Hard work is a virtue, but in western society it’s quite easy to take too far. I am not one to preach a mantra of “take it easy” – no, if you want to set and achieve important & ambitious life goals it’s going to take substantial work. But how do we strike a balance and work appropriately? On the other far end are ideas like hustle porn, or “work for work’s sake” – a cult of overwork tied to an inappropriate self-image that your value is only what you produce.
This article is about how to think about the work problem, and how to strike a balance between pushing ourselves, which we must do at many points in our life, and not burning ourselves out, which serves no one else and damages us.
Rate of Perceived Exertion
In the exercise world, people often use something called the “RPE Scale” as a way of estimating how hard a physical activity is. This is most often used in weightlifting where you take your own temperature and see how you’re feeling, on a simple scale of 1 – 10.
It’s known that if you want to get stronger and lift more weight, you need to be training at an RPE of 8 or 9, and that’s putting in really serious effort. Lifting weights so light that you can do 100 repetitions at an RPE of 4 will produce very poor strength results. This is very closely tied to the progressive overload principle.
Notice the descriptions: an RPE 10 “Feels almost impossible to keep going…cannot maintain for more than a very short time”. For me, a 100 meter sprint would be a clear RPE 10, but if I run a 5k race, I should probably be RPE 8 – 9.
Not Just Exercise
We can think of many emotional & intellectual interactions in terms of this RPE scale as well. Having an extremely intense fight with your significant other would rank pretty highly in terms of emotional intensity and difficulty. Think of a person storming out of a room during a fight – and you might think of that person as hitting an RPE of 10.
If you’re working hard at a job but feeling fulfilled by it, you might be in a more moderate range of something that’s difficult, but that you can keep at. And if you are in a useless job that requires very little of you, you might be at an RPE of 1 and have to find other activities to keep yourself engaged.
What can you sustain?
The RPE scale focuses on “effort” or how hard you are working, but there are two other ideas tied up in here: how long you can sustain the effort, and whether or not you are growing as a result of that effort.
Whether it’s exercise or work, you can think of this simple 1 – 10 scale as combining all three of those things. At the high end of the scale, we have activities that help us grow. For example challenging work assignments that push us to our boundaries. Lifting heavy weights, and being in emotionally difficult circumstances including fights, loss, and emotional dislocations. These things are very difficult, but big opportunities for self-knowledge and personal growth. Very important to understand though is that they aren’t sustainable for extended periods of time. When we speak about “burnout”, really what we mean is a person who is attempting to operate in some area of their life, at RPE 9, for months or years on end. While we should all aspire to be hard working, that kind of sustained high intensity effort simply does not work in the long run.
Growth, Performance, and Stagnation
On a daily basis, we can take our temperature and write down an RPE score for the past day’s work, in a journal, or as a note on our phones. By thinking of RPE in terms of this “Growth, Performance, and Stagnation” model, we can also help vector ourselves to where we need to be.
Where to Go Next?
Imagine you were to journal your “Work RPE” for a period of a few months. By looking back at what you wrote down, you would start to see some patterns, and it might just help you connect your worries about the big picture, with what’s happening in your day to day life.
- If you want to make changes in your life, spend a short period of time at very high levels of intensity. This means taking on a challenging project, or doing something you find difficult in your personal life. Just as weightlifters gain strength by doing this, you can too in various areas of your life
- If you’re in it for the long haul, stay in the “Performance Zone” where you can. This is for long-term projects that matter to you. Remember the RPE must be lower, because you’re in it for the long haul.
- Stay out of Stagnation. If you feel this, up the intensity however you can, because you are neither performing nor growing. When you think about your life direction, you may be lost in a cloud, and there are ways you can get out of it.