Entrepreneurial pitfalls, the toxic infatuation with overwork

By HackerNoon June 2, 2023

The entrepreneurial world is a minefield of problematic ideas. I love it here, don’t get me wrong – but you’ve got to be incredibly careful when it comes to accepting every piece of advice that you hear. 

It’s easy to buy into the entrepreneur persona.

What do I mean by that?

The entrepreneur persona is someone you’re likely very familiar with. They hustle. They’re scrappy. They are quick to sacrifice things like sleep and leisure in order to get ahead. 

They work hard and play harder (or don’t play at all). While their friends go traveling and partying, they’re staying late in the office.

In the Western world especially, we view this lifestyle as admirable; it’s the price we imagine every entrepreneur pays for their eventual success. We equate exhaustion to solid, hard work. 

Sleeping on the floor in the office is suddenly a very romantic idea indeed.

But it’s this toxic infatuation with overwork that can quickly lead to our downfall as entrepreneurs because – in reality – we’re striving for a lifestyle that very few people have managed to maintain. 

It’s not healthy, and it doesn’t contribute to your long-term happiness.

Let’s talk about it.

The Glamorization of Overwork

In an investor conference earlier this year, Elon Musk mentioned that his work week had shot up to 120 hours. He said, “I go to sleep, I wake up, I work, go to sleep, wake up, work – do that seven days a week.”

Now, why is it that our first emotional reaction to this is awe (and even jealousy)? Wow, he’s such a hard worker. He must be so organized. I can’t even manage my 40-hour week. He’s so dedicated. 

And he is dedicated, of course – incredibly dedicated. But it’s almost as though his sleep deprivation makes the whole thing seem more badass.

It’s a similar feeling we get from hearing the Google or Apple origin stories, which demanded very exhausting lifestyles and poor sleep schedules from their founders. 

The sacrifice of leisure time, sleep, and sanity is weirdly celebrated. And when we mimic these lifestyles ourselves, we’re proud of the heavy bags that quickly form under our eyes.

How We Internalize Overwork Culture

Speaking rationally, we all know that these stories of sleepless nights and living out of a garage are few and far between. We know that very few people can maintain a work-to-the-bone lifestyle in the long term.

So, what happens in our minds? Why do we take pride in feeling constantly exhausted? Why is our perpetual tiredness a sign that we’re working hard enough?

It’s like anything else we glamorize in pop culture. Take romance, for example; Hollywood movies completely shape our ideas about love and marriage growing up, to the point where we can’t navigate relationship problems and our standards are impossibly high.

Just as Cinderella taught us that love is on-sight, the glamorization of overwork has given us a warped idea of success. 

Think about movies like The Social Network or Steve Jobs, or even The Devil Wears Prada (for my fellow Streep fans). 

The process of internalizing these themes is completely subconscious.

If you’re working past sundown if you’re having to sacrifice your health and relationships, if you reach the point of breakdown – you’re doing it right. And that’s just wrong.

The Science of Exhaustion

Even though our mental state is just as important as our physical state, we tend to take things like fatigue a lot less seriously than cuts and bruises.

It’s an ongoing issue; mental health, in general, is taken so lightly compared to physical ailments. But what if we had a deeper understanding of the physical toll that exhaustion takes on our bodies?

Think about the slump that you get after a marathon or some other intensive exercise. 

The physical exhaustion we feel comes from an intense build-up of lactate in our muscles – it’s painful and taxing and makes us feel completely drained.

A similar thing is going on in our minds when we tire ourselves out through overwork and stress. Instead of lactate, though, a particular (and possibly toxic) neurotransmitter builds up in our prefrontal cortex. 

It takes insane amounts of energy to regulate that buildup, so the brain literally slows down to accommodate.

You end up with a depleted energy supply, which leads to poor decision-making, lowered creativity levels, and, eventually, complete burnout. It’s not just an emotional state – it has physical implications too. 

And, that’s not all.

Overwork Is Killing Millions of People

While researching for today’s newsletter, I came across something pretty disturbing. Did you know that 750,000 people are dying each year from overwork?

That’s three-quarters of a million people who have worked themselves to breaking point, ending up with a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) that hits them seemingly ‘out of the blue.’

We hear statistics like this all the time to the point that we’re desensitized. But overwork is a real and deadly threat to not just our comfort and happiness, but our lives. 

What’s the point of working 50-hour weeks if it’s going to get you an early grave?

The Invisible Killer

The tragedy of diseases like SCAD is that, often, the symptoms get neglected or ignored until it’s too late to act. Why? Because we’ve been conditioned to view the symptoms as hallmarks of ‘hard work.’

For instance – the main symptoms of extreme overwork are:

  • Lack of sleep, daytime fatigue
  • Very low productivity compared to usual levels
  • Back and neck aches
  • Sadness and stress

I’ve literally heard people brag about these aspects of their own life, almost like showing off a trophy won by hard work and dedication. 

“I’m so tired… haven’t slept more than a few hours this week! It’s so hard to concentrate right now.”

But imagine if someone were to say this about symptoms of a physical ailment, like pneumonia? “Dude, I can’t stop shivering. I think my chest is about to burst.”

Nobody would be impressed by that – they’d be very concerned and suggest you tail it straight to a hospital. They’d be completely disturbed if you acted proud of your symptoms. 

Why don’t we take overwork as seriously? Why is it a badge of honor?

Stepping Back

The interesting thing about Western countries is that we move at this incredibly fast pace and assume the entire world is doing the same thing. 

But it isn’t. We are an individualistic society; we’re future-driven and trip over ourselves in an attempt to make life go faster.

But social psychologist Robert Levine explains that this is not the case in all countries. Cultures that embrace collectivism rather than individualism – places like India and Pakistan – tend to take things more slowly.

If you’ve never heard of the Blue Zones, they’re places around the world where people tend to live the longest. 

They’ve got the healthiest diets, the most enriching and fulfilling social customs, and – surprise, surprise – the most laid-back, relaxed lifestyles of all.

While it’s not always possible to slow right down in our fast-paced Western world, I like to step back and remember that life isn’t a race by default. 

There’s absolutely no obligation to work ourselves to the bone. While our society applauds it, there are plenty that would find it disturbing.

I know that we live in a fast-paced world. I understand that a lot of the time, starting a successful business requires you to sacrifice a few things. But we take it too far. (Way too far!)

Slowing Down Without Falling Behind

Exhaustion isn’t something to be proud of – it’s a sign of imbalance that we should all take very seriously. So, what’s the take-home? How can we stop glamorizing exhaustion without falling behind?

Set Stricter Boundaries

How often are you answering work messages as soon as you wake up or in the hours before bed? Do you have boundaries set between your work hours and your leisure time? If not, that’s the best place to start.

Having proper breaks before and after work hours is absolutely essential for mental stability. If you’re not doing it, you’ll find yourself in a perpetual state of exhaustion, and there’s nothing glamorous about that.

My favorite method for enforcing time boundaries is by using the inbuilt time zoning features on my phone. 

Set up a schedule so that, at the same time every morning and evening, your phone restricts notifications and calls from work people.

If your team uses Slack, you can set similar restrictions on that, too. Use your status to make your boundaries completely transparent with your team. 

When your status says, “back tomorrow!” but you’re being active in chats, people tend to assume you’re never really ‘off’ – but if you strictly follow your schedule, you’ll notice that teammates begin to respect your boundaries.

Focus On the Little Stuff

When you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, it’s easy to feel like everything you do is futile. But this isn’t the case at all – it’s just a mental trap that we fall into when we don’t have enough energy for big projects.

My answer is to focus on small tasks instead. Even if it seems insignificant, like replying to emails or writing blog posts, these little things can make a huge difference in the long run. 

And they won’t take too much of your energy supply either; something that’ll help you stay out of the burnout zone.

Keep the Right Company

You’re a product of the people you spend the most time with – and if those people constantly romanticize their lack of sleep, you’ll begin to do the same. 

Don’t spend all your time around people who make you feel inadequate for getting 40 winks.

It might take some time to find your people, especially since the culture of overworked entrepreneurs is so pervasive. But it’s worth it; find people who prioritize their health and well-being but still get stuff done.

These people are usually the ones who have ‘been there, done that’, too – so they’ll double as excellent mentors and can hopefully give you first-hand advice on how to stay productive and healthy at the same time.

Are You Working Hard, or Is Life Just Hard?

If you’re an entrepreneur trying to launch a business, you’ve already chosen one of the most challenging and demanding careers out there. We know this; it’s part of the deal. 

But that doesn’t mean you should be working yourself to death, either. It means the opposite.

Don’t make life harder for yourself by living the romanticized, sleep-deprived American dream. 

You can be healthy and wealthy at the same time; you can be hardworking whilst honoring your family commitments and relationships, and you can be ambitious and still take the time to enjoy life.

Running a business is a long game that doesn’t end after you hit your first mil or go public. If you burn yourself out in the first year, what kind of future do you have after that – business or no business?

It’s time to stop glamorizing exhaustion. Let’s prioritize our health and well-being over anything else; let’s recognize the signs of burnout early on, and let’s respect our bodies enough to give them some rest.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you.

Reply to this email or tweet at me @ScottDClary and I’ll do my best to get back to everyone!

This article was originally published by Scott D. Clary on Hackernoon.