So here’s my theory: There are cycles of exhaustion. At the peak of the cycle, you have plenty of energy, motivation and alertness. This is the time when you are most productive, curious, engaged and creative. At the trough of the cycle, you are spent. You are totally exhausted and can barely open your eyelids and remember your name, let alone do anything useful.
I don’t think there is just one cycle, with one period, though. I think there are cycles of exhaustion that overlay each other. There is a daily cycle, where you feel crappiest at mid afternoon, there is the weekly cycle, where you crawl towards Friday night on hands and knees, there is the annual cycle, where you definitely feel when you need a holiday and there is the life cycle, where you begin to slow down in late middle age and feel the need of a sabbatical.
These cycles reinforce and cancel each other out. Even though it’s a Thursday, you can push through the weekly exhaustion in the morning and remain productive, because your daily exhaustion cycle permits it. Of course, that gets harder to do the longer it was since your last vacation. You can get a second wind and keep on going even if your vacation was long ago, if you are in your thirties, but that gets harder to do in your sixties, I imagine.
Depending on their energy expenditure, I think the periods and amplitude of exhaustion cycles can vary from person to person. Somebody that is pretty steady in their work might have shallow cycles, where their most exhausted is not very different from their most active. Others who pour their energy out at their most productive times, on the other hand, might have a greater dynamic range of experience. Their peaks might be more energetic, but their exhaustion might also be more profound and clobber them harder.
The more frenetic people might have several cycles of alertness and exhaustion in the same time period that somebody else has just one. If you spend your twenties working your tail off, you might feel more lethargic in your thirties, and then get a boost of enthusiasm for it all in your forties and sixties again. Or, you might work hard in a sustained way through your thirties, but feel less motivated in your fifties.
In this world, where the needs of commerce are paramount and every company seems to adhere rigidly to arbitrary constraints on wakefulness, you must be productive, alive, creative and alert on command. What if that conflicts with the alignment of your exhaustion cycles? What if the most productive thing you can do, in aggregate, is to rest when exhausted and bounce back when the cycles align? Maybe a sabbatical or a retreat is what you need, not another deadline and an artificial sense of urgency. I think it’s unrealistic to expect any machine to run at full speed the whole time, yet so much of modern culture expects precisely that of people. Everything needs downtime for maintenance. Engines, computers and people.
If the cycles of exhaustion are respected, on the other hand, you might live to create amazing things another day, replete with all of your learning and experience. There is nothing more tragic than a burnt-out, middle-aged executive or a late twenties programmer that has bags under their eyes. What a waste. As a culture, we used to know this intuitively. People would have a Siesta. There was such a thing as long service leave. Retirement served a useful purpose. All of those things are gone or under threat.
If you keep your foot planted firmly on the gas pedal (or accelerator, for those of you that speak the Queen’s English) and push yourself all the time, even when your cycles of exhaustion are telling you not to, I think you run the risk of breaking the machine (your body). I think that’s why there are stress related illnesses, depression, breakdowns, strokes and heart attacks. I bet they correlate with alignments of troughs in your cycles of exhaustion that have been ignored, in an attempt to push through the exhaustion and remain productive on command. I would also wager that the best things are made and discovered when people have alignments of peaks in their cycles, where they are least exhausted, most rested, most calm of mind and spirit and full of life, energy, curiosity and enthusiasm. I wonder if there is any actual data to back this theory up. Perhaps it’s just a hypothesis.
Of course, like all of my theories, it’s just a theory, so don’t take it too seriously.