huge problem if my work day ended at 5 but it rarely does. Also, as an early 30-something, I’m a little older than most of the people who started at my level. I’m also married, unlike a lot of my peers, and it is also very important for me to take care of my health by making time for regular exercise and sleeping well (I really need 8 hours!). Quality time with my husband and the healthy stuff are some of the first to go when my hours get long (I’m getting up at 5am for workouts but that is very hard to do when I have been working until 11!).

I don’t necessarily have to do everything, but doing everything is really what sets people apart in this company. Also complicating things is that my husband and I would like to start a family soon-ish (my biological clock is big source of anxiety for me!) and I’d much prefer to secure a few promotions before I would be comfortable walking away for mat leave and reducing my capacity for work and all the social stuff around work. This means I need to continue to over-perform so that I can get promoted as quickly as possible so that I can get to having kids as quickly as possible (the balancing work and parenting thing is a bridge I’m not allowing myself to worry about until I get to it).

So how do I handle the long days, the mentally taxing stuff, the socially taxing stuff, the fact that this job takes up way more of my bandwidth than any other job has? Have you worked a job you loved that took a lot out of you? How did you do it? What is your secret? Thank you in advance, hard-working and industrious friends!
posted by rodneyaug to Work & Money (17 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
(IANAD, TINMA) What I do when I have long workdays like that, especially many in a row, is take supplemental B complex vitamins, Vitamin D with calcium, and an herbal supplement called Rhodiola. These three all boost energy and alertness, both physical and mental. I also up my water intake.

Another thing that might help is working exercise into your daily routine. Maybe do Pomodoros for your work, and use the breaks to do some squats or lunges, or a couple yoga poses.

Gentle reminder: Your awesome job is not more important than your health. It is not more important than your husband. It is not more important than your family.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 6:13 PM on September 15, 2018 [16 favorites]

Congrats on the job you love so much!

My job is no longer as taxing thanks to over a decade of experience and also better boundaries on my own part but I regularly worked 10-12 hour days my first few years. When I look back, there are really only two things I wish I had done differently early on. I wish I had spoken up more at times instead of letting my (valid) fear at unfair bosses silence me. (Now I'm super vocal and am even more respected for it, fwiw.) The other thing? I wish I had taken more sick days!! I thought I was being strong but I was really being silly. It's one thing to take dozens of sick days for the heck of it but another to not take a day or two occasionally when you really need it. I'd take not even a single one some years, managing to schedule doctors appointments always before or after work or even during my vacation time(?!?) Maybe you can't take the day of a big presentation off but you can take off the following day, even if you're feeling better, so you have time to recover. I now have months and months of sick days logged "just in case." However, I will be soon moving and can't take those days with me. Oh, and my boss did not criticize me or see me as any less valuable or productive these past two years when I started taking a sick day sometimes a.k.a. took better care of myself. So, if you're feeling awful and/or more than one colleague are looking at you with great concern and gently encouraging you (for the third day in a row) to take a sick day, please do!

Also, I'd consider scheduling a biweekly therapy appointment at the end of a work day -- or whenever -- and take a second to get a coffee beforehand or read for a few minutes in the car -- so you are "forced" to take a break occasionally. You do important work but, as others have said, your health is most important and that includes mental well-being!

Finally, time in nature does wonders for me. A hike or bicycle ride or stroll on an afternoon or evening off, especially when I have to drive a bit to get there, really helps me clear my mind and disconnect. That break helps me and makes me happier and, therefore, more productive the next day. I often have to force myself to leave and then gather the energy to go but I'm always glad when I do!

Good luck!
posted by smorgasbord at 6:30 PM on September 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

Congratulations on successfully shifting to a new career!

10-12 hour days + weekends is not normal or sustainable, even in technology. If you’re doing work that’s in any way creative like programming you might be able to sustain 5-6 hours of actual work per day with padding for in-office b.s. rounding out your 8 hours/day. Plenty of scholarship exists supporting a 40-hour work week as the optimal balance of effort and results, and major lawsuits have been filed and won to fight the “crunch mode” culture once prevalent in the game development industry. These days it’s often a sign of immaturity in startups to work such hours so I’m surprised to hear you’re being worked like this in a big company. For comparison, I’m at a 60-person startup that’s expanding hard and fast, and people here are gone by 6pm every night. Friends in large brand-name technology companies sometimes leave as early as 4pm to beat traffic with no expectation of being online during evenings and weekends.

When I worked in non-profits we occasionally had heroes pulling all-nighters and it was a continued source of frustration to hear them cheered for their efforts. An enlightened coworker at the time used to say, “if I see you working after 6pm I’ll assume someone fucked up.” Organizations that reward a “do everything” approach are probably burning people out along the way, maybe even intentionally? One local tech company used to prefer to hire new grads from out-of-town schools because they’d be easier to work late if they didn’t have any local friends.

By all means take the self-care advice being offered in this thread but please keep an eye on your well-being and don’t assume that it’s your personal responsibility to be available for a 60-80 hour work week. Find friendly people inside and outside your company slightly ahead of your current spot and learn how promotions work so you can estimate your chances and how to maximize them. Set boundaries. Open up space in your schedule for a mix of relaxing and seeking out other jobs. You may not want to move on now, but there’s no better way to learn about other companies than interviewing there, and you might find yourself with a competing job offer you can use to argue for a promotion in your current one.
posted by migurski at 7:33 PM on September 15, 2018 [14 favorites]

Also, here are some smart women in tech to follow on Twitter who frequently post about work/life balance while being generally awesome: Stephanie Hurlburt, Julia Evans, Erica Baker, Tracy Chou, Jess Frazelle.
posted by migurski at 7:36 PM on September 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

People in my role routinely work 10-12 hour days and work through their weekends. It is generally expected that you are available to handle urgent requests outside of work hours.
How can I keep up my energy and stamina while working[?]

Cocaine, amphetamines, or extreme youth come to mind. The hours as described are simply not maintainable in the long run, and if you’re not careful your inevitable burnout will take your love of tech work with it. I’ve seen this happen a *lot* over the years.

In your shoes I would keep my energy up by recognizing that this is temporary, and that once you’ve proved yourself an integral part of the team you’ll be able to ease back to hours you can reasonably work.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:03 PM on September 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

I've heard that actors who are working intense weeks will take vitamin B shots. Regular exercise will help with energy, though I don't know when you will find the time.

Honestly though? Keep this up and it will break you... This "great" job is using you. They're not paying you for those extra hours. They're torching their employees health. I get that you like the job, but... you need to look at your situation with clear and neutral eyes. If you were my friend, I would strongly, strongly, suggest looking for other work. Those other cool kids working those hours? They're all enablers of a business that is taking advantage of all of you. In a sane world, you would go to HR as a group and ask for a plan to remedy the situation.
posted by xammerboy at 8:24 PM on September 15, 2018 [14 favorites]

In your shoes I would keep my energy up by recognizing that this is temporary

No. It's not.
posted by xammerboy at 8:26 PM on September 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

once you’ve proved yourself an integral part of the team you’ll be able to ease back to hours you can reasonably work.

mmmm I would not take this as a given - it's just as likely (and probably more likely IMO) that once you've proved yourself an integral part of the team that means they will pile EVEN MORE work on you, because hey, they know you're able and willing to do it! Integral part of the team! Don't want to let everyone down, do ya???

OP, I am here to say that there are tech jobs out there that are just as good, with work just as interesting, with saner work-life balance. I know because I recently started one, in another (possibly the same?) one of those big tech companies. My new team is an oasis of grown-ups with families and real lives in a sea of techbros, and somehow we still all manage to get on well, get our goddamn work done and go home at the end of the day. I say this not to brag about my sweet new job, but to encourage you not to settle for awesome-but-unsustainable just because that's the general perception of tech jobs in general.
posted by btfreek at 9:02 PM on September 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

You guys are so awesome and so wise. And totally right that, in general, 10-12 hour days PLUS weekends PLUS being on call is not realistic or sustainable. I do not want to be doing this exact thing for the long term.

I should clarify that the work is largely project-based and some projects are more effort and time-intensive than others. So the really intense work might last for, say, a three month stretch and then abate for a few weeks. With the knowledge that this isn’t forever and it isn’t constant, what do you guys suggest to stay motivated and energized?
posted by rodneyaug at 9:23 PM on September 15, 2018

Going to be blunt here, even though you're not going to like it: the work hours at your job are not the result of mysterious outside forces, like the weather. They are the result of deliberate choices by your bosses to exploit you as much as possible by extracting as much work from you as they possibly can until you burn out, and they replace you with the next bright-eyed young thing. This means they do not have your interests at heart. It's important that you internalize this, because you must learn from day one to look after yourself, as they will not, and to realize that you will not be there very long (relatively speaking), regardless of how great the job is. Figure out now what your lines are for a survivable life and defend them. They will be expecting you to be weak and submissive like your colleagues and to hand over your life without being pressed; don't. You should also be planning from now on how you are going to get out of this team and this role, because either you successfully scheme your way into a better one or it hollows you out until you have to quit (or you go on maternity leave and don't come back and convince yourself that it's just because you love changing diapers so much).
posted by praemunire at 9:25 PM on September 15, 2018 [23 favorites]

>>In your shoes I would keep my energy up by recognizing that this is temporary

>xammerboy: No. It's not.

>btfreek: mmmm I would not take this as a given - it's just as likely (and probably
> more likely IMO) that once you've proved yourself an integral part of the team that
> means they will pile EVEN MORE work on you,

I fell for that one in my early twenties and almost burned myself out. I was saved by a wonderful piece of email from my older sister (a director of software engineering at the time), which I will paraphrase here:

"Until you've been a manager you don't realize how much of a pain in the ass it is to hire someone and train them. I went through some amazing hoops to keep experienced people from leaving because 75% of a sure thing is so much better than the crapshoot of bringing someone new in."

"In my new position I'm discovering what a pain in the ass it is to fire someone. The one time I did this as a manager I turned it over to HR and washed my hands of it. As a director I'm expected to be in on the legal and HR meetings and I'll be blamed for any lawsuits. My mantra with my managers is 'Find a way, work it out.'"

"If your company is hiring it means they need people, and hanging onto an existing person beats the heck out of getting a new one. You're worth a lot more than you know."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:08 PM on September 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm sorry to say this but in my experience, like, 80% of people who consistently work long hours in demanding, high stress industries over the long term are using drugs and alcohol to make their lifestyles possible. Not neccesarily illegal drugs, lots of people overuse or abuse drugs that are available over the counter. They also typically either neglect the rest of their lives or have someone (housekeeper, spouse, etc) managing the rest of their lives for them.

"Work hard play hard" usually = "use stimulants and then use depressants". The few weeks between projects probably involve crashing pretty hard.

I'm not sure how the other 20% manage. I've met some people who are just naturally incredibly high-energy. I guess it's just luck/genetics if you happen to be one of those.
posted by windykites at 6:17 AM on September 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Nap at work. I've found a few secret places around work, such as the visitor's lobby, a little used test lab, an auditorium control booth. I also go to my car, drive a short distance, park, and set an alarm for 40 minutes.
posted by at at 6:26 AM on September 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

As someone who is slowly recovering from working at this level, my advice to you is: start finding ways to rest before your body finds them for you.

Take a weekend every weekend. At least one full day off with no expectation of responding to email. My mantra: “this is not a 7-11.”

Exercise, preferably outside. Biking to work is awesome. Limit your caffeine and alcohol intake. There are no magic energy sources, just your human body.
posted by mai at 7:12 AM on September 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have and still sometimes do work that much and I have to join the chorus here - you simply will not be able to continue to feel energised. You will begin to always feel tired. You won’t realise how tired until you get a few days off and remember what adequate sleep feels like. And these breaks between projects, the ones that give you downtime- they are a theoretical construct because there will always be another project that needs support or a new one coming in at short notice or other task that needs doing. So you will be asked to do other stuff in those weeks, that pushes you outside sustainable hrs as well.

How to cope? Well, outsource any housework you can, any gardening or whatever other task you are supposed to do that can be outsourced. Make time for your husband and any other relationships you want to maintain, schedule that time and do not shift these ‘appointments’ for work. Have a really in depth discussion with your husband about how much your job is/ is not allowed to interfere with your joint spare time. Agree on boundaries with him and insist on these boundaries at work. Revisit this with him regularly for a while because he may still be labouring under the illusion, that this is temporary...and as almost everybody here is telling you, that is unlikely to be the case as this is your employer’s business model.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:23 AM on September 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

This means I need to continue to over-perform so that I can get promoted as quickly as possible so that I can get to having kids as quickly as possible (the balancing work and parenting thing is a bridge I’m not allowing myself to worry about until I get to it).

As a mom in tech, I'm telling you that you have this exactly backwards. The way you prepare to balance work and parenthood is by balancing work and life NOW. You learn how to kick ass in 8 focused hours a day, and go home. You are not going to magically learn the skills for doing awesome work while still seeing your family if you don't start by learning how to do awesome work and living your life without excessive hours. I did this for 10+ years before having kids, and I believe it's one of the best things I did for my career.

My observation is that most people in tech who work regularly long hours are in one of two situations:
1. They are working for an exploitive company (say, the games industry), where setting professional boundaries may very well be impossible
2. They waste a lot of time at work, spend a lot of time socializing with their coworkers, and generally spend those 60+ hour weeks getting no more done than people working normal hours, because it is so hard to be productive for 60+ hour weeks for months and years on-end

So, fine. Maybe you're in a bit of situation #1 right now (although the fact that your team is young leads me to believe that probably many of them are actually in situation #2). You just switched into tech, you want to make a good impression and make up for lost time. The thing you should focus on if you feel the need to work these hours is learning as much as humanly possible in this time. If you are working long hours but not learning a lot in the process, you are wasting precious time. Your goal is to prove yourself enough to get out of this job. This job might be great for you to learn from for a year or two, but it is not a place for a person who wants to have a normal life and have kids.

There are plenty of tech jobs that don't ask for these hours. You want to have the resume that will land you one of them. The team social stuff isn't going to get you there much except that you want to have a good enough relationship with your colleagues that they will perhaps think to refer you to new jobs as they move on to other places, so I would cut it down to the minimum you can do without being totally out of the group.

That thing where they're already giving you even more interesting projects? That's great, but don't say yes to everything. Try your damndest to learn how to distinguish projects that are going to teach you a lot and expand your skills and deliver real value to the team/business from the stuff that they're throwing at you because you're the eager newbie. Saying no to work when you're already overloaded is important, because you're going to learn less if you overload yourself and your work quality will suffer.

Develop your judgment in what is worth doing and what isn't. Over time, it will serve you better than anything else. I would view this as a challenge not to just survive this period of extreme work pressure but to figure out every way you can to lessen that pressure and time commitment without sacrificing your work quality. You can do it.
posted by ch1x0r at 10:28 AM on September 16, 2018 [9 favorites]

Set boundaries for the good of your health and your marriage. Eg home two nights a week by 7pm, at least one work-free weekend day. Take vacations and weekends away where you switch off entirely. Take a sick day a month, even just to catch up on errands like banking and getting a haircut. I think the age range of your workplace has a lot to do with the culture there- if half your coworkers had kids, there's no way those hours could be the norm. Work hard but set reasonable limits. If you end up pulling long hours for a particular project deadline, once it's done go home at 5pm for a few days to make up for it. In my experience, people respect competent coworkers who do their job and set personal boundaries. Don't be the martyr who ends up staying until 10pm regularly- you'll just get piled with work that other people dont want to do.
posted by emd3737 at 11:30 AM on September 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

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