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What Happens When You Take Personal Development Too Far (and How to Rebound)

Finding the right balance between role performance and personal development is not easy, and it’s something that I got very wrong at first and am still trying to perfect.

Over the last few months, I’ve had a lot of experience trying to balance my performance as a Happiness Hero (on our customer support team at Buffer) and my passion for learning more about engineering, which allows me to help my team outside of the Happiness inbox.

One key learning I’ve had for myself, is that when I’m passionate about something I want to dedicate as much time and energy as possible into pursuing that passion. While this is a wonderful attitude to have, it can also negatively impact other areas of life such as mental and physical energy as well as performance in a main role.

In the early stages of my personal development, all three of these suffered. I put in 14-to–16-hour days, 5–7 days a week. It won’t be surprising to hear that I burned myself out towards the end of last year, feeling constantly lethargic and straining relationships I’ve had with friends and family.

The biggest surprise, to me, was that my productivity as a Happiness Hero suffered quite a bit. I would find myself starting each day in the inbox feeling exhausted. Some days it would feel like a grind to keep up with my usual pace, and often I missed the mark entirely. I would end days feeling disappointed with the work I put in, which negatively impacted my performance with my self-development, which negatively impacted my performance in my main role the following day.

I was caught in a vicious cycle, which led to my decision to pause my personal development work and get my work as a Happiness Hero back on track, but it got better, and I’d love to tell you how.

What happens when you take personal development too far (and how to rebound) Mick Mahady

Using Personal Goals To Move Ahead

I don’t think I could have lived with myself if I completely abandoned my development as an engineer. I put in too much work, and I was too passionate about it to let it slide. However, I couldn’t continue along the same path. Something needed to change.

At this time, I was helping customers in Reply, Buffer’s tool for quickly replying to tweets and Facebook messages, and I was struggling to ramp up my volume of responses, one of the metrics we use to track Happiness Hero productivity. This was a big concern to me, as it made me realize how much I still had left to grow into my role as a Happiness Hero.

I started by reflecting

I took a step back and reflected on why I wasn’t hitting the level of performance I expected of myself. After a lot of reflecting, I decided I need to commit to setting myself some goals to help me level up, just like I did in Buffer’s six-week bootcamp period that every employee goes through.

This was tough. I was surprised to learn that I still had so much to develop as a Happiness Hero, and here I was trying to develop additionally with engineering outside my work time.

I set volume-related goals for my role that I knew I could accomplish

I set myself goals of answering 10 tickets in an hour for HelpScout (emails) and 10–15 tickets in an hour for Reply (tweets). These were goals that I used to set for myself regularly, without even thinking about it. Somehow, this got lost in my journey over the last year.

When I transitioned to Olark, the platform we use for live chat support, I set myself goals of how many chats I can take on at once, following up on conversations I didn’t get great ratings for, hitting 50 tickets in Reply before lunch, and hitting 20 Reply tickets while in Olark for the afternoon.

Having these goals helped me set a personal standard of performance that made me feel like I had accomplished something in my day.

Notice a trend with those goals above? Yep, they’re all volume related!

I’m not fond of measuring performance based on personal volume. However, volume is a big part of our role as Happiness Heroes. While probably not the most important aspect of our role, it’s something that affects how much bandwidth we have to improve other metrics such as customer happiness and response times.

Why Personal Goals Worked For Me

The reason I’ve been able to recommit myself to personal development over the last few weeks is that I feel like I am accomplishing a lot in my regular role.

Not only was I working on personal development outside of my normal role, I hadn’t even realized I was still developing within my full-time role. It was a lot of development! I felt better once I quantified my effort with growth on the main role, which allowed me to feel more energized about the extra personal development.

I now end each day in the inbox feeling proud of myself for the work I did that day. This gives me the energy and enthusiasm to approach my engineering work without suffering the same drain of energy I once did. I’ve also balanced the time I spend on personal development a little better this time around!

Hitting my personal goals each day gives me the freedom to spend time working on self-development, without feeling the negativity, and sometimes guilt, that I felt before.

I don’t set and hit these goals to justify my personal development time with my lead or anybody else. I do it to justify it with myself. The balance is tough to get right. Too much energy put into self-development can cause decreased performance in your main role. Constantly straining yourself trying to hit ambitious goals and “grind” through the inbox impacts the time, energy, and motivation you have for self-development.

Knowing my self-development is not impacting my performance as a Happiness Hero greatly benefits the level of energy and enthusiasm I have for the work outside the scope of my role. Knowing I can compare my personal performance against team-wide metrics allows me to be gracious with myself when I don’t hit my goals.

As a support team, our position is quite unlike other teams because the time we spend out of the inbox affects the quality of service we give to our customers. Our Happiness team is one of the strongest benefits of Buffer as a product. When we are off our game, Buffer as a product suffers.

It’s so important for our customers that we constantly reflect on how each of us are doing. Are we doing the best work that we can possibly do? Is there room for us to improve? I believe that combining personal and team goals helps us find areas we can improve on as individuals, and as a team.

The Main Lesson I’ve learned About Personal Development

Growth is something that is vitally important as a person and a professional. Whether you are looking to improve upon a skill or learn more about a topic that you’re passionate about, pursuing a passion can have tremendous benefits to your personal life and your work life.

While it’s important to track your development and measure your progress, it’s also important to measure how this personal development affects your productivity both in and out of the scope of your main role.

Pursing a passion can have tremendous benefits to your personal life and your work life - Mick Mahady, Personal Development Open Buffer

Over to You

I’m really excited to see how this journey of self-development shapes our team and the support we give to our wonderful customers! I’d love to hear from you about this, too!

  • What’s your experience with personal development? Have you ever overdone it?
  • How do you set personal goals to help you stay on track?
  • Hey Mick, totally relate to it my friend.. took the words out of my 👄… I feel like I’m always in a treadmill to find that fine line.

    Here we do some tweaks to create more room to personal dev, there we try to get more of out the existing time boxes.

    Not to mention all the zillion changes we do to couple the energy levels with the best task at hand…

    It’s very dangerous when personal dev becomes the end goal itself, instead of something auxiliar to help us achieve our core.

    Perhaps someday we find the right balance or just accept it does not exist :)

    Great sharing, thanks a lot!


    • Mick Mahady

      Thanks so much for sharing, Mathi!

      I’m happy to share that we’re now carving out more time at Buffer for personal development. This has been a tremendous help. Knowing that I now have a bracket of time to grow within my work day, and not my own time, has really helped with balancing :)

    • Thanks mathias !

  • Interesting, and thanks for sharing your experience and journey! However, I was really expecting a different story – in my world, what you are describing is “Professional Development”, both in your main role and in your additional career aspirations. What you were doing sounds almost like the antithesis of personal development, which to me (and to an entire industry…) implies inner work on presence, self-awareness, relationships, emotional intelligence, and spirituality, rather than external goals related to career learning objectives. I suggest looking more deeply into Personal Development, both for your life’s journey (Tony Robbins, Landmark Education, indigenous wisdom, yoga, Eastern spirituality would all be good places to go), and to distinguish the terms you’re using.

    Regardless, I’m glad to hear your goal-setting strategy is working, that you’ve recovered your energy and productivity is working for you! :) Keep up the good work.

    • Mick Mahady

      Hey Mike!

      That’s really interesting. I think you’re spot on here. Personal development is the wrong word to use for what I was / am working through. My goals are primarily “work-focused” and don’t really contribute to “personal” development in the way you’ve described (which I think is a perfect description).

      I appreciate the recommendations. I’m particularly keen to learn more about Eastern spirituality, but I’ll be sure familiarise myself for everything you mentioned and more.

      Thanks for your sound advice and help, Mike! :)

      • Sarah Peacock

        I absolutely see where you’re coming from Mike and second the yoga 💯
        For me, personal and professional are VERY intertwined. As such, reading your comment was my unexpected part 🙃 I work in a less structured environment and empathize with a lot of Mick’s statements.

        When I think of professional development I think of CE courses and mentoring.
        When I think of personal development I think of yoga practice as much as balancing my passion projects at work with performance.
        They strongly rely on one another, especially for job satisfaction. One way yoga helps me at work is stress reduction during particularly busy times. I attend Creative Mornings events for both personal and professional growth as well.

        In the context of this blog as a whole + Buffer’s culture/identity, I’d speculate intentional crossover.
        In general, reading this post reminded me of the Biopsychosocial(spiritual) model we so regularly discussed during my college days in social work classes 😅

        I empathize with you, Mick — thanks for the tips & self-awareness exercise.
        I agree with a Mike’s suggested activities being personal development too & think yoga is the best tip 😎

  • Thanks a lot for being so open here, Mick! I can definitely relate. I’ve realized recently that I tend to put too much pressure on myself to develop too fast, like getting frustrated if I haven’t solved a complex problem immediately or scolding myself for not researching and writing a full blog post in a couple of hours. I’m getting better at realizing when I’m expecting more of myself than is actually possible. The healthy thing to do is to set goals – realistic goals – and then you feel so much better when you achieve them! As you said, you can still accomplish a lot without sacrificing personal relationships or professional productivity :) Cheers!

    • Mick Mahady

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Donal. I’m so glad to hear that you were able to identify these struggles in your own growth and correct them as you went on. I really do think it all comes down to personal expectations. Nobody here at Buffer has ever pressured me to grow at a certain pace. I haven’t even been pressured to grow at all. I know I could completely change my mind about learning a new skill, and nobody at Buffer would think less of me. The pressure I felt was entirely self-inflicted so it was down to me, and me alone, to fix things

  • Evolute Six

    Being passionate about your work is good. This motivates you to work hard and to constant strive to be the best at what you do. But as mentioned in the article, it can also lead to burnout. Burnout is not alient to employees around the world. The best you can do however, aside from trying new processes to help you regain your rhythm at work, you can also work with a professional development coach. They can help you understand your potentials, strengths and weaknesses to help you improve your performance at work.

  • Ashkan Nazary

    Thank you for sharing your great knowledge. I will be using your methods to recover quickly!

    • Hailley Griffis

      Thank you so much for reading @ashkannazary:disqus! Really happy this is helpful for you. :)

  • Alicia Donovan Brainerd

    Thank you for the insight on personal development. This is a question that I have never really pondered before. When I want something whether it is a new job, certification, or personal goal- I put 110% into it. For example, I have been studying for a certification at work, I spent about 6 months studying non stop until I knew the content inside and out and then took and passed the certification. Could I have passed in 3 months; perhaps, but I wanted to be able to explain every concept and be the “expert” that the certification stated.

    Every morning, I journal three pages when I wake up. These pages include professional and personal goals as well as just rambling some mornings. This helps me get focused for the day and accomplish anything I put my mind to.

  • LaManouchka

    Thank you for sharing. It’s extremely important to talk about that issue because even though we know that too much of anything makes it bad, it’s hard to believe that something so valuable as personal develpment can be harmful. I experienced myself the lost of productivity and worst, the loss of purpose, while chasing the endless “bettering of self”. As Mathias said before, it is a tool to achieve our main goal, not the goal itself. Very valuable article, thanks for putting o clear words to concepts so abstract that we don’t always realise what is happening.

    • Thanks so much for reading @lamanouchka:disqus . I’m really happy to hear this resonated with you, you’re so right about loss of purpose, definitely don’t want that to follow us around our careers.

  • Olivia Stone

    thanks for this awesome article! really as I have read in the Consumer Health Digest, out brains can only take so much! We would really need to find a way to rebound from all of the stress we are giving to our selves.

  • Either you are in business or in a personal life, the personal development is very important to get success in every aspects of life. By the way that was excellent share really impressed reading it.
    Thank You for sharing

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