In his book, The Overload Syndrome, Richard Swenson describes an all-too-common condition in which moderns typically find themselves: overworked, overcommitted, and on the brink of burnout.
Many of us wear the frantic and frenetic pace of our lives as a badge of honor. When we do stop for a gasp of air, we do so just long enough to tell our friends or colleagues how busy we are. The great oddity is that an astounding number of people in the workforce now describe their work as “so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence.”
As it turns out, we are burning ourselves out by efficiently doing more meaningless work than ever before. It’s the equivalent of running harder and faster on a hamster wheel to nowhere. And if we do have any in between spare moments, they are now filled with a smartphone and an endless morphine drip of social media apps, news stories, notifications, and banal celebrity clickbait.
Scripture, we assure ourselves, tells us to “redeem the time,” which we then misinterpret as filling every spare second with a blur of activity. As Christians, we somehow justify this torrid pace of living as somehow hyper spiritual. Hellbent on efficiency, we seldom ask if the work we are doing has any essential value whatsoever.
It doesn’t help that inflation in an increasingly luxury economy has drastically risen since the 1970s when the U.S. moved in the direction of fiat currency. What hasn’t risen are salaries. To keep pace with the rising cost of vehicles, healthcare, and consumer goods, we now have to work exponentially harder just to keep from drowning. We also send our women into the workforce at ever-rising numbers, which further takes away from the stability a household has traditionally provided.
Rather than curbing our appetites or addressing our incredibly stupid habit of borrowing and spending on the debt of our grandchildren, we mistakenly believe we can simply redouble our efforts year in and year out. Not surprisingly, the number of hours Americans work per year has grown by 400 percent since 1950. What we’ve failed to comprehend is that humans are, by definition, creatures designed with limitations. We also fail to recognize the law of diminishing returns—working harder at some point ceases to produce the payoff it did before.
What we’ve failed to comprehend is that humans are, by definition, creatures designed with limitations. We also fail to recognize the law of diminishing returns—working harder at some point ceases to produce the payoff it did before.
Swenson blames this condition on a number of environmental factors unique to citizens of a modern society hellbent on constant progress, efficiency, and relentless activity. Much of this mindset is a side effect of the Industrial Revolution, which put us on a never-ending quest to accomplish more in less time and to maximize productivity at all costs. For better or worse, these business practices have spilled over into every area of human existence so that even our leisure time is regimented and broken down into 5-, 10-, or 30-minute time blocks controlled by a factory clock. What no one seems to account for is that humans aren’t machines.
While some level of efficiency and productivity are no doubt a good thing, Americans have had the foot on the gas so long that redlining the tachometer of our pace of life is all many of us know how to do. Many of us are now convinced that the optimal life is the one that’s brimming over with fully loaded schedules, participation in numerous competitive sports, signing up for an endless list of ministries at church, side hustles, and hurried busyness on all fronts.
An Unhealthy Obsession
The pace at which we’ve been living has had catastrophic effects on our health. Physically, the rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity have skyrocketed. Psychologically, occurrences of anxiety, mental breakdown, depression, and suicide have also risen significantly. The constantly rising use of prescription medications—from Viagra and Ambien to Prozac—only underscore the problem: our anxious toil has resulted in stunning failures of sexual potency, sleep, and mental health.
Beyond that, as we’ll discuss more in a moment, chronic stress elevates levels of cortisol and demolishes testosterone in men, leading to immunocompromised men with very little vitality left for meaningful pursuits like sex, culture building, and resistance to various forms of tyranny. Not surprisingly, the plummeting levels of testosterone have done tremendous damage to the overall state of masculinity and, in turn, marriages, households, churches, and culture.
Why Overload is Bad for Men
What I want to do now is explain why chronic overload is so bad for men.
First, it reveals a significant theological problem.
While God commands that we rest, both one day per week and regularly each day, many of us pridefully think that we can live without limits. Instead of formulating priorities and accepting the rule of tradeoffs, we foolishly suppose we can do it all.
We sleep a few measly hours per night, drown ourselves in caffeine and nicotine to make it through another shift, and work 16-hour days on a regular basis. This isn’t productive, honorable, or godly—most of the time it’s a manifestation of the rank sin of arrogance. What’s godly is working hard and then resting while you enjoy the presence of family and friends.
It’s also incredibly stupid. As Solomon says, most of this kind of toil derives from envy of our neighbor and is as productive as trying to grab the wind in your hand. Far from an endorsement of laziness, Solomon says the goal is to fill one hand with quietness, or rest, and the other with toil. The point is, God only gave you two hands, and they need to be balanced with rest and work.
Overload and anxiety are the result of trying to have two competing things at the same time. Jesus said it well: “You cannot serve God and money.” If we’re frantic, overwhelmed, and chronically anxious, it reveals a two-masters-type idolatry in our hearts.
Second, chronic overload strangles a man’s creative capacity.
One of the biggest problems with living in a constant state of overload—without margins—is that it destroys creative energy. As a result, chronic stress leads to bad decision making, bland work, and a survival mentality. When a society is faced with the constant threat of destruction every day, it has little time to pursue the arts, scientific endeavors, or the imagination to invent new goods and services. Perhaps overload is one reason why our generation has produced so few great men or great works of art.
In my own life, moments of inspiration most frequently strike when I have ample time to go for an extended hike, read vigorously, meditate over a fire with a glass of bourbon, enjoy a day skiing with my family, and have chosen not to spend every dollar I make. On the other hand, I have little energy to write, podcast, or engage in thoughtful conversations when I’m overwhelmed by an overbooked schedule or credit card payments.
Third, overload stifles masculine virtue.
As the book Bronze Age Mindset makes clear, men who lived in spaces they don’t own are like gorillas in a cage—they somehow sense their captivity and, in this oppressed and trapped state, are reduced to a docile, sad existence. In order to develop their inborn powers and masculine virtues, men need owned spaces to master. This means owning businesses, land, and other forms of productive property.
Consider life in the corporate slave state. Creativity and imagination are stifled, men’s time is not their own, and they are constantly given more work with less resources for accomplishing those tasks. They often work for oppressive corporations whose strategic aim is to crush manly enthusiasm with a suffocating pile of TPS reports. Men are encouraged to adapt to a passive aggressive environment controlled by decrepit, gaunt old men and women, and in turn their courage, creativity, and masculine energy are stamped out.
This type of environment crushes the souls of men and takes its toll on the body, too. Studies have shown that—surprise, surprise—sitting at a desk all day under artificial light with monumental workloads and constant stress leads to a plethora of health problems, including poor circulation, depression, and high blood pressure.
This work environment also greatly impacts the types of hormones present in a man’s body. Stress hormones, when present for extended periods of time, destroy testosterone, neuron receptors, and overall immune health. Perhaps this is one significant reason why testosterone levels in men have plummeted. And without those hormones present, a man lacks proper aggression, courage, and physical strength to build, master, and exhibit sexual potency in any meaningful way.
Fourth, overload prevents men from organizing in gangs.
One of the key features of working for someone else in a corporate wage-slave environment is that they own your time, not a finished product. As a result, this crushes any drive you may have to get your work done and move on with your life. It also creates a state of “learned helplessness,” whereby men simply go with the flow, avoid conflict, and never step outside a prescribed checklist of feminist-approved activities.
What little time we do have is reserved for nights and weekends, and many men are simply too exhausted to form meaningful male friendships with their spare moments. Without these male gangs or brotherhoods, men become isolated and less potent. They don’t organize, cultivate strong community bonds, or strive for the same mission. And without a mission, men remain listless, declawed lions stuck behind a plexiglass cage.
Fifth, overload numbs and distracts men from meaningful work on mission.
In order for men to think about the trajectory of their life or how to effectively take dominion of their surroundings, they need leisure time—as well as energy—to do so. But what our society prescribes is a combination of constant burnout in the midst of meaningless work, followed up with soul-numbing luxuries like indulgent eating, television, or binge-watching other men compete in athletic endeavors.
As our societal planners well know, one of the best ways to neutralize masculine energy is by creating an environment of overload and stress in conjunction with lavish pleasure. This makes men fat, listless, and disheartened.
Struggle for space—a healthy animal not under distress, not maimed, not trapped by man, seeks first when young: space. Animal seeks space … to develop inborn powers … all of this requires precisely freedom from struggle for survival, or time away from this, a reprieve from this pressure … life at its most basic, struggle for ownership of space. — Bronze Age Mindset
Conquer Overload & Realize Your Purpose
Since chronic overload is so destructive, it’s worth considering practical wisdom and straightforward habits we can master in order to conquer it. Once you do, you’ll start to create a life with room to roam—blank space to think, create, and live with greater purpose. In turn, your life will become more meaningful, productive, and enjoyable.
Margin: Creating Blank Space
In an earlier work written by Richard Swenson titled Margin, he succinctly points out that men weren’t made to live at full capacity all the time. While moderate levels of stress combined with periods of rest are necessary for growth and flourishing, Swenson argues that constant, overwhelming levels of stress apart from rest are physically and psychologically suffocating. It’s like weightlifting to failure every single day without giving your muscles rest to recover and grow. It won’t take long for your body to completely shut down while you develop injuries and physical ailments.
Swenson’s book title is derived from a fundamental principle that almost no one notices even though we encounter it every day. Have you ever noticed that books have margins—you know, blank space on the outer edges of the text where nothing is printed? There’s a good reason publishers do this; it’s because our minds would be overwhelmed if every square inch of the page was crammed with letters, words, and sentences. Blank space, or margin, is as important as the words on the page.
It’s the same reason that one of the hottest trends in web, magazine, and home design is to create copious amounts of blank space (look to your left and right…see what I mean?). People whose lives are cluttered messes of disorganized chaos long for blank space. It helps them process, slow down, enjoy, and ultimately be more productive in truly meaningful work.
Our lives are the same way: We need blank space—or what the ancients called leisure—to meditate, reflect on our work, organize with other men, harness our creative powers, recuperate physically and mentally, and commit ourselves to the kind of work that will last for generations.
By the way, that blank space is best utilized by engaging in deep play, taking a nap, and mentally refreshing activities like reading or having a thoughtful conversation. For more information on how to get the best out of your times of rest, check out Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book, Rest. As the author describes, rest takes as much effort to cultivate as does work.
Habit: You can create margin in your life by leaving significant portions of your schedule open, learning to live well below your means, and refusing to commit to hefty car payments or a mortgage you can’t afford. One of the best ways to do this is by observing some form of sabbath rest—turn off cell phones, electronic devices, and get some fresh air with your family.
Tyranny of the Urgent
As Charles Hummel aptly points out in his book, Freedom from Tyranny of the Urgent, one of life’s incontrovertible rules is that “your greatest danger is letting urgent things crowd out the important ones.” Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom or small business owner, people and things will constantly arise on a daily basis that demand your urgent attention. Some of these must be taken care of and constitute genuine emergencies, like a toddler with a Lego stuffed in his nose or a water main break during a construction project. But more often than not, those things that frequently scream urgently for our attention are actually least important and can wait.
For example, you’ve scheduled the morning to prepare an important presentation, but that incessantly annoying chime from your email inbox grabs your attention. Before you know it, you’re responding to emails about trivial matters that falsely demand immediate action, chatting with coworkers, and responding to messages on Facebook messenger. The morning is gone, the presentation remains blank, and you have 30 minutes to showtime. You’re panicked and fried, having poured out your energy in a thousand different directions but not the one that really mattered.
Or you’ve got to prepare dinner and pick the kids up from school, but a friend calls to “vent” about her life of utter boredom while sipping Rose. You lose track of time, burn the casserole, are late to pick up your kids, and miss your husband’s walk through the front door. The really important work—feeding your family and welcoming your husband into your home—gets neglected for an urgent but mind-numbingly unnecessary call, and everyone’s stress levels rise as a result.
If we do this regularly, our life’s most important work forever gets put off for things that will seem rather insignificant on our deathbeds. Instead of living intentionally and focusing on the work that holds the most meaningful, lasting impact—thus feeling satisfied about how we invested our time—we waste our time responding to many pointless notifications and vibrations, phone calls, and other urgent demands for our time and energy.
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
The solution to the tyranny of the urgent is to live like an essentialist, a term that’s unpacked in Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism. The subtitle of the book says it all: essentialism is “the disciplined pursuit of less.” Think of it as minimalism applied not to the possessions you own but to the work and activities that you pursue.
The fundamental mindset of the essentialist is to decide which tasks are most important and learn how to say no to many good things along the way. Likewise, the whole approach depends on cultivating the habit of setting priorities, saying “no” often, and answering the question, “If we could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?”
As McKeown rightly explains, the word decision means literally to “cut off.” We have to decide to cut off lots of activities, commitments, and requests for our time if we’re going to do the work that is truly great. This includes using our God-given gifts to do the meaningful work that refreshes our soul and brings lasting impact to others.
Prioritize: Great Instead of Good
One of the key things McKeown helps us understand is the art of setting priorities. As C.S. Lewis said, busy people are actually just lazy people who’ve failed to take the time to evaluate what’s most important for them to accomplish. Instead, they engage in “straddling,” which means trying to do everything all at once. Ironically, this straddling posture usually results in us not doing anything very well. As the great philosopher Ron Swanson said, “Don’t half ass two things. Whole ass one thing.”
As an example, McKeown mentions how a company he did consulting work for came up with 17 top priorities for the year—which is absolutely absurd. You may laugh, but many of us live this way without stopping to consider the aim of our life.
Habit: Once per week, spend at least an hour going over your monetary budget and calendar for the purpose of evaluation (past) and planning (future). Look at the month prior. Did you spend your energy on the most important things? Look at the week ahead. Given your limited resources, decide which things are most important and schedule them.
“No” Is a Complete Sentence
Finally, we have to learn that “no is a complete sentence.” After we’ve established what things hold priority for us, we have to say “no.” A lot. And we shouldn’t feel like we have to defend our “no” to everyone who asks something of us. It’s enough just to say “no.” As we develop the habit of politely turning down requests for our time, money, and energy, we can then focus on work that is truly important.
Habit: Were there times in the past week where I said “yes” to something without thinking and then later regretted it? Practice delaying immediate decisions as a rule of thumb. Use phrases like, “I’ll have to check my schedule and get back to you.”
In the end, we can’t talk about reclaiming masculine virtue without talking about environmental factors that impact our hormonal states as men, and this includes a culture with a death wish for burnout. We need to crush overload, discipline our schedules, and seriously think through our priorities if we’re going to live up to our full capacity as potent men. More rest, well-used leisure time, and greater health will ultimately make us more creatively productive in life’s most essential work.