To prevent burnout, we need to care less and have a life
Cal Newport, Super Genius
Recently, Cal Newport—he of Digital Minimalism, Deep Work, and A World Without Email fame—wrote a missive to embrace an idea (and his next book)—that he calls “Slow Productivity.”
Because capping the number of hours we work, he claims, will “do little to mitigate the stress of overload,” “What we need is a movement to reduce the volume of work that is assigned to us in the first place—a movement I call Slow Productivity… The central goal of Slow Productivity is to keep an individual worker’s volume at a sustainable level.”
His idea to prevent burnout is—are you sitting down?—to give people less work.
When there’s too much for us to imagine actually completing, we short-circuit our executive functioning mechanisms, resulting in a feeling of anxious unease.
The autonomy that defines the professional lives of those who toil in front of computer screens has led us into a trap of excessive work volume. We cannot escape this trap by expanding the weekend. We must ultimately brace ourselves for the larger challenge of slowing down the pace of the workday itself.
There’s solid science behind the idea that the real devil behind all of this is task switching: the fact that having to complete a million tiny tasks leads to anxiety and burns so much cognitive fuel that it leaves us with few precious resources to get to the bigger, meaty work. Who doesn’t feel a unique sense dread when you realize that multiple areas of life/work are eating up your To Do list? Today, “Buy bird food/figure out corporate billing/Photoshop templates/record audio files/finish newsletter/exercise/cancel flooring estimate” has thus far resulted in cancelling the estimate and 3 episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. (Newsletter in progress—huzzah!)
The larger point, the one that Cal and I agree on? Burnout is on the rise.
I get the sense that the pandemic has made a lot of privileged knowledge workers wake up to 1) the horrors of having a lot of little tasks to do,coupled with 2) the horrors of not simply being able to leave your work at work.
As long as employers reward productivity, there will always be assholes who work over the weekend, ruining it for the rest of us
Boundaries between “work” and “the rest of your life” have been blurring since we gained the ability to check work email from home. Social media and email were in their infancy when I was in college in 2000; emails from TAs were few and far between. But as soon as one overly ambitious TA began answering emails on the weekends (I’m looking at you, Scott), others seemed lazy by comparison. We knew that the other TAs were grading our essays, that we’d get our paper copies, grades, and hand-written comments returned in class, but in one email, we realized that the teachers already knew our grades. They were holding out on us. We wanted to know.
In order to make sure that any systemic burnout-prevention changes stick, we’d have to go further: punish employers/employees who answer/send emails beyond work hours. Various countries in Europe have been making laws out of this sort of thing for nearly a decade, and none of those countries seem to have fallen off of an economic cliff as the result of this legislation thus far.
As long as the economy rewards productivity and efficiency, there will always be people A) piling on the work, and B) working on the weekend. It’s nice to think that some companies might adopt anti-burnout measures—minimizing those small tasks, doling out fewer projects. I get that Cal just wants to start a conversation about reimagining work.
But I don’t think the problem is with the system—just Cal’s mindset.
When only one basket holds all of your self-esteem eggs, bad things happen
If we feel like we need to do something or prove ourselves in one area to feel good about ourselves, our self-worth is based on something. Psychologist Jennifer Crocker devised the idea of “Contingencies of self-worth” many moons ago:
Contingencies of self-worth represent specific domains on which people stake their self-esteem. Individuals differ in the domains on which they base their self-worth and in the degree to which they derive worth and value from a given domain. Contingent self-worth is an ineffective source of motivation; although boosts to self-esteem feel good, they can become addictive, requiring ever greater success to avoid feelings of worthlessness.
Burnout happens when, over a period of time, our resources are depleted faster than they’re restored. It’s partially explained by “exhaustion at work, cynicism toward the meaning of work, and sense of inadequacy at work.” It’s mediated by workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. There’s a pretty substantial overlap between the symptoms of burnout and depression, as both entail a loss of motivation.
There’s new thinking that depression is actually an adaptive survival strategy to an ongoing threat. We don’t just engage in “fight or flight” behaviors: we also freeze. We freeze when we realize that something isn’t going away, and we’re best of just lying there on the side of the road. Devon Price wrote a fabulous essay, “Laziness Does Not Exist,” arguing that we tend to throw a label like “laziness” on someone when we really just don’t understand what’s going on underneath the surface.
Let’s start looking at burnout like this: as a symptom of something else that needs to be addressed. What else can we do in the face of endless tasks but begin to disengage? When we know that the To Do list is never going to get shorter, why would we naïvely summon extra motivation when we know that it’s not going to change our overall circumstances, if the tasks just won’t stop?
Our bodies and brains are lazy by default—it’s evolution’s way of ensuring we don’t use more energy than necessary. Motivation, like respect, has to be earned. Leaning out and starting to disengage is a sign that your environment is unsustainable, depleting more resources than it’s offering in return. It might be control, reward, community, a sense of fairness, or a conflict between your personal values and the endgame of the work that you’re doing. Working fewer hours or having fewer assignments isn’t going to fix burnout if you’re constantly going to work with $1 and leaving with 95¢. It’s a motivationally unsustainable situation, and burnout is an adaptive response.
The real solution to burnout is to care less
I used to think that I worked a lot—and then I started working with someone else. (Laziness and motivation are relative, after all.) Someone who already had 4 best-selling books and a tenured professorship at a school I won’t name. Someone who worked.
We worked together for a few years before getting a book deal. Because I had no contract, I was never sure if he was going to call it quits the entire time. (He did a few times, but in retrospect, I think it was just to “motivate” me.) The more I worked, the less I exercised, read fiction, saw friends, went for long and rambly walks, cooked—did the things that made me feel like a well-rounded person. As the other bits of my life fell away and the more I worked, I more I felt invested in work: the more I needed work to go well in order to feel good about myself. But the less I did the exercise/read fiction/have a life thing, the less I felt like myself, and the less effective I became at work. I didn’t want to rock the boat until I got a contract, so I agreed and kept going, powerless to do anything about the onslaught of assignments being thrown my way.
It was a combination I wouldn’t wish on anyone: work became all that I felt I had left, just as my ability to work diminished. I was able to keep going because I knew it would be over once we reached our deadline. Disengaging from work is an adaptive response to a shitty situation, a sign that something isn’t worth your energy. Exhaustion, not caring, not feeling competent, increased workload, a lack of control/belongingness/reward, knowing that the spoils aren’t going to be split fairly—divide or define burnout however you want. We’re not machines. You can’t plug people in and expect perpetual motion. Sustained motivation requires maintaining balance between our perception of costs and rewards.
Smaller workloads aren’t going to correct these: we can still have shitty bosses, no resources, no sense of community, and and feel like we’re being ill-compensated. Shorter hours won’t automatically fix these. Bosses are more likely to display signs of obsessive passion and maladaptive perfectionism (that’s how you get promoted), and less likely to realize the negative impact they have on performance (that’s what happens when your brain gets a sense of power).
Ambition is Overrated
I applaud the age of anti-ambition because I know that as long as we’re working in a capitalist, winner-take-all society, systemic changes to reduce our workload will likely be short-lived. These efforts might work in Europe, but the prevailing social norms and unemployment-related anxiety in the United States are so deeply entrenched that, if we’re being honest, most of us are working with or for a workaholic, or a client is going to act like it’s the end of the world if they don’t have that report ASAP.1European males, I am single. Please take note.
As long as we’re going to be living under a relentless system, the best way to combat it and prevent it from affecting our daily lives is to establish rigid boundaries. My goal now is to have as few of my self-esteem eggs in my work basket as possible. My goal is to be efficient in order to work fewer hours overall.
My goal isn’t slow productivity: it’s sustainable productivity.
Among other things, sustainable productivity requires keeping a larger perspective about the role of work in our lives. It requires maintaining boundaries with your definitions (you are not your job) and your time (recharging is not a luxury).
While I do care about work—a girl needs to eat—it no longer defines me. I don’t think of myself as a writer; I think of myself as an entrepreneur, which is basically me saying that I’m game as long as . I keep my Spidey senses active for signs of overly-demanding clients who don’t respect those boundaries. I advocate for burnout prevention and applaud it in others. I’ve seen what people at the top do (Adam Grant often works until 11pm, y’all). It might work for them, but I’m just not wired that way.
Sleep, exercise, cooking, and long walks are my new non-negotiables. Daisy’s 3rd birthday is on Tuesday, and it’s going to be off the hook. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to watch another episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.