Working Too Much and Too Hard — Stress and Sleep Deprivation Management

I was talking to a friend a few weeks ago who told me she was, “backed up against a wall” with a work deadline and that she had no options for an out. Her only option, as she saw it, was to work harder to get it done.

Ask anyone who’s reached some level of financial or career success and they’ll most likely tell you that hard work factored into the equation of getting them there.

But our culture’s automatic pull toward working harder as the first, and often only, strategy for bringing our goals to fruition concerns me.

Working harder basically means putting in more time and/or more energy.

Having been in business 14 years and having spoken to hundreds of women business owners who are in other positions of power, I think our knee jerk reaction to work harder at every turn is doing us all a disservice.

Our tendency to work harder as our primary strategy leads to two main problems that, ironically, reduce our ability to show up powerfully in our work.

The first is stress. The second is sleep deprivation.

When somethings not working, we’ve been taught to do it harder.

This often leads to putting in more hours at the office, cutting out any type of self care or down time, and ending up with elevated stress hormone levels.

Increased cortisol, a stress hormone that remains at dangerous levels when we chronically feel under pressure (whether it’s from someone else or ourselves), leads to a host of physical health issues like anxiety, depression, digestive problems, and weight gain. (Mayo Clinic)

Chronic stress also leads to a decrease in our ability to remember things and having trouble concentrating.

When we’re “working hard” don’t we need to remember key information and focus on the task on hand?

Indeed we do, but the very strategy that so many of us use to get the job done is preventing us from having the capacity to do what we need to do to get it done effectively.

Chronic stress also leads to sleep problems. 

And you know what else leads to sleep deprivation and sleep problems? Working more and more hours.

I know when I have a project to complete, and especially if I feel time pressure or some other stress around it, my immediate reaction is that I need to put in more time.

Hard work often translates into more time. Time is truly the most limited resource in our lives. No one can make more of it. So the time you allocate to working harder has to come from somewhere else in your life.

Given other commitments to family, friends, organizations, and the other stuff that life is made of, we usually steal time from sleep first.

It’s a self fulfilling prophecy where the more pressure we feel, the more time and energy we put in. The more time and energy we put in the more our physical bodies and mental faculties suffer. 

We put in more time and deprive ourselves of the number one thing that would help to repair or bodies, minds, and emotions: sleep.

Lack of sleep has been shown to reduce our alertness by 32% and impair our ability to remember things and process information. (WeMD)

When we automatically turn to working harder we can become this little sleep deprived stress ball who’s put herself in a position where she can’t actually get the job done at her highest capacity because she can’t remember things, process information, stay alert, or concentrate.

So what’s the alternative?

Next time you have a project and your knee jerk reaction is to pour more time and energy on it, stop yourself.

When you’ve managed to stop yourself for a minute, take 3 deep breaths in and out through your nose, all the way down into your belly. (Extra points if you close your eyes.)

Then, ask yourself:

  • Is there anyone I can ask for help?
  • Is there any part of this that I can delegate?
  • Are there any shortcuts I can make here without detracting from the end result?
  • Have I gotten enough sleep lately? (7-8 hours is optimal for most of us.)
  • What other options do I have here other than putting in more time or more of my own energy?
  • Is there anyone I can have a conversation with who could help me see alternatives to working harder on this if I’m not able to see them myself?

When we take a step back and give ourselves permission to consider alternatives to putting in more time or putting in more energy, our mind opens and our creativity ignites.

When we’re not overly stressed or sleep deprived, we can see possibilities for efficient, innovative, and impactful strategies that we can’t see when our head is down and we’re just plowing through.

What are you trying to make happen right now by just doing it harder? Stop, ask yourself the questions above, and see what kind of results you get when you relax, rest, and get your mental and physical abilities to do good work back in tip top shape.

Kate Northrup is a member of the DailyWorth Connect program. Read more about the program here.

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