I’ve always been ambitious…with a hint of stubborn. While this ambition has been instrumental in helping me achieve a ton of accolades and awards in my decade-long career, it hasn’t come without pitfalls. I’ve suffered from burnout, stress and anxiety while trying to reach for the stars. Finding a balance between ambitious and taking care of yourself isn’t always easy. Over the years, I’ve found ways of setting boundaries to help balance my ambition with self-care and I wanted to share my tips with you.
I’m fortunate to come from a family of strong women. My grandma and then my mum were real matriarchs and I learnt so much from them. My mum moved to the UK from Kenya alone in her early 20s determined to build an amazing life. She did just that, I grew up watching her working so hard and always making sure her kids had everything. Being hardworking and ambitious just seemed normal. I also grew up as the youngest of four and the only girl, so the words “you can’t do it” just felt like a challenge.
This unfaltering drive has led to an incredible career that I’m so grateful for. Barely a week after handing in my dissertation, I started my first marketing role with one of the biggest companies in the UK. I worked my socks off, becoming a manager at 25 and an agency director at 27 alongside making a name for myself blogging and dabbling in modelling. You could call this my peak overachiever mode.
While this sounds fantastic on paper, it hasn’t come without sacrifices. I didn’t really understand the concept of switching off or self-care. I was surviving on 3-4 hours of sleep in order to create enough time for both my job and blogging. Looking back, I have no idea how I managed. I started scaling back my blogging to once a week but instead of carving out more time for myself, work started becoming all-consuming and while I was working at the agency, I suffered from burnout.
The World Health Organisation has recently legitimised work-related burnout with the following definition: “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. My story? One day, I walked into work the morning after I delivered a huge project. I couldn’t stop crying. After about 2 hours, I picked up my bag and went home. A couple of months later, I rushed to the hospital with severe chest pains. My stress had triggered inflammation around my heart.
After being signed off for an extended period of time to recover, I finally realised that my health needs to take priority and I handed in my resignation.
I had a brief respite between leaving that job and landing the perfect role in-house at a huge luxury department store. I had the time of my life. The workload was manageable but I slowly started taking on larger projects, which were outside my remit but I was happy to do. The ambition started kicking in again. I would work until 9-10pm most days but this time, I was vocal about needing support.
My requests were continually ignored. After giving it my all for as long as I could, I was diagnosed with stress, anxiety and low mood. I had two weeks off work to rest. When I returned, it was business as usual. No adjustments, no empathy. This is typical in the fashion industry, where burnout is spreading like an epidemic. A mixture of increased workloads with poor pay, reduced budgets, higher expectations and increased deliverables all while working at a relentless pace. Fashionista recently covered the burnout trend in this brilliant article.
I left the fashion industry about a year and a half ago for my own wellbeing and it’s safe to say I’ve learnt a lot about overworking, ambition and self-care. Since leaving, I’ve discovered that elusive work-life balance and learnt that you don’t have to compromise your ambition for your health. I wanted to share some tips to help balance ambition with self-care:
One of the most important things I’ve learned is to set my own work boundaries and making sure I switch off. Taking rest from work is essential for your wellbeing and focusing on the things which make you happy will give you more clarity and balance.
My rules are: no working after 8pm and definitely no work at the weekend. This means no checking emails/messages/Slack/Skype. I find that I’m actually *more* productive during my working hours.
Manage your manager
This is one of the most important things I’ve learnt during my career. I used to think of my relationship with my manager as a parent-child relationship which was one-way but when I started seeing my manager as a resource, my life changed.
I realised that I needed to set their expectations and be transparent about both my ambition and boundaries. By doing this, my manager knows I’m dedicated and driven but also respectful of my workload.
Setting realistic expectations
When someone would approach me with a piece of work and ask for a deadline, I always used to panic and overpromise. “Sure, I can get the entire marketing strategy with you by tomorrow morning!”. I’m a people pleaser by nature and always felt like I was under pressure to deliver something immediately.
This meant that I was constantly firefighting…and I only had myself to blame. I realised that people weren’t asking for a deadline to pressure me, they just wanted to know when it’d be done to manage their own workload. I now set realistic deadlines with a buffer, this allows me to take on just as much but on my terms.
Relish your downtime
Self-care isn’t all massages, yoga retreats and Instagrammable bubble baths. Self-care isn’t always pretty. Sometimes it’s spending an entire day at home in your sweats watching an entire season of Good Girls on Netflix. The main thing is to rest physically, mentally and emotionally. I used to feel guilty for switching off from work, like I was slacking, but I’ve come to realise that rest is essential – ambition and self-care go hand in hand.
One last thing that I wanted to discuss is the notion of the “girl boss”. It’s a term I personally dislike – why do women have to be reduced to a pink and fluffy girl boss instead of just a boss – but I do understand it can be really empowering for some. But whatever your view on the term, please don’t feel the pressure to step into that role.
Often women are pressured into thinking they need to *have it all*. The age of the internet is extremely liberating and seeing women harnessing social media to create businesses is absolutely incredible. But equally, there’s too much pressure to be a multi-hyphenate and to “have it all”. You don’t need to have a day job, be a blogger, photographer, model AND speaker. If you’re happy with working full-time and enjoying life in your downtime, I absolutely applaud that.
The main takeaway from this post is to be happy and live your life. Take time to rest and look after yourself x
Dress – Nasty Gal | Heels – Topshop (past season) | Bag – Marrakech souks
Photography by Kylie Eyra.