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“30 hours of working and still going strooong,” 24-year-old copywriter Mita Dira tweeted from Indonesia on December 14. Only she wasn’t. A few hours later she collapsed in a coma and died the following day, a victim of exhaustion, overwork, and an energy drink called Krating Daeng, also known as “Thai Red Bull.”
Sadly, young people dying of overwork is not unheard-of in some parts of Asia, but this particular death quickly went viral. Partly it was because she worked for the American ad agency Young & Rubicam. Mostly it was that tweet, one of a series in which she recounted her ridiculously work-laden life. In one tweet earlier that year she contemplated moving her bed to the office. In another she was delighted to arrive home before midnight.
Reading about her felt like a wake-up call. In addition to being a full-time freelance writer and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, I’ve completed and am now selling a memoir, and I curate a popular reading series here in Woodstock, New York. Add many weeks of travel over the past few months and the pressures of Christmas shopping and family visits and somewhere along the way I had tipped over the edge. I was constantly at my desk, or else rushing, late for an appointment. I was nearly always short of sleep.
It was no good–not for me, or my family, or the publications I write for, or the organizations I serve. So I’ve taken Diran’s story as an opportunity to stop, think about what’s really important, and create a more rational work schedule. Yes, there are still long hours, but I’m making sure to have time for rest too, and even a whole day off every week or two. And yes, there have been some missed deadlines but not so many as I feared. I discovered that a well-rested person works much more efficiently than an exhausted one.
That’s one good reason to stop working ridiculous hours. Here are 10 more:
1. Quantity kills quality.
You want to be excellent at what you do. But the more tasks you take on, the smaller your chance of doing an excellent job at any of them. Cutting as many items off your task list as you can ups the odds that you’ll do a killer job on the things that matter most.
2. Sleep matters.
“The way to a more productive, more inspired, more joyful life is getting enough sleep,” Arianna Huffington said in a 2011 TED talk. She would know. She fainted from exhaustion and broke her cheekbone and is now something of a sleep evangelist. “I was recently having dinner with a guy who bragged that he’d gotten only four hours’ sleep the night before,” she continued. She considered retorting: “If you had gotten five, this dinner would have been a lot more interesting.”
3. You suck when it counts.
I can tell you from experience that going into a meeting tired and distracted means you will suck in that meeting. You’ll be bad at generating new ideas, finding creative solutions to problems, and worst of all you’ll suck at listening attentively to the people around you. That disrespects them and wastes their time as well as yours.
4. Your mood is a buzzkill.
The kind of irritability and impatience that goes with being overworked and behind schedule will cast a black cloud over the people around you both at work and at home. If you’re an employee, it will damage your career. If you’re a small business owner, it will harm your business.
5. Your judgment is impaired.
The research is conclusive: sleep deprivation impairs decision-making. As a leader, poor judgment is something you can’t afford. Crossing some tasks off your to-do list, handing them to someone else, or finishing some things late is well worth it if it means you bring your full concentration and intelligence to the tough decisions your job requires.
6. You’re setting a bad example.
The work schedule and tone you set for yourself will likely be mirrored by the smartest and most ambitious of your employees. What kind of leaders and bosses do you want them to be? Do you want the benefit of their brightest ideas and best judgment? Then don’t create an environment where everyone vies to see how many hours they can work without falling over.
7. There will always be more work.
If you run your own business, there’s always a new project to start, a new customer to pursue, or a new technology to try out. You’ll never be out of new work to do. And if you work for someone else, getting a lot done will lead to being given more tasks. That can be a good thing, but only if you have the time and energy to do them with excellence.
8. You’re hurting your relationships.
Somewhere along the way my husband sat me down and insisted that I make some time to talk with him every day. I’m blessed not only with a strong marriage but an unusually outspoken spouse. There may be people in your life feeling as shut out as he was who haven’t come out and said so. Don’t wait until it’s too late.
9. You’re screwing up your health.
Did Mita Diran know she was risking her life by working so hard? It seems clear from her tweets that she didn’t, and if she had, she’d have made a different choice. I’m sure you’re smart enough not to work 30 hours straight, but do you let your work schedule interfere with things like healthy eating and regular exercise, not to mention sleep? If so, then it’s possible you’re shortening your life by overwork. Is it worth it?
10. Most of the work is less important than you think.
A few years ago, hospice worker Bronnie Ware famously published the top five regrets she heard from her dying patients. Those who’d had careers all regretted the number of hours they spent at work. But many of her patients also spoke of dreams they wished they’d fulfilled.
Put those two items together and there’s a lesson: If something will help you fulfill a lifelong dream, it’s worth spending long hours. If not, then it isn’t. So ask yourself: In 10 years, will I care about this? If the answer is no, then it’s probably time to quit and go get some rest.
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