Too often, I’ve encountered people who consider overworking to be the pinnacle of human achievement and productivity. But they’ve sacrificed their mental health.
Welcome to Crazy Talk: a mental health advice column written by yours truly, a mentally ill and queer writer reclaiming his “crazy” to educate and empower. In a world that tries to push us to the margins, I’m all about getting loud and kicking the stigma where it hurts. In this column, we explore what it’s like to live with mental illness without shame or apologies. Expect frank advice, a little self-deprecation and a good dose of humor.
I recently had a reader reach out to me, lamenting the fact that they don’t feel productive as everyone else because of their depression. “Everyone else can chug some coffee and work for 10 hours straight,” they told me, “My brain doesn’t let me do that.” They were looking for advice on how to “find their hustle” with mental illness — but I think the bigger question here is why we glorify hyperproductivity in the first place.
First of all, I don’t think working for 10 hours straight without breaks is an accomplishment, really. I don’t think pulling an all-nighter is, by default, something to celebrate. If these “accomplishments” come at the expense of your mental and physical well-being, I don’t think they’re something to aspire to.
Any kind of “productivity” that requires you to disregard your own sanity is not something to wear like a badge of honor. When we prop up unsustainable, unhealthy working habits as the ideal, we encourage people to ignore their mental health — which, in turn, creates a culture that says it’s more important to work yourself to the point of exhaustion than it is to take care of yourself.
Too often, I’ve encountered people who consider “workaholism” to be the pinnacle of human achievement and productivity. But all of the “workaholics” that I know have made real sacrifices to maintain that level of activity — often at the expense of their happiness, relationships and wellness. They don’t know how to relax, manage their anxiety, or make any time for self-care. Some try to stay in constant motion to avoid thinking about the things that are causing them stress.
And talk about dehumanizing! Treating people like machines that are only valued for their output is a horrifying result of this capitalist, ableist culture we find ourselves in. And choosing to measure our worth by this standard is a quick way to ruin our self-esteem and health.
My advice? In particular, as someone struggling with ADHD, I ditched the idea of “maximum productivity” a long time ago. I’ve tried to focus less on working for as long as possible or getting the most done. Instead, I consider what makes me feel my best while I’m working.
If I’m feeling anxious, stressed, overwhelmed or unfocused in my work, I try to address those feelings in the moment. Those feelings are often trying to tell me something — and ignoring them isn’t healthy.
Am I asking for help when I need it? Have I created an effective system to help me manage my tasks (like a spreadsheet, app, bullet journal or calendar)? Am I taking enough breaks? Am I getting enough sleep? Do I need to talk to a therapist or friend about my perfectionism or performance anxiety? Could I benefit from switching up where, when or how I work? What, in my space or my approach, could make me feel more comfortable?
While these things aren’t always within our control, choosing to prioritize how we feel while we’re working, rather than how much we get done, not only makes the experience better but (funny enough) it usually boosts productivity anyway. And even if it doesn’t, feeling better is a worthwhile goal.
For folks with mental illness especially, if we don’t feel our best, we can’t be expected to do our best. Our focus and mood often act as a red flag, letting us know when something needs to change. For me, it became obvious that my unmanaged depression, anxiety and ADHD were the real culprits — I wasn’t actually “lazy” or bad at my job — and when I finally took those issues seriously, a healthy workflow naturally followed.
I think it’s a serious problem that in this culture that we think it’s more important to work to the brink of exhaustion than to find work solutions that allow us to be fully human and healthy. This kind of ideology is what ultimately makes so many different careers inaccessible to people with mental illnesses or disabilities in the first place.
Rather than ignoring our mental health in favor of overworking, we should put our mental health at the very center of what we do — that’s the surest route to creating something more sane and sustainable. At the end of the day, if we can move closer to that balance, I think that’s really worth celebrating.