Hustle Culture: The Hamster Wheel of Exhaustion

Hustle culture is toxic header:

“Your worth is not measured by your productivity.”

– Unknown

We live in a culture that really praises and rewards (at least in theory) the idea of the “hustle”. That is, working an absurd number of hours, rarely taking a break, eating lunch at your desk, and never completely switching off.

I wrote a few months ago that I work more hours as a freelancer but I’m happier. And that was 100% true at the time I wrote it… until it wasn’t. Last week, I suddenly realised how exhausted I was and how things that had once excited me now felt like sources of stress rather than inspiration and joy. I felt trapped. My partner (generally the more logical of the two of us) and I sat down and crunched some numbers and realised… that between July and Christmas I was working 50+ hours per week on client work alone, without factoring in anything else (pitching, one-off commissions, blogging, podcasting, my PhD, or business admin) AT ALL.

Something clicked and I realised “ohhhhhh, that’s why I feel like I’m on an endless hamster wheel of exhaustion but not actually getting anywhere.”

This is hustle culture, and it sucks.

Hard Work =/= Hustle Culture

I’m a big believer in working hard to get where you want to go and reach your goals. That’s why I freelanced on the side while studying for a Masters and then a PhD while working a full time job for years. I pride myself on, frankly, working my arse off to chase my dreams.

Working hard is not the same thing as hustle culture. But sometimes it’s a little hard to tell exactly where one ends and the other begins.

For me, the line was crossed when I realised I hadn’t taken a full lunch break in four months. The line was crossed when I was sipping coffee at 10 o’clock at night just to meet increasingly impossible deadlines. The line was crossed when I realised I was feeling guilty every time I did anything that wasn’t work.

Sometimes You Just Have to Draw the Line

I don’t really believe in new year’s resolutions, but I decided in the first week of January that my watchword for this year is boundaries. That means saying no more often, not taking on things I don’t want to do, and making a conscious decision that “I can’t, I’m at capacity” doesn’t mean “I’ll just work until midnight to get it done” – it means no.

I’ve stepped back from certain things and reshuffled others, and that’s still an ongoing process. Because I don’t have unlimited energy and trying to work absurd hours just to keep up was making me ill.

Hustle culture says it’s admirable when you haven’t slept more than four hours a night in the last week. It says it’s praiseworthy when you tell your partner for the third night in a row “no, I can’t watch a stupid action movie with you, much as I’d like to – I have to shove food in my face and then get back to work.” It says that 30 or 35 or 40 hours of work per week isn’t enough, that those with a true drive to succeed will see burnout as a badge of honour and keep going anyway.

Well, I have a drive to succeed. I love what I do and I’m good at it. But do you know what else I love? Feeling balanced and sane and not having a nervous breakdown. At a certain point, it becomes less painful to say no (however much you hate doing so) than it does to say yes and push yourself past your limits again. Eventually, earning a few more quid isn’t worth the trade-off when what you really want is a full 8 hours of sleep.

Do you feel like you’re constantly fighting your way upstream in a sea of work that never gets any smaller? Do you feel like you’re running on a hamster wheel and not getting anywhere? Does guilt hit you whenever you take any time off? If so, you might have fallen victim to hustle culture.

And that’s not your fault. This narrative is really pervasive. But it’s also really dangerous. Your worth isn’t your productivity, and your physical and mental health is worth far more than anything else.

I’m going to share some more concrete tips on how to break up with this toxic ideology, but that’s a separate post for another day. For now, I’m just saying this:

Dear Hustle Culture, I’m done. We’re breaking up. It’s not me, it’s you. Bye!

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