Amy Jones thought she was being “good” by working hard, but she was also utterly miserable… and pushing herself to a point of burnout.
Wake up at 6:30am. Go swimming. Get to work. Spend nine hours with my head in my laptop, hardly talking and not taking a lunch break – or, using the lunch break to work on my side projects. Go home, using my commute to read the books or listen to the podcasts everyone is talking about. Work on my side projects all evening, while watching the TV that everyone is talking about. Fall into bed exhausted, sleep for not-long enough, and pray that I wake up rested enough to do it all again the next day, and the day after that, and all the days after that, too…
My name is Amy Jones, and I am a productivity addict. The above paragraph is my normal daily routine – or, at least, it was until earlier this year when the company I’d spent almost three years at closed down suddenly.
When that happened the routine I’d curated so carefully was thrown into disarray, I had an identity crisis which means I lost all motivation to actually do anything and, to top it all off, my newly-pregnant body started suffering the effects of pregnancy sickness with debilitating effect. I went from working every second of the day to not having the energy (or the ability to be more than five feet away from a toilet) to work at all.
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It was quite the culture shock. The enforced rest made me reevaluate a lot of things – namely, what I thought I was achieving by working that hard. I’d spent so long working as hard as I possibly could because I genuinely believed it was the best thing I could do, but in the end it hadn’t really given me anything. I hadn’t had a pay rise or a promotion in three years, and all the work I’d done – all the work everyone at that company had done, because we were all working flat-out – hadn’t really mattered, because said company had still closed without a trace anyway.
So, really, why was I doing it? Why was it so important to me?
Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of the work I did there and I still value working hard, but work’s importance in my life has shifted. For so long I had genuinely believed that pouring my life into my job and my other, improving projects was a good thing that would pay off in the end, and I defined myself and how good life was by how hard I was working at it.
Having to take time off made me realise something – I may have thought I was being “good” by working that hard, but I was also utterly miserable.
And, it turns out, making myself ill. A 2017 study from the Australian National University showed that working more than 39 hours a week is bad for your physical and mental health, and I was doing that easily on a normal week, let alone a busy one. I can’t be alone – even though a working week in most companies is around 37.5 hours, stats show that 25% of UK adults have a side-hustle which would easily top that off to 40+ hours per week.
Plus, when you work that hard you don’t have time for hobbies or to do anything purely for fun – which a 2015 study has shown is vital for mental health. Is it any wonder that a recent YouGov study showed that 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed they’ve been unable to cope? Even worse, it seems like the pressure to succeed is a direct contributor to this, and it’s more intense the younger you are – 60% of 18-24 year olds cited this pressure as causing them stress compared to 41% of 25-34 year olds, 17% of 45-54 year olds and 6% of over 55s.
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Burnout: why we should resist the UK’s toxic culture of overtime to prevent exhaustion
The world is littered with so much productivity porn – whether that’s self-help books designed to teach you how to smash your life or profiles of CEOs talking about their intense daily schedules with almost indecent awe – that it makes sense we feel lacking somehow unless we’re working as hard as we can. But we need to remember that work isn’t the be-all and end-all of our lives – we are supposed to work to earn money so we can live, not live for the job that really is only going to put money and success into someone else’s pockets.
Plus, if it’s productivity you’re after, it seems working less actually increases your productivity. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less explains that when your brain is at rest, it’s more creative than when it’s trying to work. Elsewhere, research in Sweden has shown that working six-hour days results in happier, more productive employees and a four-day working week trial in New Zealand showed that employees were less stressed and productivity as a whole did not decrease.
Basically, if you want to do better work, you need to do less of it.
This year, I realised that instead of being my purpose in life, work is a treadmill that you never get a break from and one that will never, ever let you reach a point of satisfaction because no matter how much you achieve, there will always be more to do. Being forced to get off that treadmill has made my life so, so much better, and although I still have a tendency to want to do everything and to always be working, I’m actively trying to calm that down and spend a little more time enjoying my life.
I still work hard – damn hard, in fact – and I try my best with every article I write or contract I undertake, but I also recognise that really, it’s just a job. Seven years after I started working full-time I have finally stopped fetishising success, and I’m happier than I feel I’ve ever been.
As long as I’m earning enough to live and I’m proud of what I do, it’s enough – and really, that’s all I need.
The To-Do List and Other Debacles by Amy Jones is available now (£14.99).
This article was originally published in July 2019 and has been updated throughout.
Images: Eutah Mizushima/Unsplash/Getty