Take a moment and ask yourself if you’re working too much.
Mindfulness has become a trend recently. If we were to define it, we might describe it as the art of being with what is, of being with the present moment.
What then, is the opposite of mindfulness? It’s busyness… that state that takes us out of the current moment, out of our connections, out of our bigger why.
Perhaps it’s you sitting at your computer, past midnight. Again.
Or it might be you secretly checking your emails while being on a date with your spouse.
Maybe it’s about never turning off your phone so you’re always available.
This insane busyness is pretty much the opposite of mindfulness. It’s go-go-go, without a pause. It’s too much screen time. It’s getting wrapped up in doing things instead of focusing on being.
This does not just apply to watching Netflix, or checking Social Media, or reading the news (though you really should stop reading the news). I’m primarily talking about work, and how we’re all working too much.
Take, for instance, Elon Musk. In 2018, he gave an interview with the New York Times where he described that he had been working up to 120 hours per week recently. The last time he took more than a week off? Well, apparently that was in 2001. Oh, and he was ill with Malaria at the time. Musk also described how he spent the entire 24 hours of his birthday that year working (without friends).
I don’t think it’s a controversial statement to say that that sounds terrible. And while you and I are (probably) not doing anything quite as extreme, I’d wager that work has, at times, taken over your life, too. Perhaps you didn’t dare to take time off when you were sick. Or maybe you missed an important family event because you had to work. Or you might just sleep less than you should.
The costs of working too much
It’s saddening how much we prioritize work over everything else.
I have done it.
In 2007, I was preparing for my first legal state examination. Legal state examinations in Germany are notorious for how hard they are—you can picture it like an academic version of the Hunger Games. You can talk to a highly successful German judge who’s nearing the end of their work-life… and they will still recall vividly just how terrible that examination was.
To prepare for getting into the arena, you spend at least a year studying (by yourself and full time). During that phase, you will also spend almost every Saturday morning writing a 5-hour long test exam (yes, it’s that much fun).
To prepare myself for just one of the many subject areas, I had chosen a book with about 1500 pages. I was slowly working my way through this book when my grandmother had a health crisis. She wasn’t doing well and so I would often visit her during the afternoons and sit next to her bed. Instead of spending the whole time interacting with her, at some point, I would inevitably get out my 1500-page monster of a book.
Not long after this, we had to bury her.
Instead of being present with my grandmother the entire time, I had chosen to focus on work. Somehow, I thought she would pull through and I was too terrified of my upcoming examination to take a week or two off from studying. I only discovered later that none of the things I had studied during that brief window of time had made any difference in the exam.
I passed the exam very successfully. There was just one huge mistake I made… and I blame that 1500-page monster book for it: presumably for the sake of demonstration, the author had shown us how to solve a certain case the wrong way (followed by how to do it correctly). Yet under exam pressure, all I remembered was the wrong solution. It’s even possible that that was the exact section I had read while sitting near my grandmother’s bed. Sometimes, doing nothing is way more productive than working on the wrong thing.
While I try to live a life without regret—after all, what’s done is done—, missing out on someone’s last few days because of work is something I never ever want to do again. Ever.
It's not just me, it's all of us
Of course, what I just shared is a pretty intense example. But there are many, many more. Working too much has become so common in the United States that it has created something we haven’t seen before: a world where the rich work more than everyone else.
As Derek Thompson put it in his excellent article:
Why is that the case?
Well, in the United States, the concept of loving your work and following your passion is quite prominent (I blame Steve Jobs).
There is a positive side to this and a negative one. What I like about this belief system is that it posits that work can be something we love. This is in alignment with so much that I stand for, and yet an idea that's rather foreign to German culture and to many other cultures worldwide.
What is problematic about it is that it has taken on quasi-religious proportions (which Derek Thompson refers to as “workism”). Also, this belief system is a slave to the system that birthed it. It's rather telling that one of the most famous versions of this advice was vocalized by the founder of Apple, one of the big four tech companies.
Because of this context, the distinction between "doing what you love" and overworking often becomes blurry. But while doing what you love might make you happy, working too much probably won’t. After all, as Derek Thompson points out: “Rich Europeans in general work significantly less than Americans, and yet seven of the 10 happiest countries of the world are in Europe.”
To put it bluntly, in American culture, "doing what you love" is often merely a veneer for workism (which happens to be one of the few socially acceptable addiction you can have).
In other words: Stop working so much.
Have set times when you don’t check work emails (unless you’re the leader of a country or someone else who needs to be available 24-7). Resist the temptation to overwork and instead, call someone you love. Don’t let work cut into your sleep.
The case for working less
See what happens when you make the changes I just described. Chances are that you will become more productive when you get into a better rhythm of work.
As bestselling author Richie Norton put it:
In other words, it’s not about not working, it’s just about working efficiently (as a German, efficiency talk is my catnip).
That’s not that different from the approach the Paris-based Startup Welcome to the Jungle, took when they adopted a 4-day workweek (as an experiment). It worked so well that they chose to adopt it indefinitely, and for all employees.
Their experiment (and similar experiments by other companies, such as Buffer) bring up an important question: with all the extra work you do, how much of an impact does it actually have? If you want to be productive, don’t just work more. Instead, do the right things. Focus on your priorities (the few things that will give you the biggest bang for the buck), not on your to-dos.
Let’s instead consider our entire lives… the experiences we have, the friendships we make, the things we learn. Will whatever you’re working on matter in the end? Or will you wish you had spent your time differently?
Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse working in palliative care, has gathered the top regrets of people on their deathbed… and here’s one of them: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” Ware described how every male patient that she nursed had his regret (women also had it but less so since most came from an older generation). In the words of Ware:
“They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship…All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."
I ask you to please keep this wider perspective in mind. Focus on your life, your entire life, not just your current workload.
Don’t ignore that there’s an end to this thing we call life. Death gives perspective. It gifts clarity. It reveals insights.
Throughout all of human existence, the death rate has remained stubbornly consistent… one death per person. It just that our brains literally can’t handle that information. According to research “the brain shields us from existential fear by categorising death as an unfortunate event that only befalls other people.”
Fine. Let our brains keep that illusion. There’s no need to focus on our own deaths. Let’s instead focus on the deaths of people we love.
My beloved godfather passed away two years ago. I was in a coffee shop working on something when he last called me. Of course, I didn’t know it would be the last time I would ever speak to him.
Every time I think back to that moment, I send a silent “thank you” to my past self for picking up the phone, instead of waiting for a more opportune moment when I wasn’t working. I don’t even recall what I was working on when my godfather called… because it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Connecting with him that one last time? That’s what mattered.
If I had to summarize my article in one quote, I could do worse than choose Bertrand Russell’s words: “One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”
I’m the first to believe that work can give meaning to life. That it can be something wonderful that we love to do. But not at the expense of everything else that matters.
What if we stopped overworking? What if we just… embraced this weird thing that we call life?
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