Society has a habit of celebrating extremes.
Everybody agrees that we should work hard and be healthy. But too much of a good thing is simply too much; 16 hour workdays or excessive exercise will eventually have adverse effects.
But these adverse effects are insidious, and society at large is likely to overlook them. At a superficial glance, we simply see hard work, and we congratulate it without a second thought.
Tradeoffs and Debts
All this necessitates that we pinpoint exactly how much is too much.
There is a great deal of variance between individuals, of course; for some, what might be “extreme” to us is really their set point.
But such individuals are the minority, representing the ends of a bell curve. Most people should not be working 16 hours a day; they cannot operate on that sort of clock, because their minds are not calibrated towards such extreme endurance.
Our natural work capacity cannot be exceeded. If we attempt to exceed it, we will accumulate a debt that must be made up later on via rest.
And yet, many typical individuals will push themselves into something unsustainable. Something is bound to break; hopefully, our willpower will fade, and something can be learned before damage is done. Otherwise, the body and mind begin to pay the toll.
The only way to direct more energy towards something over the long term is to redirect that energy from something else. When focus is subtracted from certain aspects of our lives, those aspects are treated hastily (if not outright ignored); they begin to decay.
Sometimes, we may convince ourselves we have managed to maintain all our obligations; what we fail to notice is the shift in our mindset, with our thoughts becoming less mindful and more short-sighted or negative. The energy simply has to come from somewhere.
Accomplishment, or Compensation?
Such excess is sometimes a matter of necessity. Circumstances may call for a short-term surge of effort and energy, requiring us to work beyond our capacity. Doing so may allow us to change our circumstances, facilitating a return to our natural capacity.
When overwork is a matter of choice, it is usually an overcompensation; some individuals may feel compelled by their insecurities to fit some societally-imposed ideal.
They may seek to affirm their identities through their accomplishments, or simply to assert themselves as hardworking people. Competitive people may seek positions of power that allow them to dominate others; materialistic people will strive to assert their status via consumption.
In any case, insecurity drives the individual to excess. These individuals attempt to stabilize their insecurities externally by setting scaffolds around themselves, propping up their inner weaknesses with achievement, status, and wealth.
If we celebrate this sort of behaviour, we enable it, leaving those afflicted with no real incentive to address those weaknesses at their core. There will be no change or growth.
Nobody is suggesting that we should be lazy. But in a world where productivity is emphasized, it’s important to acknowledge the natural limitations of our productivity and work within them. Productivity should never be a solution to problems that come from deep inside.
In other words, we should all ask ourselves just how “productive” we are capable of being as individuals, without comparing ourselves to others who may have a different work capacity than us.
We should also redefine productivity to include anything effortful, bearing in mind that productivity directed towards one thing must come from somewhere else; it must either be subtracted from another aspect of our lives, or it must be subtracted from the future.
With these points in mind, we need to evaluate how we are to distribute our time and efforts at any given stage in our lives. Everyone has different work capacities, priorities, and circumstances. The right answer will vary between individuals and within individuals.
When we find the right balance, we will find that a sustainable balance of productivity actually leads to greater productivity over the long-term.
When we cultivate this true, non-compensatory productivity, we will grow ever closer to our potential. We become the most we can be.