You’re Working Too Hard

Shonda Rhimes speaks at DartmouthDid you know that treadmills were invented for prisoners? True story!

The actual invention of the treadmill, in 1818, by the Englishman William Cubit was meant for use in prisons as a correctional tool. Concerned that prisoners were too idle, he engineered mechanical treadmill systems that would enforce daily activity as well produce useful work. Cubitt’s treadmills, or “tread-wheels”, required the prisoner to continually step upwards upon a rotating wooden cylinder or within a wheel-like form, not unlike a hamster on an exercise wheel. Prisoners would hold onto a horizontal handrail for stability. These treadmills became very popular in Victorian England with larger models developed to accommodate several prisoners side by side for upwards of 10 hours per day (the equivalent of climbing a 12,000 ft mountain). While the initial intent for the treadmill was punishment, and it was often used solely for that purpose, it also became a standard way to grind grain or pump water for the prison facility. …

Eventually, even England abandoned the treadmill at the end of the 19th century as too cruel.

Nowadays we put ourselves on treadmills: literal ones, to lose weight and/or be less sedentary at work, and metaphorical ones, by demanding of ourselves non-stop efficiency and productivity. We cannot all be Shonda Rhimes! The madness must stop. 

Take a deep breath, ignore whatever project is supposed to be taking up your time, and read this Washington Post interview with Professor Brené Brown titled “Exhaustion is not a status symbol.”

Less than half the people I’ve interviewed would say they work around the clock out of fear, and more than half would say they do it out of habit. We use work to numb out. We can’t turn off our machines because we’re afraid we’re going to miss something.

I don’t want to dismiss the fact that people are fearful, but, you know, one of the biggest shame triggers at work for us is relevance. Our fear is that we’ll be perceived as not relevant or not necessary. So I think sometimes that’s why we jump on the weekend emails. You have to have buy-in from a lot of people to create a culture of immediacy and 24-hour working. I think as many of us are perpetuating that as are victims of it. …

It’s like those moving walkways at the airport — you’ve got to really pay attention when you get off them, because it’s disorienting. And when you’re standing still, you become very acutely aware of how you feel and what’s going on in your surroundings. A lot of our lives are getting away from us while we’re on that walkway.

Time recommends ditching the “to do” list in favor of a “stop doing” list.

think about how we’re spending our time today, when we can still do something about it to change our ways. We don’t want to wake up when we’re 80, for instance, and realize that we unconsciously allocated all of our thought and effort.

But the value of this experiment applies not only to people but to organizations. The velocity and complexity of problems is increasing. In part, to ward off this pressure and delegate decisions to lower levels, organizations respond with a perpetually increasing internal information velocity. New policies and procedures are easily added while legacy ones are slowly removed. Culturally we value decisions to add things more than we value decisions to remove things.

What would you stop doing, if you could?

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