Worn Out On the Way to Great Thoughts: Dealing with Overwork, Overwhelm, and MDD

“Man was made at the end of the week, when God was tired.”

Worn Out On the Way to Great Thoughts: Dealing with Overwork, Overwhelm, and MDD  by Laura Stack #productivityVictorian novelist George Eliot once wryly noted, “It is very difficult to be learned; it seems as if people were worn out on the way to great thoughts, and can never enjoy them because they are too tired.” No doubt she was poking fun at the celebrities and politicians of the day, for she had a keen eye for politics and social intrigue, and an astute knowledge of the tendencies of her fellow Britons.

I say “she” and “her” because despite her penname, Eliot was actually Mary Anne Evans, a woman who dared write serious novels in a period where most women limited themselves to bucolic romances. Lacking a formal education, she read widely and was heavily influenced by the Greek classics and philosopher Baruch Spinoza. She represented the opposite of her epigraph, a deep thinker who wrote, edited, and translated consistently from 1850 until her death in 1880. Later in life she was widely known for ignoring and even subverting the conventions of the day, particularly where marriage and religion were concerned.

The Exhaustion of the Western World 

Were she alive today, Eliot would no doubt have been amused when news of a newly-identified affliction, Motivational Deficiency Disorder, swept through the news media in 2006. According to an article published in the British Medical Journal, the illness is characterized by a lack of motivation to accomplish anything of significance. Certainly she wouldn’t have been quite as willing as many popular publications were in accepting the story at face value; more likely, she would have seen it for what it was: a satirical skewering of disease mongering, a practice that seems to assign an illness to every human quirk.

The truth is, many of us are just plain exhausted, and not merely from making our way to great thoughts. The economy has sputtered along in third gear for quite some time now, and business leaders have had to stretch their resources—human and otherwise— farther and farther to cover their requirements. We’re more productive than ever, but at what cost? Well, let’s see:

  • Our earnings haven’t risen to match our productivity.
  • We have more divorces than ever before.
  • 60-70 hour workweeks have become common.
  • The traditional 8-hour-day and 40-hour workweek are basically dead.
  • Stress levels have skyrocketed.
  • Cardiac events have increased by 66% for those who work 11+ hours per day.
  • Even Europeans, famous for their shorter workweeks and longer vacations, have adopted punishing American work practices.

More of us feel more overwhelmed and overworked than at any time in recent history. Is it any wonder we might lose our motivation and desperately desire not to work so hard for once?

We don’t need medication to make us more motivated to bang our heads against the walls of our careers and Do Everything Right Now. We already have a cure for overwork and exhaustion, though it doesn’t come in handy pill form. If you want to recover your motivation and take joy in your work again, reduce how much you work. Balance out work and the rest of your life, so you have a life to come home to at night, not just a place to sleep between shifts.

Now, reducing your hours doesn’t mean you can reduce your results. That’s where efficiency comes in: learning to do the same work in less time without decreasing output (or better yet, increasing it). An eight-hour-a-day employee can certainly be more productive than a twelve-hour-a-day employee. You know the number of hours people sit in a chair doesn’t determine how productive they are.

Find ways to care again and resharpen your senses, so you can do better work and produce more in eight hours than most people do in twelve. Cut out everything dragging you down, from perfectionism to minimum-wage tasks others should be doing for you. Cut back on your information inflow. Forget multitasking. Stop trying to do it all. Concentrate for longer periods of time without checking your texts. Reduce, reduce, reduce!

I know for certain this works in my life. Others have told me they’ve taken the “reduce, reduce, reduce” mantra to heart as well. One is a contractor I often work with who now gives himself every Saturday off, reads several books a week, takes long walks when weather permits, and enjoys national holidays with his family. He gets just as much done as before, if not more.

However you fell into the pit of overwork/overwhelm, efficiency is the way to save yourself, regain your health and sanity, and become even more productive than before (you’ll find the entire strategy described in detail in my last book, What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2012).

You have the option of slowing down. Don’t just wish you had Hermione’s time-turner  from Harry Potter so you could squeeze more hours into the day. I heard an audience member express recently: “I wish I could just pop a pill and get more done.” If you’re feeling a lack of motivation to work and a strong desire for more time in your life, it’s not an illness; it’s a natural human need. If it gets too strong, it’s a sign of burnout.

MDD is a joke. Your health and sanity are not. Reduce, reduce, reduce!

Where have you been able to become more efficient in your life and reduce your working hours? Have you experienced health effects of too many hours? Is pushing yourself to the limits—and even beyond—worth any job? Let me know what you think!