How to Avoid the Overwork Trap

How to Avoid the Overwork Trap

More and more companies are preaching "work/life balance," but if you look at the stats, employees and their bosses are more burned out than ever before. Whether it's communication tools that keep us on-call 24/7, devices that we never leave alone, or just a culture of more is better, there are plenty of pitfalls that suck our time and attention. Here’s a cautionary tale about working too much, followed by some proven strategies to help you live a fuller life while still achieving your main goals.

Getting Caught in the Productivity Snare

In a recent newsletter titled “Danielle Steel and the Tragic Appeal of Overwork,” Deep Work author Cal Newport shared the routine of the bestselling writer. Her results – over 800 million copies sold worldwide and 190 novels published – are hard to argue with. But this comes at the cost of logging 20 to 22-hour days that start at 8:30 AM and finish late at night.

“Steel is phenomenally successful, but her story reads like a Greek tragedy,” Newport noted. “She could, of course, decide to only write a single book per year, and still be a fabulously bestselling author, while also, you know, sleeping.” But the siren’s song of overwork keeps calling her back to the typewriter, making one wonder if the bestseller lists and royalties are worth it if Steel never actually makes time to enjoy the fruits of her considerable labors.

Why doesn’t she slow down or occasionally even – heaven forbid – push pause for a while to allow for rest and recuperation? “There’s a primal action-reward feedback loop embedded into the experience of disciplined effort leading to success,” Newport suggests. “Once you experience its pleasures it’s natural to crave more. For Steel, this dynamic seems to have spiraled out of control. Like King Midas, lost in his gilded loneliness, Steel cannot leave the typewriter.”

While it’s impossible to know how much pleasure Steel derives from the process of brainstorming, creating story arcs, and writing – and given how prolific she is, the answer is probably “a lot” – the temptation to keep pushing on and on seems to have become all-consuming. We often hear stories of “hyperwork” being driven by the requirements of a demanding profession or the culture of a hard-driving company. But what about when we lock ourselves in a productivity prison of our own making and keep adding bricks and bars to the ever more confining walls?

After all, as a self-employed author, Steel has her publisher’s deadlines to consider but, given that she’s far from a newbie author, has a lot of say in setting these. With more money in the bank than she could ever spend, Steel largely dictates her own schedule and chooses to work around the clock. How did this come about, and why does it continue to perpetuate itself?

“I think this dynamic, to one degree or another, impacts anyone who has been fortunate enough to experience some success in their field,” Newport wrote. “Doing important work matters and sometimes this requires sacrifices. But there’s also a deep part of our humanity that responds to these successes — and the positive feedback they generate — by pushing us to seek this high at ever-increasing frequencies.”

His suggestion for breaking free from this frenetic, always-on cycle is for Steel to content herself by just publishing one book a year. He believes this would allow her more time to explore other elements of life and – by providing more space to think, relax, and just be – even improve the quality of her writing.

“One of the keys to cultivating a deep life seems to be figuring out how to ride this razor’s edge; to avoid the easy cynicism of dismissing effort altogether, while also avoiding Steel’s 20-hour days,” Newport wrote.

Breaking Yourself Out of Overwork

Does this make for uncomfortable reading because you see something of yourself in Steel? If so, maybe a combination of creative impulse, self-motivation, and relentless drive has propelled you to excel in your field, which is admirable. But have you had to give up everything else to achieve it? And what guard rails could you put up that would allow you to still do the kind of deep work that Newport has written about while also living a deeper life in the future?  

In Steel’s case, she did a great job of deciding what she wanted to do – write novels – and pursuing it with total effort. But the problem is that this singular focus blotted out everything else in her world, to the point that working wasn’t just the main thing – it was the only thing. If this sounds like you, then you need to reexamine your top goal to find out if you even desire it anymore, or if it’s just become a millstone around your neck.

If you decide that you’re still shooting at the right target but have been doing far too much to try and hit it, then something needs to change. The only way to become more efficient is to figure out what the minimum amount of effort is that will allow you to achieve your goal, and to go no further. The legendary waterman Dave Kalama is often asked how someone should grip their paddle to get optimal power in each SUP or canoeing stroke. To answer, he gives the analogy of a door handle. If you want to get into a room, you turn it and pull just hard enough to open the door, not to wrench it off its hinges.

The same is true in work and life. What’s the point of putting yourself to the sword for 20 or 22 hours every day if you could achieve the results you need in six or eight? Going any further is just an exercise in inefficiency and self-torture that’s going to leave you feeling burned out. So follow Kalama’s example and determine how hard you need to grab and pull the handle of whatever door you’re trying to open. And then don’t do any more.

Upping Your Life Grades

If you’re stuck in a perpetual cycle of overwork, you might have the opposite problem to the one Steel is grappling with. Perhaps it’s not that you’re doing one to the absolute max, but that you’re trying to keep too many juggling balls in the air at once. As a result, maybe you end up dropping one or all of them on a regular basis. In an interview with Daily Stoic author Ryan Holiday, Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey revealed that he came to a crossroads when he realized that he was splitting his attention in too many different directions. “I’m making Bs in five things,” he said. “I wanted to make As in three things – be an actor for hire, have a foundation, and be a family member.”

To regain control over his life, McConaughey had to make some difficult choices, like laying off five workers from his production company and record label. But once he stopped spreading himself too thin, he began to see the results he wanted. “I started making much better grades in those three things than when I had five,” McConaughey told Holiday.

What five, 10, or 15 activities are you currently doing to less than the best of your ability? And if you had to choose, which three would you want to get As in? Once you’ve answered these questions, you need to minimize or eliminate the extras. This means getting comfortable with reducing the amount of busy work you do, but will ultimately free you up to do less, better. That’s one way author Greg McKeown defines Essentialism.

Simply stating that you’re going to narrow down your priority list won’t be enough. You’re going to have to consciously allot time to the three areas that you want to make As in. The simplest way is to create weekly calendar blocks for each of them. This provides a visual representation of how you’re planning to shape each week around your main goals. From the moment you wake up on Monday morning, having such an organized and prioritized schedule will encourage greater focus and facilitate deep work.

Setting Better Boundaries

If you’re self-employed, you already know that – like Steel – your biggest enemy will be your own impulses. This means not letting work-related blocks expand so they end up dominating your entire schedule. To avoid this, intentionally set aside time for the other areas of your life in which you want to thrive – whether that’s learning the new hobby you’ve been putting off for years, volunteering for a local charity, or spending more of your waking hours with your family. If you’re already feeling burned out, you might need to allocate opportunities for rest and rejuvenation as well.

Another way to reign yourself in is to calendar a brief monthly self-reflection in which you can make sure that you haven’t slipped back into your old, self-imposed workaholism. Ask a close friend or mentor to hold you accountable if necessary. And be sure to reevaluate your priorities at least annually. As McConaughey told Holiday, our values and goals evolve over time, so you might need to revise your big three list and course correct now and again.

If you work for someone else, they’re the ones who will probably intrude over your new boundary lines. But only if you let them. Whether it’s being clear that you won’t be answering email after hours anymore (Newport never checks his after 7 PM and doesn’t have his inbox tied to his phone), will actually be taking all your vacation days from now on, or need some time during each workday when you won’t be beholden to Slack messages, it’s time to reset expectations and explain why. This might lead to some pushback, but if you want to break out of a destructive pattern of overwork, you need to hold your ground. 

By simply deciding on the few things you want to prioritize, identifying the additional tasks that are holding you back from doing these well, and reallocating your available time accordingly, you’ll be well on the way to a more balanced and fulfilling existence. Or, if you’ve been singular in your pursuit of one aim, trending toward minimalism and away from maximalism will allow space for growth in other areas of your life while avoiding burnout.

Then it’s a matter of standing firm and living out what you’ve put on paper. There’s nothing wrong with having ambitious goals and pursuing them, but you also have a life to live and should remember that other people want to do it with you. And in the end, nobody needs 190 bestsellers (or whatever your work-based definition of success is) if it means being tied to a typewriter 20+ hours a day and doing nothing else well.