Over the past couple of weeks, I have been looking back over my “boom and bust” cycle of working, exposing it’s flaws and discussing areas of improvement. This cycle covers six steps, and we have already covered the first two – Decide to Start A New Project, and Plan the Scope Too Wide. This week, we will be looking at the next step – Work Myself Too Hard.
Most people have heard the saying “Hard Work Never Hurt Anyone” but, unfortunately, this saying is not true. There are many people who are overworking themselves, resulting in an increase of stress, and the resulting health conditions that result from this. I am not going to go into the details about how stress works, and the damage it can cause. It is just enough to acknowledge that people can, and often do, overwork themselves, with devastating effects – both mentally and physically.
It is very hard to define what overworking actually is, simply because we all have our own individual circumstances, in terms of physical, mental, employment, and social health. As such, everyone has a different individual tolerance to workload, that fluctuates throughout their lives, sometimes on a daily basis.
In trying to figure out whether or not you are overworking, you also need to consider what is and isn’t work, so you can factor in all of the issues you face in your life. The biggest mistake is the thought that work only consists of what you get paid for! There are many people who don’t work, yet still lead very full lives that can lead to overworking.
For example, childcare and home-making are often ignored, despite being very demanding tasks that most people need to juggle with their career. Likewise, people rarely understand the demands of keeping debilitating health conditions under control, while volunteers are often dismissed despite fulfilling vital roles in the community.
Another common mistake is to ignore or dismiss leisure activities as work. It may seem like such activities are optional for people, they are vitally important for maintaining and individual’s health an almost every arena of modern life – physical, mental, employment, and social. A balance of all of these is needed, because neglecting any can result in many deleterious effects that hamper the day to day living of that person.
Once these factors have been considered, you can get a clearer idea of just how much work you do each day. From this, you can see whether or not you are overworking, and where you might be doing so. Unfortunately, an individual’s work tolerance is subjective, and often only discerned when that threshold is past. Even then, most of the effects of overworking are only felt in the period afterwards, once you have overworked, and hamper further working, causing the problem to become worse.
The result of this is often a “crash” of some kind, as an individual ends up stopping because they can no longer work under such circumstances, and the body simply puts on the breaks. The form that this “crash” takes often comes from the area that is being neglected, and can be mental or physical (or both), and often be beyond the control of the individual as our own survival instincts kick in and tell us to stop.
This is very much the process at the heart of the “Boom and Bust” cycle – an individual starts full of vigour, ends up overworking, and then goes bust, spending time out to recover, before starting the cycle all over again.
Understanding this cycle is key to breaking this cycle, and that lies as the crux of this series. If we can spot the signs that lead up to overworking, or failing that, notice that we are overworking sooner, we can put the breaks on in more controlled manner, preventing the bust from happening.
Most people will often consider themselves to be healthy. We are often overconfident about our abilities, since this is a trait that leads to the evolution of our species. We tend to try things on the whole, with a “give it a go” attitude, simply because the rewards often outweigh the risks. In fact, we often exaggerate the rewards, while remaining somewhat ignorant of the risks.
This is largely because those who succeed go to live on and reproduce, while those who fail just dwindle and fade away. In such a highly competitive species as ourselves, even deciding not to take a risk, simply because of fear, can be as disastrous as failing. As such, we are inclined to eventually overcome our fears and push for the limits, just so that we can succeed.
This is all part of our natural flight or fight response, which is the result of adrenaline, and is key to our short term survival. However, both fleeing and fighting are simple instinctive responses, and can be disastrous if they are not tempered, and often overridden, by understanding and reasoning.
More importantly, the fight or flight response is a false dichotomy, enforced by our instincts, when often many other solutions can present themselves if we get a chance to consider the problem away from the pressure that such situations often create.
No doubt, most people will be asking what the solution to this issue of overworking, stress, and instinct is – and the truth is that there isn’t a simple solution here. Every individual and circumstance is unique, and what works for some people might not work for others.
However, there are some general solutions depending upon what traits you tend to emphasise, so that you can regain some semblance of balance. For example, if you are prone to follow your instincts, and take emotional responses, a course of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) might help you bring some rationality to your reactions. Alternatively, for overly thoughtful people, especially neurotics, therapy to focus through the thoughts and concentrate on solutions, often based on finding and understanding your innate instincts might work.
Ultimately though, there are no quick solutions, because of the individuality of each scenario. Most therapy is based on decoding and understanding the situations, while helping the patient think and reflect about themselves and the world around them, from a semi-objective viewpoint.
In most cases, therapy is often required in extreme cases, when people finally go “bust” at the end of the cycle. However, many with undergo a sort of self-therapy during such times, allowing them to recover and return to their previous selves.
Unfortunately, many people often neglect such therapeutic practices once they have recovered, and this is usually why the “boom and bust” cycle repeats itself. Sometimes people end up making the same mistakes, but more likely, they will end up making similar mistakes – mistakes that have the same cause and effect, yet in another area of their life.
The most common cause for this is that once someone has “crashed” by neglecting or overworking in one or more areas of their life, they will shift their focus, and often end up overworking or neglecting another area of their life, and thus “crash” once again.
This is by no far an exhaustive list of the areas in an individuals life, since many people create and change their goals, priorities, and focuses depending upon their personalities and circumstances. This flexibility is key to maintaining a healthy and stable identity.
Despite this flexibility, many such areas will fall into one or more of the following broad categories:
- Physical: Our bodies are important to us, and as such, have a deep and often unrealised impact upon our health and wellbeing. These can include physcial health issues, such as recovering or preventing injury and illness, through to our own self-image and body perception. Many people want to “get fit”, “improve muscle mass”, or “lose weight” – even if they don’t have any health issues.
- Mental: Psychological issues have a deep impact on our identities. In fact, creating and maintaining our own self-identity is a fundamental part of psychology – it represents the epitome of our own consciousness, self-awareness, and intellect. This is what makes us human. The term psychological can often be seen as derogatory, however, giving the implication that such issues are “made up” or “in our heads”, when things are a lot more complicated than that. This mental arena also includes how we perceive and react to each other, what we think about things, and the sum of our life experiences.
- Employment: Employment is a key part of who we are. We often define ourselves by what we do, and as such this often relates to our sense of self worth and value as part of society. Being appreciated for what we do, regardless of whether we are actually being paid to do it, is important. Job satisfaction falls into this category, and is becoming increasingly more important in the understanding of Human Resource departments in all sorts of companies. It doesn’t matter if you are employed, self-employed, freelance, or volunteering – as long as you are doing something that makes you feel worthwhile in your life.
- Social: We are a social species, and a highly competitive one. As such, many aspects of our life revolve around dealing with other people. Be they friendships, rivalries, families, social groups, team mates, or work colleagues, such interactions matter. In addition, even people we don’t know can affect us – the other passengers on the daily commute, the shopkeeper in the newsagent, or the passer-by in the street can all have a profound affect on our daily lives.
All in all, modern life is very complicated, and discussing it in it’s entirety can (and has) taken many people entire lifetimes, and it still remains incomplete. After all, life evolves just as we do, and that is why trying to discuss can be seen as futile.
All that is really needed is to understand that these areas exist, and more importantly, that they are NOT distinct and disparate. These arenas interact in many different, and complex ways, and is all part of the uniqueness of life.
I could go on forever about overworking and stress, and about the richness of life, and the unique tapestry that we weave, but that is not going to bring this series, or even this article to a close. This series is about me evaluating myself, and looking for flaws and how I can improve.
So, am I overworking, and where might I be doing so? Well, the answer is that I do have a tendency to overwork – a lot. My work tolerance is extremely low, simply because I have many health issues that plague me. I have been diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, a debilitating auto-immune disease where my body attacks the bacteria in my gut, leading me to feel like I have the flu nigh on constantly.
Managing my Crohn’s is a significant physical factor in my life, and the Crohn’s significantly impacts most other areas of my life as well, through pain and discomfort, fatigue, and disruption. It puts many limits on me, which I either have to push through, resulting in a crash, or balk away from as a result of fear.
As such, my flight or fight response is in overdrive constantly, resulting in high amounts of adrenaline at all times, which puts me under a lot of stress constantly. Since Crohn’s also has a significant stress-related factor, this can, and does, result in a positive feedback loop (it gets worse as it spirals more and more out of control) that can have disastrous effects. These “crashes” tend to be fairly significant.
This is clearly key to my “boom and bust” cycle, and as such, most of my “work” is actually done trying to reduce my stress and prevent such a crash, which in itself is a major cause of my overworking.
I often find myself trying to compensate in other areas of my life, in order to try and reduce my stress so that it doesn’t compound my physical issues. This is not as easy as it sounds, because of the limitations of my Crohn’s.
For example, I cannot work because of my Crohn’s, and this leads me to constant thoughts and feelings of uselessness. As a result, I will often overwork, trying to find ways to be useful. This might manifest by trying to be an AWESOME friend to everyone, often at the expense of myself, trying to be there when I can. This also manifests itself largely in my projects – I identify as a games designer, despite having had limited success and opportunity to actually be a games designer, and thus tend to push myself too hard when the few opportunities arrive, or seek to try and create my own, often futile, opportunities to be a games designer.
First off, this may sound like I am using my Crohn’s as an excuse, and in many ways, I often do – largely out of fear. However, it is also an example how much different arenas of life interact in complex ways. I wish I could say that if I didn’t have Crohn’s, everything would work out, but that is not the case. It is hard to say whether or not the Crohn’s is the cause of my issues, or the result of them. I can say, however, that my Crohn’s is both a cause and a result, that is easily used to encapsulate an entire wealth of ideas in a single word.
Is there a solution to this for me? It is hard to say, but it is clear that there isn’t a simple solution here that will fix everything. Instead, understanding it, accepting it, and being aware of it in my decisions will hopefully prevent me from becoming stressed and overworking.
I can improve small factors in my life, and hope that these build up to a bigger benefit. Trying to maintain a moderately tidy home, a stable and fulfilling relation, and relaxing with a fulfilling hobby, while boosting my self-esteem with a satisfying career is pretty much all that I can hope for here in any realistic sense. But then, isn’t that what everybody wants in the end?
I know that this is not much of a solution, but how can there be a more specific solution to such a vague, yet complicated, problem? I could break my issues down into smaller, more detailed chunks, listing every little thing – and this would result in finding a lot of little solutions.
Ultimately, despite what we may think, it is the little things that matter – simply because the little things build up into bigger things. By dealing with the little things, while they are still little, I can hopefully prevent them from becoming too big to handle.
As an aside, I often describe myself as AWESOME, which means to inspire awe, the sense of shock and wonderment that largely equates to the term “OMG!” For me, being AWESOME is something that I strive for, a responsibility and an identity. It is about being the best that I can be, and helping others do the same.
Many people think of this as arrogance, but like everything else in life, being AWESOME is a matter of subjectivity. I feel AWESOME when I get out of bed, simply because I often wonder how I manage it. Doing the dishes, finishing an article, helping a friend move, having a good night out, or making my fiancé feel special with a romantic gesture all provoke the same response in myself, and in quite a few others.
After all, I could be bitter, and I could have given up long ago, stopped caring about myself and others, and be filled with negativity and despair. But I am not. I keep trying, despite my failures, and this is often a key to my “boom and bust” cycle.
Anyway, until next time, stay AWESOME yourselves!