The Cult of Work You Never Meant to Join
Are our most valuable qualities being exploited at work? How our strengths get twisted into forming bad habits that — if we don’t change fast — just might kill us.
You didn’t mean to end up here. You didn’t even see it coming.
It all started with a chance to earn a living doing something you loved. Your dream job. Creating things instead of rotting in a cubicle. You weren’t just going to make a living — you were going to leave your mark on the world.
At first, you loved the work; it was challenging and fast-paced. Everyone around you was crazy smart.
You brainstormed in your off time. Took projects home with you. Put in extra hours on weekends. It never felt like overworking because it never felt like work.
You put in way more than 40 hours a week, but who was counting? This was fun.
But weeks passed into months and somehow you ended up here: Working 60 hours a week minimum, usually more. You greet your coworkers, bleary-eyed, half-joking about needing coffee to survive.
The work is still fun, but you don’t feel the same passion anymore. Whole days slip by sometimes and you have no idea what happened; you certainly don’t have much to show for it.
Your goals outside of work are on hold. You’d love to find out if the Belgians have anything to be cocky about waffle-wise, but you don’t have time for a big trip right now. You know you need to get into an exercise routine, but something always comes up and you skip the gym.
“Later,” you promise yourself, “I’ll get around to it soon.”
You’re not exactly unhappy, but something’s off. You can’t put your finger on it. You’ve just always felt that there would be . . . more.
You’ve Been Absorbed
You’re no longer a free member of society. You’ve been lured into the Overkill Cult.
The Overkill Cult is a cultural delusion that working 60+ hours each week — at the expense of everything else in our lives — is not only a necessary part of success, but that doing so is somehow honorable.
The insidious thing about the Overkill Cult is that it masquerades as all the things we like most about ourselves: dedication, ambition, follow-through, responsibility.
It tells us to push harder, stay later, sleep when we’re dead. It tells us we’re never going to get ahead if we don’t show up first and go home last.
Cleverly, wickedly, the Overkill Cult persuades us to hang ourselves with our own strengths.
And if we don’t break free, we’re all going to die.
The Overkill Cult Will Kill You (Like It Tried to Kill Me)
Balance is the first thing to go once the Overkill Cult has us in its grasp.
For me, it started with my health. I skipped the gym — too busy, I thought. I didn’t have time to cook — too busy — so I ordered delivery.
My hobbies went next. Everything that wasn’t work fell away — too busy, too busy — until I was on the computer constantly, working. In 2012, I was working 70–90 hours a week.
After that, I lost my social life. Friends knew I wouldn’t show up — can’t; too busy — so they stopped calling. Some days my only human interaction was ordering coffee.
Then — and this, sadly, is where I finally realized there was a problem — I lost my beard.
The Canary in the Coal Mine, or How I Killed My Beard
At the end of 2012, I landed the biggest project of my career at that point: a Black Friday sales site for a Fortune 100 company.
I was thrilled and terrified. A project like this had the potential to move my company to the next level, and I decided to do whatever it took to make this project the best I’d ever built.
The designers had great ideas, and I sat with them to make sure they were possible on our timeline. We came up with a slick, modern idea built on cutting-edge technology. The client loved it.
Then bureaucracy came into play. The legal department made changes. Brand adherence contradicted legal. Design went over schedule. Way over schedule.
By the time the design was approved, I had a third of the time we’d scheduled. And — since this was a Black Friday site — we couldn’t push back the release date. It either launched on time or I was a failure. Period.
Not to be defeated, I powered through four straight days leading up to Black Friday, sleeping maybe six hours total. On Thanksgiving Day I skipped family get-togethers in favor of making the final push.
I was exhausted. Delirious. But, goddammit, I finished the project.
The client was thrilled. The site won a couple Addy Awards. I assume they made a metric fuckton in holiday sales.
Over the next few months, patches of my beard started to turn white. The whiskers became ultra-fine. Then they fell out altogether.
Shortly afterward, I lost my ability to grow a beard entirely — I was left with the unsavory choice between a clean-shaven “giant fat baby” look and a creepy mustache.
I had stressed myself out so badly that my body had forgotten how to grow a beard. And for what? So I could work 19-hour days and skip family holidays to meet crazy deadlines?
I was exhausted. My body was failing. I was overwhelmed and unhappy and isolated. I had a mustache, for chrissakes.
I had been guzzling the Overkill Cult’s Kool-Aid.
Something had to change.
How to Tell If You’re in a Cult
The telltale signs we’ve fallen prey to the Overkill Cult’s influence are subtle:
- Frequently working more than 40 hours a week
- Frequently sleeping less than 6 hours a night
- Feeling guilty about any time away from work — even if that time is with family and friends
We don’t join overnight — this is death by a thousand cuts — and once we’ve joined, we’ll probably deny it.
But we’ve joined. By the thousands, we’ve joined.
The Lies of the Overkill Cult
The Overkill Cult’s siren song seems like a healthy sense of ambition. “We have to work hard to get ahead.” It’s something we’ve been told our entire lives.
We’re doing what we think is best for the future.
But the Overkill Cult doesn’t plan for survivors.
Though the symptoms of the Overkill Cult grow from good intentions, they’re short-sighted habits that ultimately do more harm than good.
Let’s look at each of the Overkill Cult’s telltale signs, and how each of them is a long-term detriment disguised as a healthy work ethic.
Frequently Working More than 40 Hours a Week
Long hours often feel mandatory — it’s just part of the culture. We think, “My boss/coworkers/cat will judge me if I’m not working the same long hours as everyone else. I’ll never get ahead if I don’t go above and beyond.”
This is just what it takes to make it, right?
Wrong. Incredibly, terribly, spectacularly wrong.
Research has proven over and over again that it’s not possible to be productive for more than 40 hours a week. At least not for sustained periods of time. Henry Ford introduced the 40-hour work week in 1914 because he saw — through research — that workers on five eight-hour shifts kept up the highest sustained levels of productivity.
Despite over 100 years of research supporting shorter work weeks, many companies still push for long hours, under the claims of a “sprint” or “crunch time” period.
The irony comes in when we look at productivity over time. After just two months of 60-hour weeks, productivity goes negative compared to what a 40 hour week would have produced.
Did you catch that?
By working 150% of the hours, you accomplish less in the long run.
Frequently Sleeping Less than 6 Hours a Night
Somehow, sleeplessness has become a strange badge of honor. We swap “war stories” of sleeping two hours a night with an odd, martyred pride shining dimly in our bloodshot eyes.
I never sleep because sleep is the cousin of death, we murmur drowsily. So many projects, so little time.
But this belief that burning the midnight oil somehow gets us ahead is utterly, tragically wrong.
You’re the cognitive equivalent of a drunk driver after being awake for 18 hours. But the problem compounds: if you don’t get enough sleep, that level of impairment comes faster the next day. After a few days of too little sleep, you’re a drunken zombie.
We wouldn’t go to work drunk, so why the hell do we go to work on four hours’ sleep, when we’re more impaired than if we were hammered?
To make matters worse, sleeping less than six hours a night may lead to an early death. The Overkill Cult is literally killing you.
Feeling Guilty About Any Time Away from Work — Even Time with Family and Friends
When we’re in the clutches of the Overkill Cult, we feel a stab of guilt when we’re not working.
“I’d love to go to this holiday party, but I really shouldn’t; this project won’t finish itself.”
We fear that any time not spent working is wasted.
The irony is — yet again — science tells us exactly the opposite is true.
Overworking leads to higher stress levels and burnout, which have been linked to increased health risks.
Besides, if we accept that the ideal is to sleep 8 hours a night and work 8 hours a day, that leaves us with 8 hours for non-work activities.
Taking time away from work gives us time to recharge. It puts distance between us and our projects, giving us time to remember why we like doing what we do.
Making Our Escape
We may have been duped into joining the Overkill Cult, but it’s not too late to escape.
We’ve been conned using our own best qualities to develop habits that — even though it seems like they’d make us better — make us worse at our jobs, less satisfied with our work, and less happy in our day-to-day lives.
Leveraging the same strengths the Overkill Cult exploits, we can break free of its clutches and take back our happiness and passion.
After my beard died, I felt the full weight of burnout. I was burnt to a fucking crisp. I realized I could either leave my career altogether, or make some fundamental changes to my lifestyle.
For what it’s worth, here are the promises I made to myself that helped me break away from the Overkill Cult.
I Work as Much as I Can — But Not More
Before anything else, I had to accept that it’s only possible to do 6–8 hours of quality work each day.
Trying to work longer hours will not make me more productive. In fact, working longer hours actually results in me getting less done as time drags on.
I chose the latter, and implemented some radical (to me) strategies for controlling my time. I cut from an average of 70–90 hours a week in 2013 to an average 38 hours per week over the last year.
I expected to see less professional success in favor of better overall balance in my life — a sacrifice I was willing to make — instead I saw better productivity at work: my turn-around times went down and I was more consistently hitting my deadlines.
I was floored at the time, but in retrospect I’m not surprised at all.
I Make Sleep a Top Priority
Getting enough sleep is beneficial on every level. Yet it was always the first thing I’d sacrifice when life got busy.
Too little sleep wreaks havoc on my ability to think clearly, and that hurts me at work in a big, bad way.
After I cut my hours down, I started sleeping without an alarm. Since I’m not working crazy hours, I close my computer by six or seven in the evening, and by eleven I’m usually in bed, where I read for a bit before falling asleep. I wake up naturally between seven and eight-thirty.
This has changed my life. No bullshit.
Waking up to an alarm before I’m fully rested starts the day in a groggy, stressful way. Waking up naturally after getting as much sleep as my body needs leaves me much happier to be awake, and far more ready to start my day.
I Dedicate a Reasonable Amount of Time to NOT Working
This was — and still is — the biggest challenge I faced in breaking away from the Overkill Cult. I love what I do, and I want to get my projects finished. It’s easy to rationalize working more hours and skipping activities that keep me from working.
But now I know that taking breaks makes me more productive: time away from work lets my passion and excitement for the work renew itself; taking my mind off of a project allows my subconscious to roll around abstract ideas that result in better solutions; breaks from the job lower my stress levels and boost my creativity.
So I make sure to take time off, even if my gut (incorrectly) tells me it’s a bad idea.
I take walks. I leave my phone in my pocket when I’m out with friends or eating my meals. I spend a fair amount of time on my hobbies, like writing and hunting for the world’s best cheeseburger.
I’m happier today than I can ever remember being in my life. I feel excited to work on my projects, to pursue my hobbies, and to spend time with people I love.
I’m excited to be alive.
Leaving the Overkill Cult Saved My Life
When my beard died in 2013, I feared it was only the first sign of an impending decline in my health that would ultimately kill me. It was a glimpse into my future, and I was terrified that if I didn’t change, I was in for a life of isolation, ulcers, alopecia, and an eventual heart attack or stress-induced brain tumor.
By changing my lifestyle, I was able to turn things around. After just a year of balancing my work with the rest of my life, my beard grew back. I lost 30 pounds because I was actually going outside and making it to the gym. I felt more awake, and I became more positive.
When I left the Overkill Cult, everything in my life improved. Not one single thing got worse.
Are You Ready to Make Your Escape?
If you’ve been sucked into the Overkill Cult, know that you’re not alone.
You may be facing cultural pressure to keep this crazy pace. You may be struggling with your identity as “a hard worker” and feeling that scaling back somehow makes you lazy or useless.
But I promise you — despite the doubts the Overkill Cult will force into your mind — there’s a better way. Better for your career. Better for your health. Better for your relationships. Better for your happiness.
You ended up in the Overkill Cult because you’re smart, ambitious, and dedicated. But you were misled by your good qualities and turned them into bad habits.
There’s a better way, and you’re smart enough to pull it off.
Dump the Kool-Aid in the sink. Take back your freedom. Find the happiness and success you were looking for when you started this career.
Close your computer. Go outside. And call your friends; they miss you.
If you’re like me, you’d love to get away from the crazy hours and soul-sucking routines of the Overkill Cult, but you don’t feel like it’s possible.
I was wrong. I just had to trust myself to take the first step.
Wouldn’t it be nice to get some balance back? To have extra time every day to dedicate to the things that are most important to you?
I want to help: I’ve compiled 5 Habits of the Unfuckwithably Productive, and I want to give it to you for free. These are time-tested habits that helped me escape the Overkill Cult; this is how I spend less than 40 hours a week on the computer — while making a living and traveling the world.
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