I recently came across an article on the Nature website. The article was called Work ethic: The 24/7 lab. It discussed the ways in which some labs are filled with people who spend much longer periods of times at work than others. As might be expected, there is a large variation in the working styles of various scientists (even the hardworking ones).
From a practical point of view, it makes absolute sense that if one wants to produce more, then one ought to spend longer periods of times working. On the other hand, I believe strongly that there are certain points at which overwork in the short term leads to less work in the long term. I believe that there are physiological and psychological constraints on what we can put ourselves through and it’s important to work as hard as you can work while remaining productive, but no harder.
Health is an important part of being productive. Abstractly speaking, if I suggested that I was using a machine to do some type of work and that I was going to run it 24/7 until it shutdown from overheating and then I was going to restart it again at the earliest opportunity, how long might you expect my machine to last me? I am often surprised that people will argue for treating their bodies and minds in ways in which they will not treat their tools and equipment.
If I then asked, how would I avoid this machine breaking down. The answer is straightforward. Our machine should have regularly scheduled downtime where we do maintenance and we should try our best to run our machine within safe operating parameters. This would probably mean having a reasonable balance between getting work done and wear and tear.
Why is it so easy to apply this logic to inanimate objects, but difficult to apply this logic to humans?
I think one of the reasons is humans (and animals in general) often fail rather gracefully as long as the stressor isn’t too Great. When we don’t sleep enough, our memories don’t completely fail. They slightly decline over time, but for the most part we are continue to be functional, until we aren’t.
On the other hand, when I first started running, I couldn’t go very far. However, as I ran more and more, I could go further and further. Within a few months, I was running so much farther and faster than I could initially that it was hard to reconcile. I think we’ve all had the experience that we don’t necessarily know what we are capable of until after the fact. Signals from our minds and bodies that seem to be telling us to stop, can gradually fall away, leaving a sturdier, more vigorous self in their wake.
I think it’s a judgment call. One has to figure out if a particular pain is just our muscles getting stronger or whether a small pain will spiral into a long term injury that we will be dealing with for months if not years. This applies to the psychological as well. Some discomfort at attempting a difficult project (say graduate school) is to be expected. However, you can burn yourself out leading to a protracted loss of motivation.
Regardless, it’s worth it to invest in a good exercise regime. Running and a little weight training helps with endurance for sitting and concentrating for long periods of time. If you notice little things like pain in particular positions, you should take some time to think about what’s going on and if the pain is getting better or worse over time. Certain injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome or back or neck strain can sneak up on you and incapacitate you for long periods of time.
Don’t neglect the mental aspect. This can be critical to succeeding in your goals. Sometimes little things like not sleeping enough can lead to negative moods. One can’t ignore that our patterns of thinking are in part grounded in our biology. This is too big a topic to cover here, but in general, the cure to righting most mental disequilibria starts with talking to more people, and especially the right person. It doesn’t always feel pleasant to share your thoughts, but it’s often worth it to persist.