Hustle Culture Is Toxic: What You Can Do to Fight It

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Why is hustle culture toxic? What needs to be done to slow down your work pace?

Many people work 40 hours a week or more to make ends meet. Even outside of work hours, workers are often expected to check emails and answer phone calls, cutting into their rest time. This is what’s known as hustle culture, which has become a toxic cycle.

Let’s dive deeper into why hustle culture is toxic and what can be done to resist it.

The Problem With Modern Work Culture

In The Buddha and the Badass, Vishen Lakhiani writes that our vision of success and work is based on false information we’re fed from an early age: that you must work harder than everyone else, that you should try to make as much money as possible, and that your personal life must be sacrificed for your professional life. In other words, to be successful, you must hustle. 

However, he argues this simply isn’t true: Success does not require laborious work and long hours. And in fact, this misconception makes people 1) unhappy in life because they don’t have time for the people and activities they enjoy and 2) ineffective at work because they’re too busy to recognize if they’re striving for the right goals or if their work is actually helping anyone. 

Why We Need an Anti-Hustle Culture

Reaching a mastery level of creativity and productivity for work requires sustainability over the long term. Maximum ceaseless effort can lead to burnout. If you put your head down and just go, go, go without ever taking the time to recuperate, you’ll wear down your stamina, motivation, and creative juices. Think of this principle as the 60-minute on, 10-minute off ritual supersized. You must make time to recharge your energy sources, your mental capacity, and your creative spirit. If you don’t, you’ll run straight into a brick wall and collapse. 

There are two significant ways that taking periods of rest supports your capacity for peak performance. According to Robin Sharma’s book The 5 Am Club, these are best understood through the lens of an athlete:

An athlete who overtrains without cool-down moments runs the risk of injury. They push their bodies to get stronger and faster, but the overexertion causes them to blow out a knee. The damage to the muscle tissue or tendons is so severe, they aren’t able to play again. If they had taken time to recover between workouts, they would have:

  • Avoided injury and been able to continue their career
  • Allowed the muscles to recover and grow stronger, increasing their potential

This second point is important to understand. Periods of rest not only ensure that you don’t damage the assets required for you to perform your work but also allow your assets time to strengthen as a result of your intense training. This process of strengthening during rest is called “supercompensation,” and it describes the way that growth happens during moments of respite. 

How Supercompensation Works

Our society is built on the foundation that success comes from hard work. To accomplish more, you must work more. But science does not support this philosophy. Research shows that your skills actually sharpen and grow stronger when you’re not working. Think again of the athlete—they stretch their muscles to their limits during intense periods of training, but one or two days of rest allows the muscle to repair into a more durable and elevated tool. 

Your mind needs time to recalibrate based on the training and productivity you’ve put it through so it can take all of that information and effort and reshape it into a stronger and more capable machine. When you return to work, your brain will be stronger than it was before, and your baseline of achievement will be elevated. 

You have 5 assets at your disposal when it comes to your work: 1) mental focus, 2) physical endurance, 3) motivation and willpower, 4) natural gifts, and 5) productivity time. You must protect these assets so you are always able to work at a peak performance level when you sit down to create. When these assets have time to recalibrate and fortify, they lead to extraordinary capacities for creative output and productivity. 

These assets are strongest in the morning, which is why you push to exploit them during those valuable first hours. But as your cognitive capacity wanes over the course of a day, you become less productive and able to make good choices. This is true when we turn our attention from a day to a week. Your willpower and cognitive power are greatest at the beginning of the week and exhausted toward the end. Just like your evening ritual is important to recharge your batteries, days off are important to recharge for another week of intense focus and creation. 

High achievement is not a straight line of activity but a pendulum clicking back and forth between cycles of excellence and cycles of deep restoration. You must shape your life to swing completely in the direction of passionate, unrelenting focus and effort and then swing back to times of inactivity and peaceful enjoyment of life. You may believe that doing nothing equals a lack of motivation or a waste of time, but doing nothing is required to develop higher levels of performance and increased energetic output. 

How to Fight Against Toxic Hustle Culture

Hustle culture has ruined the way many people work. We no longer take breaks or sleep enough, and it diminishes our mental and physical health. But with these five tips, you can get out of the toxic hustle culture and finally break free of the rinse-and-repeat lifestyle.

1. Seek a Job That Makes You Happy

We all have ideas as kids about what will make us happy in life, but our dreams give way to compromises when we become adults. As a result, many people pick jobs and careers for the wrong reasons. As time goes on, you settle for what you have, accepting that doing what you love isn’t a realistic option because hustle culture makes it impossible to enjoy your work.

A key decision in life is choosing your job or career, but many people choose them for the wrong reasons. They end up unhappy and resigned to the belief that doing what you love isn’t a realistic option. But you don’t have to settle—the key to finding happiness in your career is creating a strategy for where you want to go and how to get there. How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen focuses on how to seek a job that fights against toxic hustle culture. 

To find a job that you’ll love, you need to understand what motivates you. When you feel unhappy and stuck in your career or life, it’s usually because what you’re doing isn’t what really motivates you. Many people think incentives are the key to being satisfied at work, and they opt for jobs based on the incentives they offer. But incentives don’t make people happy in their jobs. 

Incentives (also known as hygiene factors), like compensation, job security, status, work environment, management practices, and company policies, will leave you dissatisfied with your job if they’re not adequately addressed. But improved hygiene factors won’t make you happy (just less dissatisfied). What makes you happy are motivators, such as challenging work, responsibility, learning, the chance to grow, and the chance to make a meaningful contribution. Motivating factors are mostly inherent in the work itself and in the person doing it, rather than external like hygiene factors.

When seeking a job or career that will make you happy, look beyond whether a job meets basic hygiene factors and ask whether it meets motivational criteria. For instance, ask yourself:

  • Do I find this work meaningful?
  • Will I be able to learn and grow?
  • What are the opportunities to achieve and be recognized?
  • What kind of responsibility will I have?

Focus on the factors that really matter to you—those that make you love coming to work each day—and the hygiene factors, after a certain point, will take care of themselves.

2. Work Smarter, Not Harder

Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson reiterate that Americans admire hard work. We’re wowed by people who devote their lives 24/7 to their jobs. (“Wow, you slept at the office. High fives for your dedication!”)  

But hard workers who pull all-nighters actually create problems instead of solving them. Workaholics tend to be martyrs—they enjoy feeling like they’re the hardworking heroes who save the company from disaster. They make other employees feel like they’re not doing enough. And worst of all, they’re not that productive. Instead of trying to figure out a smart, efficient answer to a problem, they just throw more hours at it. 

To protest against toxic hustle culture, become the worker who figures out the fastest, most efficient ways to get things accomplished and then goes home at 5 o’clock, not the worker who burns the midnight oil. These workers will produce more meaningful work for their employers in the long run because they won’t experience burnout in the future.

3. Turn Tedium Into Fun

When we have fun, it doesn’t feel like we’re putting in much effort. Therefore, instead of learning to endure essential tasks, Effortless by Greg McKeown recommends finding ways to enjoy them. One of the main reasons we struggle to get important things done consistently is that we dread doing them and thus put them off for as long as possible. There are two ways we can make our most important activities more enjoyable or, at the very least, less overwhelming so that we don’t fall victim to toxic hustle culture.

Combine Work and Play

One way you can learn to enjoy a mandatory activity is to combine it with an activity you already enjoy. McKeown notes that some people try to self-motivate by rewarding themselves after they complete an activity, but he argues that’s less effective than combining the reward and essential activity. For example, enjoy your favorite snack while you file that dreaded business report, not after. This way, you look forward to the activity you once dreaded because it’s now associated with something you enjoy. 

Add Meaning to Daily Activities

McKeown argues that infusing daily habits with meaning can also help make them more enjoyable. Imbuing an activity with meaning makes it feel more valuable, which can provide a new psychological benefit and make the activity feel more effortless. This simple change in attitude can turn a tedious chore into an activity that brings comfort or joy. For example, when making dinner, focus on the nourishment the food provides your mind and body. When viewed in this way, cooking a meal may become a more meaningful and enjoyable experience.

4. Get More Sleep

The ethos at many companies that support toxic hustle culture sees sleep as an indulgence for the weak. They lionize the road warrior who fearlessly crosses time zones on tiny amounts of sleep and answers emails at 1 AM. In their minds, more hours worked equals more productivity.

This is short-sighted, according to Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. The effects of sleep deprivation are costly to employers:

  • Lost productivity per sleep-deprived worker is in the thousands of dollars a year. Walker argues that insufficient sleep costs 2% of GDP. In a natural experiment studying workers on opposite edges of a time zone, workers who obtained an hour of extra sleep earned 5% higher wages.
  • Sleep-deprived workers show bad traits like reduced work performance, creativity, motivation, and social cohesion, as well as increased risk-taking, impulsiveness, and desire to cheat.
  • Leaders who sleep worse are rated worse by their team and cause less engagement in their workers. This is visible day-by-day—poor sleep one night is immediately seen as worse performance the next day.
  • Workers who sleep less rate their leaders as less charismatic, regardless of the leader’s sleep level (thus forming a multiplicative effect where sleepless leaders and workers make everyone miserable).
  • Insidiously, workers don’t perceive themselves as performing worse when sleep deprived.

People sleep less because of the amount of work they have to do, but their low sleep reduces their productivity and increases the work remaining. But there are some solutions for employers and employees who want to prioritize sleep to ensure they put in a good day’s work.

  • Solutions for employers:
    • Focus less on hours worked, and more on real productivity and output.
    • Let people have flexible work hours to suit personal circadian rhythms. Don’t punish night owls more than morning people.
    • Add nap pods and adaptive office lighting to promote better sleep.
  • Solutions for employees:
    • Keep the same waking and sleeping time each day. Erratic sleep schedules disrupt sleep quality.
    • Practice sleep hygiene—lower bedroom temperature, reduce noise, reduce light.
    • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, exercise, or long naps before sleep.
    • Get some exercise, which may increase total sleep time and increase the quality of sleep. Exercising has more of a chronic effect, meaning it helps in the long run and doesn’t take effect on a day-to-day scale—exercise on one day doesn’t necessarily lead to better sleep that night. But worse sleep on one night does lead to worse exercise the following day.
    • Eat a normal diet (not severe caloric restriction of below 800 calories per day). Avoid very high-carb diets (>70% of calories) since this decreases NREM and increases awakenings.
    • Avoid sleeping pills—they’re no better than a placebo.

5. Ritualize Your Workday Shutdown

Last but not least, Cal Newport’s book Deep Work suggests that to fully get your mind off work and relax, you need to create a shutdown ritual. He says this ritual should help you check your work for anything you forgot and plan your next day’s work. 

Here’s an example ritual:

  • Check your emails for any last urgent items.
  • Update your to-do list of unresolved items.
  • Check that each unresolved item has a completion date. 
  • Look through your calendar to make sure there aren’t important deadlines you forgot.
  • Make a to-do list of tasks for the next day.
  • Say, “All done,” or a similar phrase to explicitly mark the end of work.

Newport stresses that an important benefit of the end-of-day ritual is that it helps reassure you that things will be fine when you shut down. You’ll never be able to finish all your important work in one day. When you create a shutdown ritual, instead of feeling anxious about unfinished tasks, you’ll feel confident that all the important tasks are accounted for, and that you’ll make meaningful progress the next day. This gives you more time to fully relax in your time off from work. 

Wrapping Up

If you find yourself working a job that requires you to overexert yourself, keep in mind that hustle culture is toxic and will never benefit you. With the tactics above, you can find a way to balance your work and personal life so you don’t have to sacrifice your happiness for the hustle.

Are there other reasons why hustle culture is toxic? Let us know in the comments below!

Hustle Culture Is Toxic: What You Can Do to Fight It

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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