How I Became (and Quit Being) a ‘Sleep Worker’

My alarm rang me into reality. I was shocked to find that I was in my bed, exhausted. I wondered, “How? I just spent the last eight hours as productively as I possibly could, working on the spreadsheet.” It quickly dawned on me that I had completed my project its entirety — in my sleep. Feeling like I had actually just worked all day, I had no idea how I was going to summon the energy to complete my one weekly exercise class, put myself together, hop on the bus and crush another day at the office.

This was the beginning of what I started to realize was burnout. Looking back, I‘d been feeling the symptoms for years. Quiet nights at home had slowly morphed into weekends where I wanted to do little more than lay on my bed and stare at the wall. It sounds dramatic, but even watching TV felt like too much stimulation. I didn’t have the emotional capacity to follow a storyline of a movie or show, empathizing with the characters.

The spreadsheet dream was new, though. Sure, I had taken work home during my entire career, checking email around the clock while doing my best to be accessible, helpful and proactive about the work I was doing at Bay Area startup companies. I knew how lucky I had been to begin my digital career as the fourth employee at a company that specialized in content and curation when the trend first got hot. My responsibilities as the Head of Community and Content also gave me the incredible opportunity to learn about business and product from the brilliant co-founders who treated me like an equal. Wanting to impress them, I formed some of the stereotypical startup employee habits early. As the years passed and I worked at other companies, it never occurred to me that there may have been a healthier or more fulfilling way to get stuff done. We were all moving fast, looking up and to the right, set on changing the world.

Putting in the long hours while truly enjoying the hard work and my addiction to the hustle, I failed to notice little bits of myself slipping away.

I had always loved designing, writing and making music, but I didn’t do any of those things anymore. Part of it was that I didn’t have much free time; the other part was that I couldn’t summon the energy or focus for creative pursuits. I also put on weight, too tired to workout regularly after a commute and sitting at my desk all day. Somewhere around year five, I was feeling pretty miserable — but with a great job, jaw-dropping perks and coworkers who truly felt like best friends, I couldn’t understand why. I wasn’t treated poorly in any job I had; the pressures, though heavy, didn’t break me like they did others. There was nothing obviously bad or wrong about my life.

But the explanation for my exhaustion and lack of happiness, even in ‘good’ circumstances, is simple: I was burnt out. It wasn’t until I read a piece about millennial women and work that I saw everything I had been experiencing in such a subtle way come together. Worked like crazy in school and college before driving across the country to start my career? Yes. Feeling unsure about my future? Definitely. Constantly connected? Of course.

Realizing that I needed to look at my life as a marathon and not a sprint, I started to spend time thinking about what made me feel good. I knew I needed to set boundaries, so I refused to keep work email on my personal cell phone, despite blatant disapproval. I started taking on creative side projects that allowed me to get back to my roots while helping others shine. I purposefully connected with people who had made professional leaps and changes. I carved out time for exercise, even when I was exhausted. After six months of testing my new lifestyle, I left my job at a trendy, rapid-growth startup to launch my own boutique web production studio, GoldSquare.

Truthfully, I was terrified to launch a venture on my own with minimal business experience, but the fear was exhilarating in a way it hadn’t been before. I relished in making decisions without having to ask anyone. I fell in love with collaborating with clients the way I wanted to. I also (finally!) found what I thought was a mythical work rhythm that I’d heard others talk about. For me, working at night allows me to execute on my best ideas. Waking up without an alarm clock when my I’m fully rested has been a game changer. The ability to make changes on the fly leaves me inspired. I learn new things constantly.

I realize what a rare opportunity it is to design a day for yourself from start to finish, so I wake up each morning intent on taking advantage of it. I eat healthier and move my body more than I ever have before. Despite the fact that I still rarely work a standard forty hour week, I almost always feel refreshed from mid-day walks, teaching Bar Method classes (becoming a certified instructor was also something I pursued when making my shift) and taking spontaneous drives along the coast when the urge strikes. I read more; I see friends more; I can work from the bucket list places I travel to.

Sure, there are rare days that leave me scratching my head or feeling like I want to pull my hair out — and learning how to manage and grow a business has been a challenge that’s totally different than anything I’ve done before. But I get to call the shots, no two days are the same, and I spend my time working on projects (and with people!) that light me up inside.

The best part? I finally feel like myself again.