The scary power of fatigue

We spend a lot of time here at RescueTime talking about how to make ourselves more productive. How to make ourselves, in a sense, more powerful in our work and the way we go about it. And there are myriad powerful forces and strategies out there we can harness to aid us in this journey. Of course, that’s something we hope to talk about more and more in the future on this blog.

But today our subject is different. It’s a powerful force, but it’s one that’s destructive rather than additive or productive — like its powers are being harnessed for evil.

That force is fatigue.

“What?” you might say. “Being a little tired? What’s the big deal?”

But you know it goes deeper than that. You’ve had days where you were deathly exhausted. Got no sleep the night before. Maybe even pulled an all-nighter before a big exam in college. What if you were asked to run a 5K on that day? Fat chance you could do that, right? Probably wouldn’t wanna take the SAT either.

Now of course, we’re not pulling all-nighters on a consistent basis in our everyday lives. But what we are doing on a consistent basis, on a near-epidemic level across our world, is robbing ourselves of small amounts of sleep. An hour here. Another three there.

Here’s the bad news: it adds up. And just like that (and more quickly than you might expect), fatigue appears to ruin your life.

Our bodies and minds have the ability, when prompted, to completely tank our productivity — essentially kneecapping our minds and all of our capacities to live lives that we actually enjoy. And that scary power it holds over us only ever gets more intense the longer we feed it, with bad habits and cyclical patterns of neglect for our health and our sleep.

So: let’s keep it at bay. Don’t let it grow into the monster it can be.

What is this scary thing?

Workaholic lead

Work fatigue is different than ordinary tiredness, which typically has an easier solve: just get a little rest. Work fatigue is more like a very prolonged state of exhaustion that persists even when you get sufficient sleep for a few nights. The fog that it casts over your world can permeate other aspects of life, making it difficult to disconnect from work, maintain motivation, and focus. (In this way, it’s similar to another one of the scary concepts in our productivity universe: burnout, which we’ve written about extensively.)

To make things weirder, it seems like this kind of fatigue doesn’t just affect people working physically demanding jobs. Desk jobs can wipes us out in all the same ways, but the reasons are unclear, despite ongoing research. Here are our best guesses at the factors that might contribute:

The evolving nature of work has significantly impacted our daily routines, making it increasingly difficult to recharge, even on our days off. Notably, American workers put in an average of 137 more hours per year compared to their Japanese counterparts, and a substantial 500 more hours per year compared to workers in France. Plus, most individuals dedicate at least one hour of work, on at least half of all weekends. It’s more than likely, of course that none of this is sustainable — on an individual personal level, and on a societal level.

Our culture’s shift to remote work has also played a significant role in this trend. While remote workers often report higher productivity, they are also more likely to work overtime and less inclined to take days off. Without a structured schedule, remote workers may struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance, leading to fatigue and burnout.

It’s important to note that work fatigue is not solely a result of modern working culture. Various other factors could and likely do contribute to our daily exhaustion, and understanding these underlying causes — often an individual basis — is crucial for finding effective solutions.

Why the monster is particularly powerful

But fatigue is a funny thing.

It’s not like any of these other “act of god” external obstacles we encounter in our daily lives. It’s, basically, up to us. And not only is it completely elective how much we make ourselves fatigue, it’s also nearly completely avoidable with a little bit of moderation and forethought. But so often we don’t think that way. Instead it’s so often something that many of us run full speed at, and thus get ourselves in trouble, all in the pursuit of more productivity.

We also know a perfectly structured and productive day is not that simple. Our lives are squirrely little puzzles of trying to fit a lot into a short period. Yes, we know a “work day” is technically only supposed to be from 9am to 5pm. But, if you allow yourself to procrastinate for an hour during the day, that leads to staying until 6pm to get all your work done. Then, that session on the gym only truly technically takes 35 minutes…but is that accounting for rest time? And all the standing around panting looking at your phone in between sets? Time just continues to add up, and your schedule spills later and later into the day.

The first thing we choose to give up, to buy ourselves another couple of hours of wakeful effortful time, is sleep. But nothing could be more counter-productive. You’ve heard the old axiom: you’re actually less productive the longer you work without rest. You’ve probably felt it, too: on hour 13 or 14 on a long job, or waking up the day after a late night.

Common Causes of Work Fatigue

Sleep Deprivation

This is the big one, of course. One of the most significant contributors to work fatigue is inadequate sleep. In the United States, approximately 40% of employees experience sleep loss, prompting the CDC to declare it a public health emergency. Modern work schedules often disrupt our natural sleep patterns, with over 43% of workers reporting persistent sleep deprivation.

Insufficient Downtime

The average American spends around 10 hours daily staring at screens, including work and personal activities. This excessive screen time impacts our ability to rest and recharge, because the blue light beaming out of those screens can reduce sleep quality and increase stress, anxiety, and depression.  

Ongoing fatigue and burnout stem, in a lot of cases, directly from not unplugging — always being “available,” and those getting smacked around by the whims of your co-workers or notifications.

Ignoring Your Natural Productivity Curve

Our bodies follow a natural Circadian rhythm, characterized by cycles of energy highs and lows throughout the day. Ignoring this cycle can increase the likelihood of work fatigue, frustration, and our favorite word again: burnout, but it can also just sap productivity on even the most basic of tasks. (Ever stared at your dirty dishes for a minute or two before even picking up the sponge?)

5 Strategies to Overcome

single-tasking busy

We’ve all experienced exhaustion at work, but when it becomes a long-term issue, it’s essential to address the root causes and find solutions. Here are five effective ways to combat work fatigue and reclaim your energy:

1. Work in Harmony with Your Circadian Rhythm

Understanding your body’s natural energy cycles can help you schedule focused work during peak productivity hours. Use tools like RescueTime to identify your most productive times and adjust your schedule accordingly. You can even drill in on an exact time of day when you’re most likely to be productive, and structure your day around that. When energy levels dip, don’t try to push harder. Listen to your body and switch to less demanding tasks.

2. Cultivate Motivation

Motivation is a crucial factor in overcoming fatigue. Engineer your workspace to boost your motivation, and implement strategies like the five-minute rule (put simply: force yourself to do something for at least five minutes) to kickstart tasks. Establish rituals and routines to signal to your brain that it’s time to start something new.

3. Take Regular Breaks

Taking breaks is essential for productivity and combating fatigue. Our bodies follow a natural rest-activity cycle every 90-120 minutes, making breaks instinctual. Use this rhythm to your advantage by scheduling breaks when your body needs them most.

4. Set Boundaries and Prioritize Work-Life Balance

Make time for leisure activities, hobbies, and self-care to recharge and become more creative, focused, and productive. This is, for people like us, weirdly the thing that is most often ignored. But if you truly want to achieve a balanced, non-fatigued version of your life, you might even go as far as scheduling in leisure time for yourself. Consider it a prescription.

5. Embrace Mindfulness and Meditation

Regular meditation and yoga practices can help reduce stress and anxiety, leading to decreased work fatigue. And it doesn’t have to be hours a day: 10 or even 5 minutes of meditation can center you in infinite beautiful ways. We wrote about it here.

By implementing these strategies, you can overcome work fatigue, feel more rested, and tackle your day with renewed energy. Remember: prioritize self-care, listen to your body, and always chase after that more balanced and productive work life.

You’re in control

It’s a funny thing how something entirely in our control could, left unchecked, bring about our downfall. But that’s just it: you’re in control, at the end of the day. If you have a clear sense of what you want, and what it will take to get you there, you will much less likely to let yourself be felled by something so avoidable.

Don’t let the big monster get too big. Just get in bed and turn out the lights — the monster is scared of the dark.

Robin Copple

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

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