The False Economy of Pushing Too Hard.
I have written before about how tending to your own wellbeing is critical for being at your best for those who depend on you. This post addresses a similar phenomenon, the tendency of hard charging, high performing people to feel pangs of guilt when recovering, rejuvenating, working out or slowing down.
For those who find taking an unscheduled day off more stressful than working weekends.
Stress comes, in two forms. Eustress, or “good” stress is stimuli that push us into a sympathetic (nervous system) dominant state, but that we do not find stressful. For example, a run, workout, or prepping for a big presentation we’re excited about. These stimuli are technically “stressors” but are not experienced as “stressful”
The second type of stress is distress. This is stimuli that trigger threat responses, and are likely to be experienced as “stressful”. These stimuli also push us from parasympathetic states into sympathetic states, but with the addition of amygdala activation, hence the stressful experience and threat perception.
The specific events that trigger threat responses can be particular to us, or more typical triggers like threats of physical violence, public humiliation etc.
For some, work is less stressful than rest.
For these individuals, its is likely that taking time off is more stressful than work. Especially for something so self indulgent as activities that are completely “unproductive”, but pleasurable, like holidays, random days off, sometimes even training. Maybe this is due to FOMO? Fearing that someone, somewhere is working harder than you and thus passing you by for promotion, more customers or market share. Or maybe it is caused by a fear of dying before fulfilling ones potential? I am sure there are many plausible explanations, but here it suffices to simply recognise if this is you.
If you resonate with this characteristic, please hear this: Your super power is but a step away from your biggest weakness. Your ability to work hard and long, and to take huge loads of pressure and responsibility may have gotten you the success, status and achievement you enjoy today. But allowed to go too far it will be your undoing. Bringing burnout, health problems, drops in productivity and premature endings (to your career, relationships and maybe even life).
The false economy of pushing too hard.
The typical cycle is that you will gain success from your hard charges. Late nights, weekend efforts and extra miles will lead to successors. These successors in turn reinforce the behaviours that led to them. Simply; it worked, so do it again. Two problems lie ahead. Sustainability, and creeping towards the extremes.
Simply put, pushing too hard is a short term solution. When training athletes we call it over reaching. For short, planned periods we push harder than normal to break through to new adaptations and higher performance. These are always followed by periods of super compensation (rest time, designed to allow the growth / adaptations to happen). So using this analogy, pushing hard to get a project over the goal line, then recovering, reflecting, recharging and going again works just fine. But using hard work and pushing as a permanent way of working is doomed to fail. Peaks follow troughs follow peaks follow troughs. Pushing through troughs, trying to resist the idea that they are needed and productive, results in lower peaks that are shorter lived. It is simply the economics of human energy.
Using unsustainable solutions to chronic problems is a mismatch of approach and path. If you find yourself relying on your ability to push hard too often, it is likely you are using your superpower to patch over a problem with systems. The better solution might be to rethink the way you’re operating, organising, systemising etc.
Creeping towards the extreme.
Why would anyone run 100 miles? It seems so extreme? Well, one day that person signed up for half marathon, maybe for a challenge. After half a dozen half marathons, the challenge seemed routine, and a full marathon was on the cards. After a while marathons seemed routine, and an ultra seemed like a real challenge. The pattern repeated and 100 miles was not extreme, it was the next logical step.
Same can happen with work habits. A few hours extra at the end of the day, a few days a week, can quickly become working until 9pm or later as the norm. Checking emails on Sunday evening to get a head start on the week quickly becomes retiring to the study at 4pm on Sunday after lunch and not being seen again until bedtime. This takes its toll on one’s personal life, relationships, physical, mental health, and work performance.
The more extreme the behaviour, the greater the toll.
The economy of chronic hard pushing is one of diminishing returns. The positive reinforcement experienced the first time you put in a few more hours as a one off to get something done on time fools you into thinking this is a good strategy. But soon enough, your per hour productivity drops. So even though you’re spending more time working, the time it takes you to complete tasks increases. There is a point at which your extra work is simply that, extra work, but no extra results.
Even Elon Musk, the poster boy for chronic overwork, has noted that if he allows sleep to drop below 6h per night his per hour productivity drops noticeably and the cost is greater than the gain. He has also noted that ‘every hour past 80 per week becomes exponentially harder’.
You must find your optimal and maximum limits and resolve to protect those limits against encroachment.
Further to knowing and protecting your limits, you must reframe the way you see leisure, recovery and rest. “Rest is a weapon” (Jason Bourne, I think). To be your most effective, you must be many things. Clear headed, calm, energetic, healthy, sharp and resilient are but a few characteristics one may associate with their high performance self. These are not compatible with being run down, tired, irritable or unhappy.
To give your best, you must be at your best. We will lump under the umbrella of ‘recovery time’, all those things that put back in energy, happiness, and restock our reserves etc. Taking recovery time is not a self indulgent luxury to be earned through toil and enjoyed with background guilt. It is a high performance practice in and of itself. The practice of rejuvenating to be at your best is essential to your output. Build it into your routine and correct systems to allow for you to do this regularly.
If your role is critical, YOU are therefore critical.
See your wellbeing as critical to your greatest contribution. If you are a leader, do the same for your team.
Take the Thriving Health Scorecard to see how healthy your way of life is
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