Dealing with the urge to overwork

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Think of the stereotypical picture of a writer. Either he (because the stereotype is a he, right?) is walking around in agony, stuck in writers block, furiously procrastinating. Or he’s writing in a frenzy, in the claws of his muse, and all is well.

But is it?

We talk about the problem of procrastination, but rarely do we talk about the issue of overworking when it comes to creating.

The flow state is so pleasurable, we like overworking when we’re in it. But creative work is no magical exception to stress and anxiety from working too hard. I know that first hand, because I have that urge to overwork and I’ve had to learn to handle it.

If I don’t check myself, I can sit down at my computer to write at 10 in the morning, then realize at 4 pm that I’ve forgotten to eat lunch and that I didn’t go on that walk I had planned to go on.

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Or I’ll find myself behind on a deadline I’ve made up. I’ll wind myself up, scramble to get the work done, I’ll get tense and stressed, work late and struggle to fall asleep.

We can romanticize the creative frenzy all we want, but this isn’t a healthy or sustainable way to create.

When do you tend to overwork?

There’s often something that sparks the urge to overwork. For me it’s both the work itself, getting into it and not wanting to stop when I’m in the flow, and a heavy load or a looming deadline.

What about you? If you’re prone to overworking at times, do you know what creates that urge? Is there a pattern?

Understanding when and why your overwork is a great starting point to creating habits for a good way of working.

Sometimes it goes deeper than just passion and schedules. Having your self-worth tied up with achieving and delivering can create some unhealthy patterns in your life.

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Create good habits and stick to them

Over the past few years, I’ve found a couple of habits to help me work in a good way. This is my list of musts for a good day of creative work:

  • Give myself a reasonable workload.

  • Take a break for a walk.

  • Eat regular meals.

  • Make room for wind-down time before bed.

It’s nothing fancy, but if I do this I curb my tendency to overwork. And it’s good for my creativity too. I’ve learned that my energy lasts longer when I take breaks, and that I better process the little creative problems I run into along the way if I get up and move.

Maybe your needs are different than mine (though eating is pretty universal). If you do fall into overworking easily, take a look at what you do when you aren’t, and make sure to create habits to always do those things.

Be okay with not doing everything you had planned

One big reason we overwork is that we made an optimistic schedule to begin with and then struggle to let go of the plan. So we overwork.

I think all of us with this tendency have to learn to be okay with not always crossing off our to do-lists and reaching our deadlines. Overworking is simply not worth it.

Procrastination is real but so is working too hard.
So be kind to yourself, and don’t forget lunch.