“Working too hard can give you a heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack. You oughta know by now.”
It’s the official start of summer, and if you haven’t planned your vacation yet, you aren’t alone. Americans are terrible at taking vacations, terrible at relaxing — terrible at shutting down and rebooting. I think I know why, and I bet you do, too.
Always-on gadgets mean always-on employees, and this is driving many of us mad. Five years ago, I began a series of stories called The Restless Project to examine all the ways Americans are struggling with constant pressure from tech, and from a broken economy.
People are working themselves sick, even dying at the office. I thought I might write a book about overwork: But then good friend Annie Murphy Paul (more from her soon!) introduced me to then-Washington Post report Brigid Schulte, and I learned she had already written that book. It’s called Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has The Time.
Maybe this is nothing new. When Billy Joel sang about working too hard in 1977, he wasn’t signing about smartphones. OTOH, tech and all its trappings make keeping up with life hard and harder with each passing email. New gadgets and new communications tools (Snapchat! Messenger! Instagram DMs!) continuously add to our pile things to check on.
Brigid is one of the first guests in our So, Bob series, and we talked about the intersection of technology and overwork (Spoiler: She’s doesn’t blame tech nearly as much as I do!). She is fascinating. Here’s a taste of our discussion. But you should really listen to the episode. (Brigid now works for New America and is director of the Better Life Lab.
BRIGID: There’s a fascinating phenomenon that, that behavioral scientists to found, they call it tunneling.…you kind of have this tunnel vision and then what you’re only able to do is focus on just the few things right in front of you. You’re not able to stop and ask yourself bigger questions. You’re not able to see the bigger picture. You can’t get out of the tunnel and ask yourself that question, do I even want to be in this tunnel?
BOB: …So for you now, it’s almost like a sensation. You’re like, oh my God, I’m going in the tunnel.
BRIGID: Yeah, I can feel it closing in. Yeah. You know, and I, it was somebody else once said because we have this crazy, achievement culture and it’s all about productivity and all of these tips and tricks and life hacks and tech. It’s all supposed to, you know, they, on the one hand we say it’s to make our life easier, but let’s face it in this kind of busy-ness as a badge of honor culture, it’s about cramming more crap into your day and then somehow feeling awesome about just how insanely busy you were and somehow you will manage to end the day standing up.
BRIGID: I would talk to these researchers, this one woman who studies busy-ness and the fast pace of life in North Dakota of all places. And she’s come to the conclusion that busy-ness we’ve made it such a badge of honor that it’s a choice, but she also calls it a non choice choice because you feel like you can’t make any other choice if you want to fit in or if you want to have status. And so, um, I do try to pull out of that like what a sick way to get status. You know, by like making ourselves, you know, ill and unhealthy and not making time for things that you enjoy, that there’s something to be, you know, to be proud about that you have work life conflict or never go on vacation or don’t sleep well. That’s crazy. I do feel like, uh, jobs have become incredibly complicated. I do feel like technology as a part of that. Um, and I think that we haven’t figured out how to manage that well as human beings. And, and so those are things that can be challenging that uh, figuring out how much is enough when you are a knowledge worker and there isn’t a whistle that goes off at the end of the day, you don’t have any visual markers. Like I’ve, you know, created my pile of widgets and I can check the box. It’s very difficult to figure out when you’re done and when is it good enough. Um, so that’s really a challenge of modern work. And I don’t think we have good answers and I’m here to say I’m trying to figure it out myself.