More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

Be Challenged. Not Overwhelmed.

looking out into sunrise

There is a fine line between fulfillment and burnout.

Fulfillment is largely linked to purpose, which is driven by your sense of agency over a given result. If you believe that a marginal increase in effort will lead to an outcome you’re proud of, purpose ensures that you’ll put in that extra hour. This is especially true if there’s no one else but you that is responsible for what is created.

But at what point does this marginal effort actually harm the overall result? Or in economics-speak, at what point does the law of diminishing marginal utility kick in? And how do we know when we’ve arrived at that point?

To answer this, let’s explore the bottlenecks of human effort.

The utility of effort generally faces one of two constraints:

(1) Motivation, or
(2) Fatigue.

Let’s start with motivation.

You can have thousands of productive hours amassed in one space, but if those people find zero purpose in what they’re doing, you will have a sub-par result. Imagine an employer that boasts about how many employees he has, but no one believes in the vision. It won’t be long before that company loses ground to a small team of five people that are fanatical about what they do.

In this case, the bottleneck isn’t the lack of manpower. It’s the poverty of enthusiasm that is needed to make that manpower useful. After all, the quantity of workable hours is meaningless without the quality necessary to make it productive.

To solve this problem, employers often use money to bridge the gap. But as I’ve noted before, an increase in pay cannot increase motivation. The best thing it can do is to prevent a decrease in motivation, which is entirely different. Increasing motivation can only come through what psychologist Frederick Herzberg aptly referred to as “motivators,” which are things like challenging work, recognition, responsibility, and personal growth.

This is why people with high salaries doing difficult work can still feel that it’s pointless. If the nature of that work doesn’t align with their values or their curiosities, then it will feel like they’re watering a plant that looks fine on the outside, but its roots are quickly decaying. Being dead on the inside will eventually find its way to the outside, no matter how much you effort you put into taking care of appearances.

watering dead plant

So that’s the first bottleneck. If a surge of effort hits a wall of indifference, nothing too great is going to come out of it.

But perhaps this bottleneck is one that doesn’t concern you. You find immense purpose in what you work on, and derive a ton of meaning from it. You regularly enter flow states and are happy to invest whatever time you have into your craft.

First off, congratulations, that’s a wonderful spot to be in. But over time, you’ll realize that you’ll regularly hit the second bottleneck of effort:

Fatigue.

The thing about purposeful work is that the boundary between work and the rest of life tends to dissolve. This is especially true now, where remote work has removed the age-old physical boundaries that we once relied upon to switch over to leisure mode. As the cues to relax become more subtle, we are less prone to recognize nor heed them.

This creates a condition where any given moment is an opportunity to spend more effort on your work. The only real constraint seems to be time, and given that we all have 24 hours in a day, it seems fitting to spend much of it on what we find so meaningful. As they say, being awake is much more fun than being asleep.

But of course, fatigue is the bottleneck here. What I find most interesting about the law of entropy is that it’s not confined to the material world. It applies to our attention as well. While you can muster the effort required to sharpen attention and keep it focused on a task, it’s only a matter of time before it disintegrates and submits to the arms of disorder.

Burnout is what happens when we try to fight this natural tendency for too long. It happens when we’ve exhausted our productive effort, but still believe that squeezing in another hour will contribute something substantive. Or when we think that having the gift of challenge has empowered with us the energy we need to solve every problem thrown at us.

At the start of this reflection, I asked how we could tell when our expenditure of effort begins to cross into burnout territory. And I think this is where the answer lies:

The pivot point is where the tide of challenge balloons into the storm of overwhelm.

waves and storms

Challenge is good. In fact, it’s the one thing that gives purpose to what we do. And purpose is about figuring out how to ride that tide, to solve problems when they arise, and to change directions when situations call for it. This is effort well spent.

Overwhelm, however, is a different story.

When you’re overwhelmed, you are lost in the current of circumstance. You are going against the tide of challenge, and have entered a whirlpool where you feel like you’ve lost all control. It’s when you relieve tension not by taking a deep breath, but by letting out a long exasperated sigh. That’s a telltale physical release of an overwhelmed mind.

When we start our days, I find that we are largely energized by the promise of challenge. But as we progress through it, the winds of discontent may come and disturb the tide, causing it to morph into something far larger and scarier.

We get an unexpected, urgent request. We get distracted by social media, and are upset at ourselves for wasting time. We are pressed by deadlines that keep looming nearer, and we feel so behind.

But in each moment, if you’re aware enough, you’ll notice each disturbance. When you get that unexpected email, you’ll feel the slight sensation of overwhelm hit. The key is to recognize it, and to remind yourself that you won’t contribute to the formation of a storm. Instead, you’ll see it as a small wave you can mindfully ride, and allow it to subside in due time.

This is how you navigate the ocean of your mind. By being grateful for the problems you have to solve, but by observing whenever those problems morph into something exasperating. By giving yourself the space to go to back to shore, and to take a moment to rest.

It’s an amazing privilege to solve problems you care about. Just make sure you’re in the position to remind yourself that it’s a privilege whenever you can.

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For three more reflections of this nature:

A World Driven by Incentives

There’s Nothing More Real Than Your Potential

The Gift of Challenge

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