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How giving 120% at work ruins your career

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

"Girl, you are working too hard, and that is why you are not progressing," my mentor says and sips on her beer. I ask her to say that again. And she repeats it. I am confused and relieved at the same time and yet think to myself that she must have gotten something wrong here. Since childhood (and yes, being German probably has to do with it), I was taught that success could only come from working hard(er).

Back in school, I realized quickly that the kids that deliver "extra" get a lot, A LOT, more praise and attention. Good just wasn't good enough. We are striving for excellence here, okay?! And since I wasn't one of these kids, I remember the envy I felt. My definition of success became doing "extra."

And finally. University allowed me to claim a spot in the spotlight. I was THE "extra" person. I scored high grades, was involved in any project thrown my way, and tried to start a company during my studies. No one really cared about what it took to keep up excellence. And neither did I. I got the recognition and attention I had been longing for and accepted that feeling burnout-stressed is just the price toppertjes (Dutch for champ) pay.

Naturally, I took my "always giving 120%" attitude into my first job. It had served me well. But when it came to taking next steps in my career, I experienced what - I think - other women do too at the start of their career: "extra" is no guarantee for success anymore.

But why not? What changed?

I worked the exact same way I did in university. I said yes to any project or task thrown my way. No matter how stressed I felt about keeping up, I was so eager to show what I was capable of that I spent my time working down to-do lists. If colleagues would ask me to join for lunch, I was busy. Drinks on Friday? "Sorry, but I am exhausted." Can you help me with this? "Yes, but..."

"And that's exactly why they don't give you a promotion, Johanna," my mentor says while I am citing my to-do list to make her understand how hard I am working. "Listening to you, all I am hearing is how busy and overwhelmed you are. And I am sure your manager does too. Why would they give you a promotion if you are already at the limit of what you can handle? You radiate stress."
It took me a while to really hear what she was saying. First, I had to go through all my defense mechanisms: "Yeah, but you don't really understand me." to "She is right. I am stupid, worthless. And they know how stupid I am." to "Screw you. Who are you to tell me this? What do you even know?" to "Okay, maybe she has a point."

She did have a point. Going constantly beyond my energy level did stress me out. I felt less creative, optimistic, and driven. I was tired, worried, hyper, stressed. And is it strange for a manager to not put more on your plate when you are already on edge? Probably not.

I can't even imagine what would have happened if there was an emergency on a project or something going wrong, taking more time than anticipated. Running on 120% was hard. But doable. Giving a 160 for longer than a month - impossible.

So she is right. Now what?

"It's easy. Start working on 80%," she says. And what she told me then are pieces of advice that I believe every woman that starts her career deserves to know.
#1 Plan any assignment +50% time and hand in early

If you are like me, then you probably name the closest possible deadline to any assignment. You want to show that it's no biggie and that you are available and reliable. I get it!
Here is how you can still be perceived like that, wow your team and supervisor, AND have much more time for other things like networking:

Next time you are asked to do something, don't jump right in with saying yes. Tell that person that they raised an excellent question and that you will get back to them with your availability. And when you do, you add +50% time to the deadline you had in mind.

Let's say it's Monday, and you think it takes you until the end of the week to get the task done; you set the deadline for Wednesday the week after. You then finish the assignment at your normal pace but hand it in on Monday or Tuesday.

Absolute magic!

You will feel less stressed because if you need more time, you have it or you can spend it on other things. And everyone in your team will be super pleased that you made an "extra" effort for them, and they will remember that.

Don't worry too much about how this comes across. I promise you that in most cases, no one questions the deadline. The pressure of delivering quickly often comes from yourself.
Just try it.

#2 Stop acting like a secretary (unless you are one)
Career progression is a lot about how you position yourself and how others perceive you. And working hard is one aspect of your positioning, but it's not all. Psychology plays a role here as well. Ask yourself. Does taking minutes in meetings, putting summaries into presentations, and sending updates on your team's behalf really help you be seen as the expert in your field? Might that time and energy not be better used for your project, networking, or learning?

Of course, this is not black and white and not a question of "always doing it" or "never. But becoming aware that my hand naturally went up whenever one of these tasks needed to be picked up was a revelation for me. Maybe it's the same for you. Claim that time and energy back!
#3 Use the re-gained time and energy to network
Spend more time and energy talking to people. I can't stretch enough the importance of growing your network in - and outside of your organization. I honestly believe that I owe huge parts of where I am today to the people I met along the way and who helped me over and over again move up and forward.

I know it can be scary. Especially at the start of your career because literally, anyone is more senior to you. But I also know you will be surprised how many fantastic, inspiring, helpful professionals are out there. People who would love to help you learn new things, get you the project you always wanted, or know someone who can help you take a new path in your career.

All. You. Gotta. Do. Is. Ask.

So, go out there and start connecting to professionals who inspire you and sit in the chair you want to claim one day. Send an email or connection request on LinkedIn and ask them for coffee. Go connect.
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