For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a habit of overloading everything in my life. Everything was going at 111%. In high-school, it was 3 sports teams, 2 clubs, and an extra project at school & club volleyball and competitive taekwondo training after school — along with going out with friends every weekend. I was definitely over-loaded but given that “school work” could be done in an hour a day, I pulled it off.
In university, however, there’s more “free” time — in the sense that most of the hours in your day are unplanned. This meant I had more hours to overload. With the fewer class hours, I took on more extra-curricular, went out with friends more & took on a bunch of personal projects.
I filled every single inch of my time and then some. There was only one setting: full steam ahead. Everything fit just right — like a perfectly constructed puzzle. I had just enough time, effort, and mental energy to get everything done if everything went exactly as planned. That was it. So if anything took longer than expected or a meeting wasn’t scheduled for the only time-slot I had available… well, that was just disastrous.
And I’m not the only one.
In the race to pile on more achievements and more success, no matter how much you’re doing it never seems to be enough. The issue isn’t wanting to achieve more or do more — it’s about strategically managing your life so you can do more.
If you take the cliched phrase that “life is a marathon”, overloading yourself is like sprinting 50 metres, getting injured, resting for a couple hours, and sprinting again — just to get injured again. It’s definitely not the most painless way to finish a marathon… and it’s not even the most effective way to finish it fast.
The “big injury” came for me in late 2015 when I felt like I was using all my time, effort, and energy. And I was going nowhere fast. I had piled on so many activities and expectations only to realize that none of it was getting me where I wanted — but I was mentally burnt out. When times like this come — and they inevitably will if you sprint for too long — you tend to take a step back and re-evaluate.
I was burnt out from running from one place to another physically and mentally. There was always something to do or somewhere to be. There was always something I couldn’t get out of or something I was responsible for. And that meant that I had no time left to fulfill my most important responsibility — taking care of myself.
Have you hit this point too? Or do you feel like you’re about to? If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed or anxious, these are the warning signs you’re about to get “injured”.
Derek Sivers calls this complete mental exhaustion “psychic pain”. You’ve probably felt it at some point, whether it’s from complete burnout or just temporary mental exhaustion during an intense workday. Psychic pain isn’t the feeling of being challenged, it’s the feeling of being strained.
Psychic pain to your mind is like a pulling a muscle is to your body. For both, there’s a sweet spot when you’re being challenged but if you push yourself past that point, that’s when you get injured. Derek Sivers explains,
“Luckily I live in a world where there is more psychic pain than physical pain. So you have to notice the psychic pain that you’re feeling of whether it’s doing things you don’t want to be doing and feeling the pain and regret of that or the frustration. When you notice in this internal “grrr” that’s my cue.
I treat that like physical pain. Like “what am I doing? I need to stop doing that thing that hurts, what is that?” Usually means that I’m just pushing too hard or doing things that I don’t really want to be doing because I was asking the wrong questions and following the wrong path, the wrong outcome.”
There are two things to take away from this:
When we feel physical pain, we naturally stop. If we’re running and we feel shooting pain in our knee, we instinctively stop and rest. Yet when we feel psychic pain, most of us just keep plowing ahead. We think, “If only I can get past this point…” or, “Once I achieve this, I’ll rest…”. But, just like physical pain, it doesn’t work that way. Plowing ahead when you feel pain in your knee will just create an ACL tear. Similarly, plowing ahead when you feel psychic pain won’t make it any better. It’ll just strain you mentally and emotionally.
When we feel physical pain, we realize something is wrong and we try to figure out what we’ve been doing to cause the pain… so we don’t do it again. If running on crooked sidewalks is straining our knee, then we’ll look for better paths to run on. We don’t stop running… we just find a better way to do it so we don’t get injured. The same goes for psychic pain. When you feel it, it’s time to find a better solution to achieve the same goals.
Ernest Hemingway did this. He had one simple strategy to get more done. He stopped working. Hemingway always stopped writing before he had run out of things to write. He’d finish writing for the day when it was clear what to write next. He would stop when he still had energy left to write. Why? By stopping before he had exhausted his mental faculties for the day, he left enough passive energy so he would subconsciously work on it throughout the day. (Read more about Hemingway’s working habit here)
His strategy was this:
“Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.”
It’s a philosophy to apply, not just to your daily work habits and routines, but to your life in general. Always leave room. Stop before you exhaust yourself. Take a break before you need a break. Just like our body knows when to tell us it’s being pushed too hard, our mind does too. We just need to know what the signals are. We’ve got to be conscious of that “internal ‘grr’”. And when we get the signal, it’s time to take a breather.
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