Don’t run yourself into the ground

I got sick this week. It was bad—stuck in bed bad.

That, of course, wasn’t my plan. My plan actually resembled the exact opposite. I had just finished re-inspiring myself for yet another round of pushing hard, adding new habits and routines on top of each other all at once, and cutting out all fun for good measure. Because that’s what it takes to make real substantive progress, right?

If you can believe it, I was genuinely excited—despite how hard it promised to be, I can never get enough of a fresh start. I bought healthy food. I even Sunday meal prepped a week’s worth of protein-heavy rice dishes. I managed to make it to the gym and somehow even enjoyed it, which I kinda thought was impossible.

I pushed really hard, for a full week or so. And then I got sick.

I had sacrificed sleep to get in a full workout. Then I skipped breakfast because I had read some article about intermittent fasting. The day got longer and more painful. Micro-tears were appearing in my muscles, and my psyche, and apparently in my immune system. And the system shut down.

My plans weren’t sustainable. The drive was there, and the list of things I was trying to do was technically good, but the intensity was ratcheted up too high. There was no subtlety. There was no consideration of human limitations, or of how I could maintain that breakneck speed without breaking down.

Everyone reading this blog is an overachiever. An optimizer. Always looking for ways to make processes more efficient and output higher. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But, so often, it’s easy to lose sight of the macro: our goals, and why we’re chasing them so intently.

Our chief priority as we make our way through this life should be more than just survival. It should be enjoying our lives. Staying vibrant and energetic and awake enough to experience the hard-won fruits of our labor. All this work is worth nothing if we collapse, chest-heaving, at the end of everything, not able to stay awake through “the good part.”

So let’s find some balance today. Think about the candles you’ve been burning at both ends. Find a way to save some energy for actually living.

Find the healthy middle

Now, to be clear, I don’t mean to take your foot fully off the accelerator.

As I lay in bed, faced with a newfound freedom of sorts—days to fill without schedules—I found myself still consumed with longing for the healthy activities I had planned to do.

“When I get better,” I thought, “I’m going straight back to the gym.”

“But not in a way that’s going to kill me this time.”

There had to be a healthy middle.

Whenever I would get all gung-ho about starting a new workout regimen, I would scoff arrogantly at the idea of three to four gym sessions a week. “If I’m trying to be the best there ever was,” I would say to myself, “I have to do six minimum. And I should do an intense stretching session on the seventh.”

But I had proven to myself how deeply unhealthy and unproductive that was.

The same thing applied to my worklife—I have a nasty habit of accepting multiple part-time work-from-home jobs that I technically can do at the same time, but that in sum always seem to wipe out every other part of my life like a solar eclipse. Another lesson I hadn’t learned—until today.

One full-time job. Or two part-time ones. Workout three to four days a week. Eat a salad, and a banana. It’s not hard. In fact, that subtle-but-obvious simplicity is really the secret to all of this. It’s not “drink 12 eight ounce glasses of water a day or you fail.” It’s “drink when you’re thirsty, and maybe a little more, and you’ll be more than fine.”

Listen to your body and mind

There were signals—warning signs—that I had ignored. Waking up got more painful every day. But I had pushed through those feelings in my life enough times that I just disregarded them. Many a missed opportunity to start upping my Vitamin C intake.

A week before I got sick, rushing to one appointment or another, I got into a car accident. The tow truck guy, when he was strapping my car up, like an angel of wisdom, told me, “something in the universe is trying to tell you you’re going too fast.”

I thought that sounded nice at the time, and I listened and nodded sagely, but didn’t take it to heart. I was still driving the same speed as before. I thought, “I don’t have time to slow down.” In reality, it might be that we don’t have time to do anything but slow down.

When we push really hard in the pursuit of our work, it can be tempting to stiff-upper-lip and tough our way through these little hints of pain and resistance we encounter. Often, that can be a healthy instinct. But those hints can also be canaries in coal mines. And when you start to break down, you likely won’t be left wanting for early indicators.

Realize slowing down is not weakness

As we approach the beginning of the end of the year, and large chunks of our calendars start getting lifted out (hopefully), for holiday festivities and family and friend obligations and well-earned time off. For me, this is good timing. Maybe it’s good timing for you too. An instinct to slow down is appropriate. Let yourself give in to it, and start recharging for next year.

Slowing down is not weakness. Running at the speed you’re optimally designed to run at is just smart maintenance. It’s actually the peak of that “efficiency” we’re all searching for. Pushing past that capacity will only deliver diminishing returns.

I’ve spent a lot of this week looking at my past mindset as embarrassingly childish and simple. “Try harder, push harder to infinity!” Like a middle-school football player who’s only told to put his head down and run fast—even if that means running straight into a concussion. We’re adults. We make plans and adjustments and we make the necessary moves to do the best we can with the hand we’re dealt.

Put structures in place to keep the balance

For a long time, I had been in search of something that could help me develop a healthier relationship with my work—something beyond just starting a stopwatch and tightening my knuckles in raw effort. Something that kept me on the straight and narrow in regards to my work, but also keeping in mind what’s important in regards to my health and mindset.

Luckily, RescueTime has developed a product designed to provide just that.

The RescueTime Assistant is software, available for MacOS, Windows, iOS, and Android, that will help you find a healthier balance with your work.

Before you sit down to work, the RescueTime Assistant will run you through a helpful and customizable warm-up, designed to prepare your mind and body for as productive a session as possible.

You can set a timer to work for a pre-determined amount of time—no more risk of over- or under-working because of loosely-defined parameters.

And as you work, the Assistant will block distracting or unhelpful websites and apps from knocking you off your course.

It’s the software solution I had been searching for for years.

Feel how much better it is this way

I’m sure you can remember times in your life where your relentless pursuit of your work had left you a shell of yourself. Being tired all the time. Having to miss obligations or fun opportunities because you were working, or because you were exhausted, or because you were sick from being exhausted from working.

Instead, now you can just…have a nice little morning routine with a couple healthy habits. You can go to the gym, mostly when you feel like it, and not too often when you don’t. You can wind down nice and slow in the evenings – an hour of chill time before hopefully eight hours of sleep time. You can eat an apple every now and then. And all that, on top of working eight to ten hours at your job? That is more than enough. And you should start to give yourself credit for that.

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Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

One comment

  1. Hi, Robin,

    Thank you so much for your helpful and insightful articles. I’ve been reading them off and on for several months now and can relate to many of them. I appreciate how you personalize the articles by sharing your own experiences, which helps me to know that I am not alone in my productivity struggles. I love your straightforward writing style, no fluff, just wonderful information.

    Regarding the accident you were in, I hope that everything worked out for you and your car, and that you were not injured. Also, I’m glad that you are well, recovered from being ill. Like you, I have been “shut down” due to going full throttle, and it is not fun. As a Christian, I looked at my situation as God trying to get my attention. It worked, and hopefully, I’ve learned my lesson.

    On another note, I’m wondering if you have a book, or if you have considered compiling all of your articles into a book. I believe that making this information available to the masses would be a game-changer for people like myself who are always running out of hours before getting anything significant done, all while struggling with procrastination and feelings of just being overwhelmed.

    Have a blessed day and know that you are making a difference!

    Melanie

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