Doing Too Much for Too Long

It might not have looked this way on the surface, but I’ve spent the last 8-9 months of my life in what I now realize was a mild depression.

It wasn’t bad enough for me to realize what it was while I was in the midst of it, especially since I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life building a career based on trying to help people improve their lives and become more productive. I essentially told myself that any sort of “down” feeling I had could be overcome through more work and better optimized productivity tactics.

That’s just not true. There’s a point at which just “working harder” does not solve the problem. And this is very apparent to me now that I’ve spent some time living as I use to – in a state of more consistent, positive energy levels. Ideas – and excitement for those ideas – have started to come back.

What brought me back to this more positive mental state was finally – finally – committing to doing less.

For the past 8-9 months, several of my closest friends and colleagues have consistently told me I needed to cut back on my commitments. My girlfriend even pointed out that I’d started to develop a negative attitude toward my work.

But I refused to do it – partly out of pride, but also partly because I’d made the decision to hire people based on the level of income my hectic schedule produced. I didn’t want them to suffer just because I wanted to “do less” – at least, that’s how I saw it at the time.

There’s a term I learned earlier today: “hidebound”. It means being held back from growing or changing because of traditions, a rigid culture, or cemented assumptions.

Like a snake that needs to shed its old skin before it can keep growing, many companies and organizations need to change before they can grow as well. This is why so many big companies get passed up by scrappy start-ups; often, they see the same opportunities that the start-ups see, but they’re too hidebound to move as quickly as is needed to take advantage of those opportunities.

After having a long conversation with my girlfriend, I realized that I had become hidebound. I was operating under an old set of assumptions, believing that the only way to keep things going was to keep working and publishing at the same pace.

The problem was that the pace of my work gave me very little time to properly tackle each topic in the level of detail that I would have liked, and it gave me no time to step back, breathe, and take true mental rest away from my work. 

Creative work isn’t like physical work. If I spend the day chopping firewood, I can take the evening to relax, get a good night’s sleep, and then be back at it the next day. 

But creative, mentally taxing work often requires longer stretches of relaxation time – time that I wasn’t giving myself. The moment I’d finish one video or podcast, there was another one waiting in the wings with a pretty tight deadline. I was normally able to meet these deadlines, but the pace took its toll. When I’d get new ideas, I’d feel agitated about them rather than excited. 

“How am I going to be able to do that alongside all this other work?” I’d think.

So, near the end of last month, I finally decided that I had to cut back. Instead of creating 4-5 videos a month going forward, I’ll be making three. I’ll also be pausing my weekly newsletter until July.

I also decided to take an actual vacation this month. I almost always find a way to turn travel into work (working on the internet means there are opportunities everywhere), but this time I’m taking the need to mentally step back from work seriously.

We haven’t left for vacation yet, but I’m already seeing results from this decision. During the past week, I’ve found myself getting more ideas than I’ve had in a long time – and more importantly, I’m excited about them. I feel like I can actually do them. I also feel like I can spend more time reading deeply and developing ideas more thoroughly.

I’m also finding that I have greater energy levels throughout the day. Energy levels aren’t solely determined by things like diet, exercise, and sleep – they’re also massively affected by your mental state. Experiencing this change has made that abundantly clear to me.

So here are the two big lessons that I’d like to share here:

First, creative work requires breaks. Sometimes those breaks need to be long. This should have made intuitive sense to me – authors, movie directors, and famous musicians don’t try to put new works out every week or even every month. Instead, they go DEEP for a while, put out something great, and then switch gears (such as going on tour) before coming back to the next big creative project.

Second, working on a LOT of things isn’t necessarily the best way to work hard. This lesson is especially easy to forget as a YouTuber, since I follow lots of other channels that seem to have no problem publishing new things as a blistering pace (though if all the YouTuber burnout videos are any indication, it’s taking a toll on them as well). Instead of trying to put out many things, I should be focused on putting out fewer, ​better ​things.

There are a lot of opportunities out there. Just because you can fit them all on your perfectly time-blocked, color-coded calendar doesn’t mean you can actually do them all. (I should probably put this on my wall).

So that’s where I’m going to end this. You’ll still see three new YouTube videos and a new podcast episode every Monday during June, but I’ll be pausing the newsletters until July. 

While you’re waiting for them to return, I’m sure there are some productivity tips you’ve already read that you could spend more time implementing.

After all, as Derek Sivers once said, “If more information was the answer, we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”