There is this myth that people use an excuse. Sometimes it is called “burning out”. Other times it is called “writer’s block”. For a large part of my life, I’ve used these two to procrastinate on what’s important.
You see, I do believe there are physical limits to what your body can take. No matter if you are writing or managing people or tearing down walls for a living, there is only so much your body can take. Even the best trained athlete need to rest. Even the most prolific writer must disconnect from his work.
The problem is that the real limits and the limits we use tend to be very different. We give up when we feel uncomfortable or when the work is not stimulating anymore. The real limits are far, far ahead of this.
To help you understand, I’m going to explain to you my love – hate relationship with running. Until the age of 26, I could barely run. This was a physical limit due to being a heavy smoker. After smoking one pack a day, sometimes chaining them, I would run out of breath after just 400 – 500 meters. Then I gave up smoking. Slowly, my body recovered. Once it recovered, I’ve started to run.
When I started to run, I saw myself as the kind of person who can run 500 meters before getting tired. And so I did. That was my “burning out” point. I knew I can not more until I actually did more. Now I can run between 3 and 5 kilometers. It is more likely to give up due to pulling a muscle than fatigue. My body have not changed that much. Of course, my fitness is better but the truth is that I’ve just eliminated my “breaking point”. I redefined what is the point at which I am “too tired to continue”.
Can you see where am I’m going with this? When I will run a marathon, a five kilometer run will seem just a warm-up. Now it is an achievement every time I do it.
So it is with work. For most of my adult life, I have averaged about 15 hours of productive time per week. Productive time means work invested with the intention of getting something done, generally tracked, towards a project or a category. For me, this was what I considered I am capable of. When I decided I am capable of more, I did more. Now I am constantly doing between 30 and 40 hours per week. While I admit it, it is hard to invest more than 40 hours of productive effort per week as a writer and marketer, I’ve almost tripled my average productivity.
The limits of burnout are generally the limits we impose to ourselves. If you think you are capable of only doing so much, you will automatically considered yourself too tired to keep moving onwards from that point. For some people reading one book per month is a lot. This is their burnout point. I have read 52 books per year for consecutive years. That was my burnout point. It is not physical. It is not external. It is simply what I’ve decided it to be normal.
I am not some genetic freak that lives on Adderall. I have simply decided what is “normal” or “average” to be high. It is normal to invest 5.71 productive hours each day. It is normal to invest 10 – 15 hours of study in business and self improvement per week. It is normal to run a minimum of 2.5 kilometers a day. Regarding the last goal, others have a normal of 5 kilometers. I know a guy that runs 10 – 15 kilometers every morning. He doesn’t see it as special. It just is.
There is a moral to this. You think you are tired. You think you can not do more. And it is true. You are tired and you can not do more for the simple reason that you have decided this. Most limits are internal. Your physiological limits are way above your psychological ones. You can work harder. You can invest more time. You can stay in the game longer. You probably don’t need as much rest as you are getting now.
If you are weak, you are weak because you’ve taught yourself that this is your breaking point. Some people break at doing a high-school workout. Others pass brutal Navy SEALs selection. Some people crumble under the least of pressure. Others stay there as a rock. There is no physical difference between them. Those who stay don’t have a different “hardware” than those who live. Genetically, we are almost the same and while there are genes for perfect memory or high intelligence, I don’t know of any genes for persistence or willpower.
When you say to yourself “I can’t do this anymore”, it is because you’ve decided that this is all you are capable of. Well, what you’ve decided is BS and hardly relevant because exhausted doesn’t mean uncomfortable. Exhausted means that you’ve emptied your tank. Uncomfortable means that you’re not taking joy in the activity and that you want to stop because of this.
Many people ask me how I can work so much – how I haven’t took a day off since Christmas (because I was sick, not because I wanted). I answer them because I enjoy it. I don’t need to run away from work and do something else. For me, working on my goals is just as fun as playing a video game or drinking a coffee with friends. My “giving up” point involves physical pain or extreme discomfort because achieving my goals is not optional. R&R is optional though.
But how can you sustain a high level of performance without actually burning out, the physical aspect of it? After all, your body, my body, will eventually give up, either through lowering energy levels or disease. Well, it is a combination of many things.
I can say that exercising definitely helps. Exercising 30 minutes, especially running adds hours of focus and energy to my day. Running 2.5 kilometers on the treadmill is the equivalent for me of one or two coffees, without the side-effects. It clears my mind and gives me control over my perception.
Meditation is also useful. I don’t always do it but when I do it, I do see results. Now, before sitting and listening to some guy on YouTube on how to breath and exercising, I’ll pick the second. It’s just more effective for me and it is hard for me to slow down. Yet, I know I should do more of it.
Spending time walking is of great help too. I usually take a one hour walk when I listen to an audiobook. I don’t go anywhere in particular. I just walk. This is my most consistent morning ritual, one that I stop only when it is very cold outside (like today).
These three rituals counter the stress and the pressure I add on myself by working on multiple projects and trying to operate at a high level, professionally. Without them, I’d be smoking or I’d be yelling at people or worse, I’d give up. And now I know that when I feel I can’t work, the answer is to hit the gym and then it will be a new me, like through magic.
Another tool that I’m using is cutting sugar. I have to work more on this but due to dental concerns and energy swings, I am working on cutting sugar completely from my diet. As I said, this is a work in progress.
So here is my call to action.
Whatever you are doing now, chances are that you can do a lot more, unless you’re operating at a high level of personal effectiveness. Aim for that level. Don’t settle for little. You can read two books per week. You can run 50 kilometers per week. You can work 40 real hours in any given week (which in an office setting is the equivalent of about 60 hours, as I haven’t seen a single person to work at 100% effectiveness). You can do so much more and be so much more if you raise the point of what’s considered normal.
This is the definition of personal evolution. You grow as an individual when your standard for what you’re willing to accept goes higher. You gain better self esteem when the crap you accept from other people decreases. You increase your financial results when the amount of value you’re willing to create, for the market, at a minimum, increases. You are happier with other people when the standard of the people you’re accepting is boosted.
So boost your standards. Don’t operate at the level of your fears or comfort. Nothing good happens there. Operate at the level of what you can be. And remember that the size of your life and what you get on a day to day basis, in terms of results, is all inner game, not outer game. You are living your own self fulfilling prophecy based on your psychology and habits. Change these and the outer border expands.