The Indiscipline Of Overwork

A few weeks ago, I was running early in the morning in Arizona. I probably should have waited for it to get light out, but I had a busy day ahead of me and wanted to squeeze it in.

I even remember thinking as I left, as I turned on my woefully insufficient flashlight on my phone, I hope this isn’t a mistake.

The answer came not three steps later, when I went down and my ankle rolled hard to the left.

After washing off my scrapes and testing the ankle, I decided to push through the run and got a good five miles in. Tough, right? Just hours later, I could barely keep my shoe on, and putting even the slightest weight on it was painful. By that night, a long bruise covered the length of my foot.

I took about ten days off from running–dutifully elevating and icing it when I could—and even those ten days felt like an eternity to me. Going nearly out of my mind and having tested it with a few brisk walks, I biked and then started running again. My wife told me I was crazy but I was starting a new book and I needed the activity to balance me out. I couldn’t afford not to, I said.

All was well until a Friday morning about two weeks later. I was giving a talk in Kentucky later that evening and wanted to run before we headed to the airport. I didn’t even make it down the stairs of my back porch. My ankle, still weaker than I thought, rolled hard to the left as I came down the last stair.

It was nothing like the last time. The pain was excruciating. I heard an audible pop, and from the signals my leg was sending to my brain, I honestly expected to look down and see bone sticking out of my skin. Sounds came out of my mouth that I had no control over and when I laid down—unable to put any weight on my leg—my body started to shake.

I was hurt, but mostly, I was mad at myself. I knew in that instance I was about to get an abject lesson in what the writer John Steinbeck called “indiscipline of overwork.” Pushing yourself past your limits, using brute force, he said, was “the falsest of economies.” I had pushed myself too far generally and then ignored my recovery. Now I was going to pay.

At the orthopedist shortly thereafter, I got good news—not broken—and bad news—a severe sprain with some ligament tearing. No surgery required, but it would need some serious physical therapy. A month, ideally, six weeks of recovery, he told me.

And no running for six weeks. That’s what returning early would cost me.

This is a lesson I have learned and not learned before.

In fact, I open Ego is the Enemy with a recounting of my own workaholism. I use that Steinbeck quote in Discipline is Destiny, where I talk about the importance of what they called load management in the NBA. I have a whole chapter about it in Stillness is the Key. I tell the story of Prince Albert, a hard worker from the day he married into the British royal family. Indeed, many of the so-called Victorian traits of the era originated with him. He was disciplined, fastidious, ambitious, conservative. Their schedule was packed with meetings and social events, as Albert tirelessly worked, even to the point of occasional stress-induced vomiting. He would write to his stepmother, “I am more dead than alive from overwork.” Still, he soldiered on for years, working harder and harder, forcing his body to comply. And then suddenly, in 1861, it quit on him. His strength failed. He drifted into incoherency. At 10:50 p.m. on December 14, Albert took his three final breaths and died.

The cause? Crohn’s disease, exacerbated by extreme stress. He had literally worked his guts out.

To give you another personal example, I wear an Apple Watch and I have this goal: I try to burn a thousand active calories every single day. A few years ago, I got into a rhythm for many consecutive days, and if you have an Apple Watch, you know you start getting these alerts and badges to nudge you into keeping it going.

Even though this is all utterly meaningless—it’s not even public—it got harder for me to stop each day. Doing the exercise was nothing to me, but not hitting the benchmark? That was what I was dreading. I finally did stop after way too many days without recovery, I think because I had a long international flight. You know what the reward for my ‘accomplishment’ was?

I came down with mono!

I was talking to my friend Brad Feld (who is a great startup investor and has suffered from burnout and overwork himself) shortly after. I was joking to him, “Can you believe I got mono? Isn’t this what girls get from making out with the football team in high school?” And he said, “No, it’s actually very serious.” He said, “Mono = Ryan_wore_himself_out.”

I’d worn myself out so much that I got mono, which took me two months to recover from. Talk about the falsest of economies–skipping a day or two of rest here and there cost me months. I wore my immune system down. I worked too hard for too long, and it ended up being a problem for me. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t think. My mind was all messed up, and it was really hard.

In Japan they have a word, karōshi, which translates to death from overwork. In Korean it’s gwarosa. Is that what you want to be? A workhorse that draws its load until it collapses and dies, still shod and in the harness? Is that what you were put on this planet for?

Do you want to be the artist who loses their joy for the process, who has strip-mined their soul in such a way that there is nothing left to draw upon? Burn out or fade away—that was the question in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. How is that even a dilemma?

It’s human being, not human doing, for a reason.

Moderation. Being present. Knowing your limits. This is the key. This takes just as much discipline as pushing yourself hard.

The body that each of us has is a gift. Don’t work it to death. Don’t burn it out.

Protect the gift.

Take care of yourself out there!

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.