How I Define My Boundaries to Prevent Burnout

I’m an intense person. Passion is at the core of how I operate, whether it comes to my family, career, team, and learning. When I choose to spend my energy on something, I go ALL-IN. That level of focus and intensity is hyperproductive but isn’t sustainable for long periods, especially if I attempt to go all-in synchronously across all parts of my life. I’m not a multitasker.

Yet, I’ve managed to work intensely as a software leader for more than two decades without burning out or letting the rest of my life fall through the cracks. It took time and experimentation to figure out how I work the most effectively and develop a sustainable model to best leverage my time and energy.

In my 20+ year career as a software leader, I’ve seen many changes in the field, but the one constant is that you’ll run out of hours before running out of work. In a 24-hour day, you have about 8 hours of sleep and 16 hours to spend on some combination of work, personal life, and family. Some people can intermingle work and non-work functions throughout the day and operate that way effectively while remaining focused on the tasks at hand.

That model doesn’t work for me or my lifestyle, but I’ve figured out a model that allows me to function healthily and work efficiently for many years. But first, let’s look back at when I was young and full of hustle.

My Early Career: 100 Hour Weeks and Lessons Learned

Many of us have been there. We’re young and overflowing with energy and ambition to burst into the tech scene and build upon everything we learned in school to become great engineers. I was fresh out of school, fully embraced the startup culture, and busted my ass pushing 100 hour weeks, including evenings and weekends. My life revolved around work, and my job became the vessel that served up most aspects of my days. Even my social life intertwined with folks from the office.

We know how that #hustlelife ends. I couldn’t maintain that pace, and I received clear indicators from my mind and body that I was nearing burnout. My brain was scattered, my analytical thinking dulled, and my wrists suffered the consequences of long days coding. I hit a mental and physical wall where I could no longer type.

While recovering from near burnout, I looked objectively at my current work life and had a lightbulb moment. I knew there was some hourly number more than 40 I could work, but my body told me it wasn’t 100. I also took an honest look at how I spent those 100-hour weeks and admitted that I wasn’t actually working 100 hours a week. While I was in a working headspace for those hours, I was spending energy on unimportant work and engaging in social activities like playing foosball and going to the gym with coworkers. While socializing is a significant aspect of career engagement and networking as a young adult, what I needed was a stronger focus during work hours and more unplugged, non-working hours to balance my time.

I experimented with a 9 am to 9 pm, Monday to Friday model and realized I was getting nearly the same amount of work done as I was working 100 hour weeks but working smarter and prioritizing better. I managed to be 80 to 90% productive at 60 hours vs. 100 hours, but I dialed in my focus on the things that mattered the most. As a side effect, I was happier because I had solid chunks of non-work time to let my mind and body rest. With a healthier work/life balance, I worked out at night, took better care of myself, and had weekends to myself.

Chunking my days into two distinct periods, work and non-work, became my new model, and it’s one I still practice today, even if the hours changed as my lifestyle and priorities shifted. In 2009, I reworked the model to 9 am to 6 pm, but with a similar intensity.

My Current Model: Defining and Communicating Boundaries

I can’t intermingle work and family life. For me, work/life balance has a pretty strict definition: I’m either working–fully engaged and intense–or not working. There’s a mantra that Nassim Taleb discusses in Antifragile that resonates with me. He talks about building robustness in health by focusing more on sprinting and walking than on jogging. The thinking is you can go the same distance by sprinting and leisurely walking than by jogging. There’s more time for recovery, and your body becomes stronger by adapting to the sprinting stress during rest. I’ve adopted this model from both a career and health perspective. When I'm doing something, I want to be doing it with the maximum amount per minute, which requires me to single-task rather than multitask.

There are some exceptions and flexibility, but I’m protective of keeping work and non-work as separate as possible to commit to both fully. My workday is currently nine to six with an hour lunch break with my kids since they’re home right now for virtual school. It’s rare to have an opportunity to have lunch together as a family during the week, so I’m taking advantage of it.

Keeping my work hours from nine to six allows me to work intensely and focus on the high-priority work I need to do without becoming drained. I fill those hours with collaborating, recruiting, writing, coding, pairing, and one-on-ones. My non-work time is when I recharge. This model benefits me, my team, and my family for multiple reasons.

1. I Can Focus Intensely on Work Tasks

I like to work hard in bursts. If something work-related doesn’t get done between nine and six, it must not have been a high priority, allowing me to focus my energy on the most critical work. To work this way, I don’t tackle things linearly as they come in, and I can’t be a slave to my calendar. I defend my time and schedule blocks on my calendar to write, plan, review, or even just to think. These things are an essential part of my job, and they get done because I schedule them in. If I don’t make time for them during my workday, they bleed into my non-work time, making it hard to unplug.

This mode of working intensely for bursts of time also trickles into other parts of my life. This allows me to recuperate well during the non-working time. Stepping away from intensity often unblocks me when solving challenging work-related problems because it stops me from obsessing. Putting thinking time into my calendar removes some of the background processing from happening when I’m not working. Then I turn my brain to non-work tasks and experiences, and I have my most creative ideas.

This model is flexible during times when I need to push hard outside of those core work hours or when I need to take more non-work hours for my personal life. It balances out, but I work hard to protect that consistent default time model.

2. It’s a Signal to Others What to Expect

Having a time model like this sets consistent expectations with those around me. Communication is a key element here, and people learn how you work if you are clear with your intentions and boundaries. It isn’t easy to set boundaries and ask for what you need because there’s always someone demanding slices of your time, but when you define your time clearly, people learn what to expect. For example, people know from my sending patterns that I respond to most emails in bulk once a week. The more email you send, the more email you receive, so I keep that in mind. Folks also know I will then reply with intentionality and put thought into responses. Likewise, teammates know that I might not respond to Slack messages immediately, but I will when I’ve had time to think and respond thoughtfully.

We have a finite number of hours. I choose to go hard during my work blocks and unplug outside of them. Does everything get done? No. That’s an impossible goal. But the high-priority work gets done, and my family gets a full version of me, not one that’s still got a foot in the work world.

Farhan Thawar sits out reading a book to recharge in the new Digital by Default reality.

3. I Can Fully Recharge

When I’m not in work mode, I can be present with my kids and my wife. We do things as a family after work. In that space, I’m not constantly thinking about what I have to do from a work perspective, which reduces the mental load and any potential feelings of guilt or accountability. I can unplug like this because I know when I go back to work at 9 am, I’ll feel recharged and able to give tasks my full attention.

The same goes for vacation. When I go on vacation, I go into low-power mode to recharge my batteries. This means not being “on” all the time and disconnecting from all things work-related. When people on my team take a vacation, I ask them to take time off fully from work to a disconnect. In the long run, it hurts to stay semi-connected, even though intentions are good because we want to help our team. We’re better teammates when we come back from breaks, well-rested and ready to dive into problems with a fresh perspective.

It’s important for my health and growth to unplug from work and refuel. Before bed, I like to read non-work-related material so that my brain isn’t in work mode, allowing me to be more rested in the morning and better able to do those bursts of high energy and productivity.

4. I Can Prioritize

There are enough tasks and requests to work 24/7 and still not get everything completed. Limiting the hours where I’m in work mode forces me to prioritize and let the less important tasks fall off the bottom of the list. How do I define less important? If I didn’t get to something between nine and six, by definition, it wasn’t important enough, or else I would have done it. It might sound formulaic, but it’s a signal to me to help me prioritize my tasks and time.

But just because something isn’t a top priority for me, that doesn’t mean it isn’t high on a teammate’s priority list. It might be important to them and require my attention as a stakeholder. Managing these asks comes back to the importance of solid communication and expectation setting. Even if something falls to the bottom of my list, I can still help by connecting other stakeholders, finding someone else to step in to help out, or figuring out a way to collaborate asynchronously to best leverage everyone’s time and energy.

Prioritizing like this and knowing what to say yes to is why I don’t get into a burnout state. I can push harder during the “on” periods and recharge during the “off” periods. In my current working model, I protect my non-work time by not taking on more work tasks that spill over, so things fall off the bottom of my list. It’s the key to making my model effective for me.

Work is never-ending, but it feels worse right now in the pandemic because we’re always at home, making it harder to set boundaries. Our computers are right there, so we often feel the pull to do more work, which isn’t helpful or healthy long-term. If work is never-ending, how do we ensure the non-important stuff does NOT get done. It might sound silly, but for me, a vital part of maintaining my energy is focusing on working on the most important things.

Experiment to Find YOUR Best Model

This nine to six model works for me. It’s not a prescription or best practice for everyone because we all have different lifestyles, demands for our time, and capacities for juggling work and personal life. At Shopify, you have the flexibility to create your own hours and establish your own working model. What’s important is figuring out how to carve out time for those intense work periods and then explicitly define non-work periods. Doing so can help you manage your energy over the long road because you’re more balanced. There’s a way to build a model for your life and the other demands on you. It doesn’t have to be 100 hours a week. It might not even be 40 hours a week. Whatever sustainable model you come up with, prioritize fiercely and communicate expectations accordingly. I’ve worked this way for more than two decades through different phases of my life. The hours have changed, but the basic model and principles remain the same: Define the time box, prioritize intense work, and then recharge effectively.

Farhan Thawar, VP Engineering

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