Meditations: Suffocating Work

Ashutosh Priyadarshy author headshot

Ashutosh Priyadarshy, CEO @ Sunsama
June 14, 2021

I am bad at ending my work day. I always want to do more. It's hard to walk away when I feel like I'm leaving something on the table. If I'm awake, not otherwise busy, and work brings me fulfillment, why not do more?

The answer is straightforward. Working all the time wears me down emotionally and cognitively. It turns fulfilling, industrious work into miserable, laborious toil.

But it's hard to stop working. In the moment, I can't feel what I'm doing to my future self. It won't be until the next day or the next week, after gradually working too much, that I'll start to feel the fatigue set in. By then my attention, energy, and focus are shot and I'm living in a joyless, discontented state wishing I'd have paced myself better and spent more time sitting idly outside or in the company of friends and family.

Over time, through irritating days of burnout and glorious stretches of flow, I've figured out my own capacity and schedule for work and it's surprisingly limited.

The breakthrough for me happened when I began setting a hard stop at the end of my day. I used to stretch my work day out across most of my waking hours. I justified it by taking time for ample breaks for meals, exercise, and entertainment. Unfortunately, those breaks only existed to restore my energy for the next tranche of work. The constant presence of work, never more than a couple hours away, suffocated my attention and ability to commit to any worthwhile activities. My leisure was fully subservient to work.

This devastating condition, where everything in life supports nothing but work is what philosophers like Pieper and Taggart call "total work". It's "when work is the centre around which all of human life turns; when everything else is put in its service; when leisure, festivity and play come to resemble and then become work; when there remains no further dimension to life beyond work; when humans fully believe that we were born only to work".

Nowadays, by setting a hard stop to my work day, I find that I can create the time and space for true leisure.

I find my best days of flow look like this: I start my day around 6:30 AM with a hard stop at 2:00 PM. And this is enough. In that stretch, I can consistently get 5.5 hours of deep, focused work done. This routine also provides me ample high-energy, daylight hours where I can surrender to leisure instead of obsessing about how to make the best use of a small window of time.

I am not perfect though. I recognize the dehumanizing aspects of "total work" yet it's still an overwhelming cultural and psychological tendency that I succumb to and need help fighting back against.

It's with that in mind that we built Sunsama's new "Daily Shutdown" ritual. Each day, as you plan your day, you'll be able to set an intention for when you'd like to stop working. When that time arrives, Sunsama will give you an in-app nudge to shut down for the day. This opens the daily shutdown ritual, which gives you a chance to review your work for the day, reflect, and then pack up and go home (or just stop working).

I'm hopeful this small bit of intention and assistance will help you hold back the pressures of "total work" in your life as it did for me.