I have no doubt that throughout the decades, the technologies we have now have allowed us to be more productive. But why is it that we are still working so much? Burn out is so real in many fields because people overwork themselves or are forced to overwork either by direct orders or perceived pressures. I’m not going to lie, I was this person. There were periods in my life when I worked a lot, and I probably would not be where I am now if I didn’t, but I recognize that those periods were wholly unsustainable and took a toll on my mental and physical health. I couldn’t keep working myself ragged all the time. Life is so much more than my work. Here’s a few things I started implementing to avoid the toxic productivity trap:
Have discipline to not work. It’s very easy to check emails when you get home just in case someone emailed you while you were driving or let me just send this email while having breakfast at home or let me finish up this project over the weekend when I’m supposed to be relaxing. It takes as much discipline to not work as it does to work. There will be times when you have to cut into your personal time for work, but that should not be the norm.
Keep work at work. I know someone who doesn’t have wifi and a smartphone. The only way we could talk to him was if we showed up to lab from 9 am to 6 pm. He is one of the most brilliant and most productive scientists I know. By keeping his work hours and personal hours separate, he can focus on his work during the specified hours and relax at home, knowing that no one is going to bother him with emails that could wait for the next day. We don’t need to be connected to work at all times. They can wait a couple hours until we get back.
Say no. You know how you can focus on your most important tasks and do an awesome job? How you can have more free time for more important things? Start saying no to projects that don’t benefit you other than avoiding conflict with people who ask you to do things. If you already have your plate full, say no to projects that will stretch you thin. My most used line is “Thank you for approaching me with this project, but my current work load won’t allow me to give this new project my 100% and that is unfair to you and the project.”
Set boundaries. Many employers now are more nuanced in the sense that they value work-life balance. A burnt-out team member is unproductive, unstable, and most likely to quit. Set a precedent about your boundaries at work by not answering texts or emails or calls after reasonable office hours end (~6 pm) and on the weekends. This doesn’t apply if you’re on-call, obviously.
Have non-work passions that still benefit your career. Some people feel guilty or indulgent when they choose not to work. They HAVE to do something. By having a non-work passion that somehow ties into your future plans, you are still being productive, but the task is much more enjoyable. One of my mentors told me that if I were to pursue entrepreneurship, I need to play golf. And so I started hitting golf balls a year ago. I go to the range with my girlfriends and we talk and go to brunch after and just have a good time. I’m still working on me, but I don’t feel exhausted like I do with regular work tasks.
I used to see people who work ridiculous hours as aspirational, but now I found that I don’t want to create a life where my only identity is work. I love my work in the lab and creating new knowledge, but I find that putting in ungodly hours a week is not sustainable and was actually hurting my work and productivity, not to mention my health.