Early afternoon skids down the tarmac, and you’re just now waking up. You must be a drug addict. Or a rock star. Maybe an artist of some kind. Otherwise, here comes everyone with their clipboards.
There must be something wrong. You’re depressed. No? Then dehydrated. That must be it. Oh. Well, maybe you have a vitamin deficiency.
Or you just need someone to love…
Actually, none of the above. You feel refreshed. Relaxed. Focused. Even optimistic. You’re ready to tackle life on turbo mode. But wait. Someone out there probably wants you to feel guilty first.
At least for a few minutes.
They wanted you up hours ago, bending one leg overhead on a dock somewhere, positioned just so under a lens flare— ideally before a networking and marketing event. Next up, fifteen minutes staring wistfully through a cafe window with your laptop slightly askew.
But that’s not you. Not today. Your afternoon starts with dishes from last night. Taking out the trash. Changing that light bulb.
And now you’re finally getting somewhere on Project X. All the doors that felt locked before stand wide open now, like they used to do. So don’t feel bad. Sometimes your system needs a complete reboot.
John Steinbeck writes about the “indiscipline of overwork” in a series of letters to his editor. He used them as a warmup exercise while working on East of Eden. As he explains, overwork is a tricky thing. You don’t always know when you’re doing it. You have to be careful.
You have to keep an eye on your energy levels. Your mood. The quality of your output. When they drop, that’s a sign.
Don’t keep pushing yourself. Take a break.
We’re least likely to give up in the middle of a road block. We misinterpret all that advice on motivation and creativity. Some of us want to keep at it until we’re bloody, and beyond. The obstacle is the way, right? Yes, but sit down and have some soup. Please.
You can take a short break from your obstacle. I promise, it’ll still be there when you get back.
Or actually, maybe it won’t. Maybe you imagined your obstacle because you were so damned exhausted. We do this all the time — make things harder than necessary. Get in our own way. Hallucinate problems.
We do this especially when we’re strung out. When you’re overtired, simply changing a light bulb feels like some epic quest out of a fantasy novel. Everything looks hard. So just let up on yourself. Open a bottle of wine. Watch a little Netflix. Actually go the fuck to sleep. For 12 hours if necessary. There’s no seizing the day when you’re too exhausted to think straight.
Want to know the irony of Steinbeck’s advice? Toward the end, he breaks his own principle about overwork. He can see the end in sight. So he permits himself to work longer and harder.
There’s a difference here. Steinbeck’s not pushing himself. He’s letting himself work harder than he thought he could.
He knows he’ll crash later. That’s fine. Why?
He’s planning for it to happen.
Sometimes, you need to pace yourself. But not always. Sometimes your mind and body want to surge.
A surge and crash go hand in hand. Can’t have one without the other.
Take care of yourself. But don’t tamp yourself down just because of some routine or habit you developed. That’s not helpful. Creativity doesn’t follow a bus schedule. Forcing yourself not to work when you really want to does just as much damage as the opposite. So let the reigns go.
I’ve always loved the all nighter. But there’s two kinds. There’s the self-imposed kind, where you’re excited and confident about what you’re going to get done. You can plan for these, and buffer them with plenty of rest and recovery. Lay the groundwork. Do our research and prep beforehand. Then we feel the surge, and crank out our product.
Then there’s the boss kind, where you’re simply killing a night to please someone else. The boss doesn’t let you crash later. This second kind happens all the time in college, right around final exams. They’re fueled by anxiety and Adderall. Not a great path to creativity. Stick with the first if you can. Save your surge and ensuing crash for things that matter to you. Don’t give them away to ungrateful jerks.
One of my bosses felt the same way once. Went hiking for a week with some buddies in the Appalachians. Came back. Felt fine. Then slept off an entire Monday. How irresponsible.
He called me around 4 pm to apologize — still groggy. “Damn, I must’ve slept for 14 hours straight,” he said.
But he sounded calm and rested. Almost relieved.
See, his body needed time to recover. Imagine if he’d obeyed his alarm clock and forced himself through a normal day, if that were possible. I’m not so sure he would’ve gotten much done. Exhaustion might’ve dragged on him through the rest of the week.
A crash tends to befall anyone after long stretches or even short bursts of intense exertion. It’s natural.
And yet we treat a crash like it’s always a bad thing. A sign that we pushed too hard. But maybe we didn’t. Maybe we pushed just hard enough. Hard enough to accomplish something like the Sistine Chapel. Not so hard you break a bone, or your mind. It’s an art, really.
A well-timed crash can save you from a major meltdown later. How do you know when you’re starting to burn down? Everyone’s different, and I’m no mental health expert. But I’ve noticed this kind of self-talk rooting into my brain when I need to take one of those 12-hour naps:
Routines get harder.
Go to the store? But… Chipotle is right there. In fact, why bother with groceries? Burritos have plenty of vegetables.
Your mood plummets.
Why the hell did you start a family, anyway? All they do is whine and complain. Maybe you can kick them out of the house. You’d get so much more done without them around. They’ll understand.
You expect too much.
Now this song’s going to go viral. That video will finally make you famous. This one tweet will fix everything. After that, you can finally relax. Everything will be smooth sailing forever.
You push yourself way too hard.
Outpatient surgery…so what? You don’t need pain meds. They cloud your thinking. You’re going to blog every single day while you’re couch bound. While you’re at it, this would be a great time to schedule some home repairs. Ouch. Was that a stitch coming undone? Nah, all good.
Everything feels rigged against you.
It’s not just your terrible boss. It’s your unsupportive friends. Your demanding spouse. Your kid. The Internet. The entertainment industry. Nobody wants you to succeed. If only they’d let up.
You vastly under and overestimate the quality of your work.
You’ve done it! This is your masterpiece. If this doesn’t get everyone’s attention, then it’s time to quit. Oh, what do you know anyway? Maybe it’s a piece of garbage. It couldn’t possibly just be pretty good.
You punish yourself for not doing things you actually don’t want to do.
Why don’t you like making YouTube videos? Everyone knows you can’t have a career in content creation unless you also make a bunch of videos. Also, you really should learn how to do yoga, so you can post selfies of yourself in pretzel form. That could be the missing ingredient. Also, maybe learn how to sing? You could be the singing-pretzel-yoga girl.
You completely lose your grip on time.
The next great American novel? Five minutes, no problem! Answering an email? You’re gonna have to research that…
You feel even more anxiety than usual.
The future stares at you like the eye of Sauron. You imagine all kinds of scenarios that might never happen. Omg, what if a tree falls on your house? You need one of those earthquake bunkers…
We’re taught to avoid a crash. That they’re inherently bad. Maybe. But then again, none of us can keep a perfect schedule. We get inspired to finish a project, and burn our reserve fuel to make it happen. Because who knows what next week could bring?
That’s not terrible by itself. But then we forget how much energy it took. We don’t slow down afterward.
We kick ass for ten days straight. Go above and beyond. Forget we’re human, and try to make that our new normal. It catches up with us. Meanwhile, the toxic self-talk sets in. It’s sneaky, coming in the disguise of everything from motivation to realism. You have to keep an eye on it.
All the self-talk of an impending crash has one thing in common: It’s all secretly hoping for a break.
You just don’t think you’ve earned one.
That’s the lie.
Everyone runs the risk of pushing too hard. Sometimes you have to exceed your limits to find out what they are. But then you have to rest. You’d be amazed at how much better you feel after. You might not even jump right back into work, but just enjoy what you’ve already done. See, when you’re burned out, you can’t even really enjoy downtime. So crash. Restart. Turns out, you actually do like yourself. And you have a future.