The Overwork Myth.

Photo by Tim Gouw:

As a college student, I worked hard through school. I took on a large credit load so I could graduate early and worked between 40-50 hours each week. I worked so hard I burned myself out, and by my last semester I was skipping classes, working 10-12 hours each week, and spending all my savings. By the time I started my first full time job, I had less than a dollar in my bank account. My lack of discipline did not make me free; it only put up walls and restrictions.

I had 52 cents in my bank account.

There is a cringe-worthy picture of me holding up a single dollar bill during that time in my life. I was at a country music festival shortly following my college graduation and spent the rest of my money apart from that dollar at that festival. In addition to my sad bank account, that dollar was the last bit of cash I had until I got paid in a week. It was credit card debt until then.

Six months prior to that moment, my life looked a lot different.

Hard work is important to me and desiring affirmation is a weakness. College is a place where hard work is rewarded with affirmation, so it is no wonder that I found myself taking heavy credit loads while working 40-50 hours each week. Professors and employers all praised my work ethic and at one point I had four different jobs at the same time. I was making a significant amount of money while in school and banking it.

I was getting good grades in my courses.

I was staying in while others went out.

I lived in that library until late.

I worked at the gym early in the morning.

I drank coffee to stay awake during my night classes and ate meals in my daytime classes.

My lack of a social life or anything to spend money on led to me saving a fair amount of money. But by my final semester, I was done with all of it.

An important relationship to me at the time ended, and I started to question everything I was doing up until that point. Was it really worth it to spend so much time working and studying? Was it all going to fall apart just like that relationship did? What happened was a hard pendulum swing from the overcommitted student worker to a guy that was sleeping in until 11 am and missing class.

Since I had enough money saved up, I shaved my workload down to a single job for about 10-12 hours each week. I only had a couple classes my final semester, but instead of engaging in them more I did less.

On top of that I spent more time going out which meant spending more money. The pattern continued until I was left with only 52 cents and that lonely dollar bill.

There is a lot to be said about commitment. We praise people that live rigorous schedules and work hard, rightfully so. But few people talk about the danger of becoming overzealous and overworking. Every person has a breaking point but for many of us the only way we figure it out is by hitting it.

We’ve all encountered and even embraced this mentality. We hear founders talk about how the way to be successful is to work 80 or 90 hours each week, to ignore sleep, and to become singularly focused. While it is true that hard work pays off, it is equally true that smart work pays off.

What do we gain if we spend our lives working only to completely spiral out?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about rest, particularly about sabbath. In an ancient story, God creates the universe with increasing complexity, meaning, and power. In the culmination of this masterwork, God creates people – the only creature that reflects God’s image and likeness. Then, God rests. The final act of this symphony of creation is silence.

There is a profound truth here that we can miss. God creates this time of rest, this sabbath, as a part of the creative order rather than a break from it. This moment is just as much a part of creation as the sun, moon, stars, animals, and people. Yet, many of us focus on creation and work but omit the critical final note.

We wonder why there is dissonance in our world? There is no rest.

In all things we need balance. We need work, as well. We recognize that there is something profoundly disordered when we encounter sloth and laziness. Do we see that same disorder in overwork?

When people tell me they are burned out, my first question to them is about rest. When did you take a vacation last? Do you spend time in contemplation weekly, if not daily? What does your Sunday routine consist of?

Rest doesn’t just happen in big chunks, either. Throughout our day we need reprieve and moments of rest. Picking up your phone during a break isn’t rest, either. I’m talking about true mental breaks – places where we fill ourselves up rather than running on empty.

If you want to start, I recommend a simple method of rest that only requires a timer. Set a timer (phone or computer is good, but you can also buy stand alone timers which are even better because the minimize distraction from your phone). You can set your time for 45 to 75 minutes. That’s your work block. It’s vital that this work block be distraction free, so get familiar with the “do not disturb” feature on your devices. Go hard and focused for that block of work.

When the timer goes off, stop – regardless of where you are. This is important. You may feel like you can keep pushing but resist the urge. You can set your timer for a bit longer in the next work block (as long as you don’t eclipse 75 minutes).

Now, set another timer for 15 minutes and take a break. Go for a walk, stretch, have a conversation with a coworker (not about work), read something for leisure, go and pray. Don’t scroll through social media (remember, this isn’t rest). After 15 minutes, go back to your next work block.

Play around with this format. You may find that it works better for you to do 45 minutes of work and 15 minutes of rest for some jobs and 75 or even 90 minutes of work with up to 30 minutes of rest for others. Figure out what works for you.

As you begin, beware that you will feel unproductive. You will feel this more acutely if you need to take longer rest breaks between work blocks. If that happens, ask yourself if you believe quantity of work matters or quality of work matters? For some jobs, quantity is king – but that isn’t most jobs. In our current creative economy, quality matters above quantity. Schedules, deadlines, and goals give us the right framework for creativity but we will be less creative the more we push without rest.

I learned a difficult lesson in college: More isn’t always more. The need for rest is built into the very blueprint of humanity. Evaluate your months, weeks, and even your days and start building in rest. In doing so, you will find that not only do you avoid burnout, but your work gets better, too.

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