On August 15, 2013, 21-year-old finance student, Moritz Erhardt, was found dead in his East London apartment. He collapsed in his shower after allegedly working for nearly 72 hours straight.
Erhardt was participating in a grueling investment banking internship at Bank of America. Job opportunities in this area of finance are generally very lucrative, but the industry is also known for excess.
The Japanese have a word used to refer specifically to occupational sudden death such as that suffered by Erhardt: Karōshi. It’s translated “death from overwork.”
We all know that it’s important to work with focus, commitment, and excellence. But where else would this young man have been allowed to push himself this hard?
Unfortunately, in today’s world, there are quite a few places.
Our Paper Chase
“Don’t be so busy trying to make a living that you’re too busy to make a life.”
– Dan Miller, best-selling author of 48 Days to the Work You Love
You see, Erhardt’s experience is dramatic, but not unique to investment banking. It’s a tragic example of our culture’s glamorization of burnout and emphasis on efficiency – and many of us live it on a less severe scale every day. For example:
- I know several lawyers who keep a cot and change of clothes in their offices.
- I’ve spoken to residents at busy hospitals who engage in “strategic napping” to sidestep rules designed to prevent them from working more than 24 hours straight.
- I have consultant friends who travel as much as 20 days per month, and high-level corporate friends who are literally tied to a cell phone 24/7.
Notably, our hyperactivity is unique in human history. Do a little digging and you’ll find that long hours are largely a product of the Industrial Revolution. Even the peasants of the middle ages were generally not worked as hard. In fact, Japan’s ‘karōshi’ phenomenon did not appear until the 1980s.
Don’t get me wrong, I think working hard is great!
But many of us err on the side of being stretched too thin, myself included. As a lawyer with a busy practice and a card-carrying Type-A personality, I frequently spend 12 to 14 hours per day at the office – and sometimes more. Perhaps you can relate…
Is it possible that we’re doing more harm than good?
Intentional Living: Slow down to ramp up
The truth is that hectic living generally leads to less creativity and less productivity.
Some hard-working individuals may resist this statement, particularly if their efforts have been rewarded with high income or other forms of recognition. Nonetheless, consider the following:
- Philosopher and inventor, Elmer Gates used to go into an empty room for hours at a time, not allowing any interruptions. He called it “sitting for ideas.”
- Thomas Edison, the most prolific inventor of all time, would go down to the water’s edge each morning, throw out a fishing line – with no bait – and then watch the bobber for an hour until his thinking was “ready for the day.”
- Technocrat and founder of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs was a notorious hard-charger. However, according to his biographer, Walter Isaacson, Jobs was home every evening to relax and spend time with his family.
- Industrial magnate, Henry Ford once said that he didn’t want executives who had to work all the time. He insisted that those who were always in a flurry of activity at their desks were not being the most productive. Instead, he looked for people who would clear their desks, prop up their feet, and dream some fresh dreams because he believed that only those with the luxury of time could originate creative thought.
The example set by these high-achievers implies that slowing down may actually be the key to ramping up to our full potential.
If so, how can we take Ford’s advice and prop our feet up on the proverbial desk?
Making the most of limited bandwidth
Like it or not, we each have limited bandwidth to dedicate to the competing priorities in our lives. In order to be successful, we have to make the most of our limited time, energy, and resources.
Many time-management gurus advocate for eliminating inefficiencies and multitasking, thus allowing us to ‘get more done in less time.’ But if trying to do too much is actually the problem, then we have to take a different approach.
Success often comes not by adding more to our already busy schedules, but by cutting out things that are stealing our time and energy from what’s most important. I find that I only have the time and energy to do one or two things really well. For me, it’s being a family man and practicing law. I can do a mediocre job with two or three other things – blogging, working out, and maintaining a few important friendships – but that’s it.
Think about it practically: After putting in a 10-, 12-, or 14-hour work day, how much time and energy do you have left to go to the park with your kids?
Just before you head to the gym to crush a workout?
Then come home and rock your culinary prowess on a multi-course dinner?
And then work on your soon-to-be-bestselling novel for a few hours before going to bed?
Now, think of all the activities in your life competing for priority… You have a job, family, friendships, spiritual life, health and fitness, finances, hobbies, etc… Maybe you can think of a few others, but that’s already quite a list!
How do you determine what gets your attention and what doesn’t?
Three simple steps…
If you can relate, perhaps it’s because you’ve fallen prey to societal pressures to exceed your limited bandwidth. Perhaps hectic living is actually hindering your potential.
It’s okay to admit it!
Doing so doesn’t detract from your talent, work ethic, or ambition. In fact, I think it moves you closer to accomplishing the things that are most important to you by freeing you to focus your efforts!
Here are three simple steps I use to manage my bandwidth and determine what priorities get my attention:
1) Reflect – What do you really want out of life? It’s probably not possible to earn a Ph.D., build a world-class physique, raise successful children, make partner at a prestigious firm, run a sub-four-minute mile, and have a marriage worth going home to – at least, not all at once – so we have to make difficult choices. The process starts by making some time to think. Just like Gates and Edison, find an empty room or a secluded shoreline, say a prayer, and let your mind wander. It will gravitate toward what’s most important to you.
2) Discern – As you start to identify the two or three things that matter most to you, you’ll also have to determine what needs to go. This can be just as difficult, and may require the input of close friends and mentors. Activities need not be jettisoned completely, just reprioritized to make room for what matters most. Perhaps cable or satellite television can be disconnected, or you can hit the gym two or three days per week instead of six.
3) Act – Finally, take action. Routine is potentially the most powerful progressive force in your life. Develop a routine reflective of your priorities to ensure you do your most important work in your most productive hours. Then slot your other interests in around your routine and watch as success ensues.
“Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.
– Francis Chan, best-selling author of Crazy Love
Applying these three simple steps has changed the way I live my life.
Upon reflection, I realized that I needed to set aside regular time for my wife and I to be together and connect. I also realized that I needed to be more intentional with important friendships and to spend time cultivating the writing and speaking career I hope to one day enjoy.
Exercising discernment, I realized that Xbox accounted for too much of my free time. In addition, while I looked great in the mirror, my six-day-per-week gym routine was actually hampering my personal growth and professional development. I knew I could still be in decent shape and feel confident without being such a gym rat.
Accordingly, I developed a new routine. I’m out the door around 6 a.m. each weekday to ensure that I have time alone at the office to read and write. I’m in the gym three days per week, but no more. My wife and I no longer schedule social events on Fridays and instead reserve it for each other. Cable has been disconnected and Xbox has been relegated to weekend evenings.
In short, I am more productive and enjoying more progress in the areas that are most important to me than ever before.
More importantly, you can do the same thing.
Your priorities will probably differ from mine – perhaps even drastically. Maybe you want to be a professional gamer and need to ramp up the time you’re spending playing Xbox…
In any case, you can prevent hectic living form hindering your potential – and who knows what you can accomplish from there!
Leave a Comment: Is hectic living hindering your potential? Do you need to jettison a few hobbies so you can succeed at things that are more important to you?