Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby – all of these characters have one thing in common: ambition as their tragic flaw. Time and again, culture has given us examples of men and women whose blind quests for more have brought on a tragedy. Yet, even today, we seem not to have learned a thing.
In the 21st century, ambition, or more precisely, hustle culture, is still being glorified as the single solution to all of life’s problems. We measure ourselves against entrepreneurs whose daily routines really do seem to be sleep, eat, work, repeat. We feel incompetent and undeserving unless we’re capable of sleeping ten hours a week, running a half marathon every day, and making millions of dollars per second.
But the thing is, in our quest for riches and glory, we often fail to stop and think whether we really need all this. What do we gain from neglecting our health, personal lives, and emotional wellbeing? Yes, money and social approval are both great motivators. But at the end of the road, do they truly matter?
If you, like so many others, are finding yourself stuck in the vicious cycle of all work and no play, know that there are ways to break free. Yes, they’ll require some changes in routine and approach. But in the end, a balanced relationship between work and life doesn’t have to mean less success. On the contrary, it might just be the thing that gives you that push, all the while ensuring you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
What Exactly Are the Consequences of a Poor Work-Life Balance?
While we may have the impression that hustling is glamorous, in truth, it’s anything but. Yes, in theory, getting up at 5 am, going for a run, grabbing breakfast on the go, then spending anywhere between 12 to 16 hours being productive at work does seem like a recipe for success. However, the results of such a routine might just be the opposite of what we were hoping for.
Research has shown time and again that without giving proper attention to rest and recovery, we’re actually doing more damage than good. And not just to our bodies. When skipping breaks, we’re wreaking havoc on our minds, social connections, and, ultimately, the quality of our work as well.
1. Workaholism and Stress
When describing the ideal employee, most leaders will use descriptors such as highly-engaged, dedicated, and ready to go the extra mile. And these are, in fact, attributes that do contribute to the overall progress within an organization. Workaholism, however, doesn’t equate to these employee characteristics.
A person who is addicted to work will be motivated by internal pressures, emotional, and behavioral characteristics. They’ll experience negative feelings when unable to work, and will tend to put in more effort than can be reasonably expected of them. This leads us to the conclusion that their need to work is not the reflection of engagement. On the contrary, it’s the result of their inability to disengage from their job. Additionally, the pressure they feel to perform doesn’t lead to eustress (meaning “pleasant stress”), but rather to a bigger chance of experiencing burnout.
The always-on mode experienced by so many ambitious people thus comes with one serious consequence: chronic exposure to internal pressure and stress. Long-term health risks of chronically high cortisol levels include poor cardiovascular health, diabetes, inflammation, insomnia, and autoimmune disease. As all of these have a significant impact on life expectancy, it becomes clear that stress management should be the go-to form of self-care for most ambitious professionals.
Fortunately, research has shown that yoga, meditation, physical exercise, nutrition, as well as having a hobby all contribute to the lowering of cortisol levels. These practices allow for the body and mind to unwind, making time and space for overall recovery.
2. Skipping Sleep to Get More Done
A common problem for those working their way up the corporate ladder is the fact that the day does not have enough hours to get everything done. Excelling at work, as well as taking care of at-home tasks, often requires sacrifices, the most common of which seems to be sleep. A recent survey by Zoma has shown that as many as 51% of respondents sacrificed sleeping hours to complete their daily chores.
But while doing more work and getting less sleep sounds like a winning combination, is it really an effective way to boost productivity and work performance? It turns out it’s not quite so.
One of the most important things that happen during sleep is that memories made during the day are consolidated. They’re moved from short-term to long-term storage, unnecessary information is cleared out, and the flow of cerebral fluid increases, flushing out toxins. Thus, sleep restores energy, facilitates muscle repair, and slows cognitive decline.
So how does this relate to work? Well, it turns out that running on autopilot, that is, with insufficient sleep, isn’t always a problem. Rule-based decision-making and planning, for example, usually remain unaffected. Nevertheless, what does decline is the person’s creativity and ability to come up with innovative solutions. Furthermore, higher-level cognitive capacities are degraded with lack of sleep, as is alertness.
This clearly indicates that sacrificing rest for the sake of getting more work done isn’t just exhausting. Even more, it’s a practice that’s counterproductive, affecting all areas of life, including mood and appetite.
3. Mental Health Risks of Too Much Work
In addition to a host of physical and cognitive consequences, a poor work-life balance also reflects on mental health. And, it seems that these consequences are quite similar whether they’re brought on by external or internal pressure to overperform.
The most common symptom of pushing oneself too hard appears to be anxiety, followed closely by substance abuse, irritability, and depression. Left untreated, these can influence both personal and professional endeavors.
Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for overachievers to sacrifice relationships, including those with romantic partners, family, and friends. What this results in is the lack of effective coping mechanisms that would undo the psychological harm caused by adverse experiences in the workplace. Research suggests that meaningful interpersonal relationships don’t just contribute to optimal wellbeing. Social support could also be a key element in coping with the pressures of work, as well as the prerequisite to personal development.
With this in mind, it becomes apparent that overall wellbeing requires a fully balanced relationship between one’s professional and personal lives. In short, it requires plenty of time for rest, meaningful interactions, and health-promoting activities.
How to Stop Sacrificing Wellbeing for the Sake of Work?
On the one hand, your pressure to stand out at work might be internal. On the other, you may be experiencing unreasonable expectations from your superiors. Whichever of these two situations you find yourself in, rest assured that there are solutions to leading a more balanced life.
1. Question your Priorities
While our careers make up a large part of our identities, they’re definitely not the only thing about us that matters. And sometimes, it’s good to be reminded of this.
This means that, when seeking to lead a more fulfilled life, we should give ourselves some time for self-reflection. For some people, the answers will be straightforward. They’ll have their goals, and they’ll know what they need to do to achieve them. But for others, these questions won’t be so simple.
An excellent technique for questioning priorities and determining short-term and long-term plans of action is to follow the technique developed by Ryder Carroll, author of The Bullet Journal Method. He suggests breaking up our day-to-day activities into three categories:
- Working on.
- Should be working on.
- Want to be working on.
Any of the entries that don’t bring meaning or aren’t essential to your existence are, ultimately, just distractions. Carroll’s solution? Eliminating them from your to-do list.
2. Plan for Rest
The one thing that most productivity methods have in common is that they suggest a balance between periods of work and periods of rest. And if the secret to doing work more efficiently is to take time off, then it is definitely an idea that can be translated into every aspect of our lives.
First of all, start by adopting healthy work habits. Following the Pomodoro method, determining a hard-stop time for the workday, and scheduling tasks to limit distractions are all excellent starts. But even more importantly, remember the importance of taking time for yourself.
Try to limit the amount of work you do outside of the office, block out at least one day a week to have off, and try to take a short vacation every two to three months to recharge your batteries. It doesn’t have to be exotic nor expensive. The idea is just to change environments, leave your work at home, and spend some quality time unwinding, whether with a book, on a beach, or on a long hike.
3. Keep Track of Your Behavior
Making lifestyle changes, such as shifting focus from your professional to your personal life, comes with plenty of soul-searching. And it’s not a bad idea to consider the behaviors that led to a disbalance in the first place.
Some people, for example, have a tendency to say yes to every opportunity, without questioning its value beforehand. Others might have developed habits and routines that are interfering with their efficiency. Some will even strive for perfection without realizing that it’s a form of procrastination.
But no matter which of these behaviors you’re “guilty of,” remember that it’s always possible to make a change for the better. Even if it means altering your habits.
Try to be more mindful of the ways you’re self-sabotaging your wellbeing. Not to berate yourself, but to identify the areas of life in which you could improve. Perhaps all it takes for you to regain control is to say “NO” to the projects that don’t spark joy. Or, you might find that avoiding to check your email before bed allows you to relax and get a better night’s sleep.
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Remember that even small positive changes can have a beneficial impact on how you feel about your career. Acknowledge your emotions, identify the actions that could help your overall mood improve, and adjust as you go along.
4. Ask for Help
Finally, it’s perfectly all right to feel overwhelmed by work. If you find yourself in this situation and can’t see a way out, know that pushing yourself towards an imminent burnout isn’t doing anyone any good – neither you nor your company. So don’t be afraid to reach out.
Talk to your superiors and let them know that you’re struggling with your tasks. Yes, the prospect of having such a conversation might seem intimidating. But it also could be the solution to all your problems. After all, people who are in leadership positions should have the experience to point you in the right direction, as well as the means to provide you with the help, or tools you need.
Furthermore, know that there’s such a thing as career coaching. The process is an excellent opportunity to identify the pain points of your current career path, as well as to come up with actionable solutions. For many professionals, it can be a way of figuring out their priorities, values, and things to look for in the workplace. It’s also a process that encourages personal growth and empowers people to make changes for the better.
Know Your Worth
When all is said and done, it’s not a bad idea to consider why we’re doing what we’re doing. Getting to the top means absolutely nothing if we don’t enjoy the journey – or even worse, if we wear ourselves out to the point that we’ve ruined our health.
So remember: your ambitions serve only you. There’s not one single definition of success, nor one single way to achieve it. If you feel like you’re being spread too thin, step back and listen to your mind and body. You’ll know what you need to do. And you’ll find that once you’ve taken a moment to nurture your own wellbeing, you’ll have the strength and motivation to achieve even more.