Home > Natasha Josefowitz > Too much to do or not enough?

Too much to do or not enough?

By Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.

Natasha Josefowitz

LA JOLLA, California — One of our more difficult endeavors is to find a balance between being so challenged that we lose sleep over it and being so bored with a familiar routine that we are depressed.

What makes people satisfied with their lives is the opportunity to grow, gain mastery, and have some control over their lives. In other words, both challenge and autonomy are the two most needed ingredients for job satisfaction. A little child’s first sentence is often, “Me do it” and the aging residents in nursing homes who can make even trivial decisions live longer than those whose lives are totally regulated and prescribed.

People who cannot find challenge in the workplace look for it elsewhere in their hobbies. For those who are challenged beyond their abilities, failure is the only outcome; for those who are not challenged enough, boredom is the result. Pushing oneself to one’s limit cannot be sustained forever without stress and eventual illness. So when we go to the limit, it must be balanced with some respite. The optimum would be to work within a range of comfortable performance with intermittent pushes to higher levels of new mastery which, although difficult, remain achievable.

There are problems with both success and failure. With continued success, many people keep setting their goals higher and higher, so that they end up living their lives totally engrossed in their work, immersed in achievement to the detriment of family, friends, and health. These are the people whose names appear at the top of their corporations; they say it takes that kind of commitment to make it to the top.

In coping with failure, there are two options. One is to lower our expectations in terms of quantity (less of) or quality (not as good as). The other is to give ourselves more time to achieve our goals. Instead of this week, it can be next week, or if not this year, then let’s try again a couple of years from now. How all this translates into the world of work is important.

A supervisor or manager can keep checking with employees as to whether they are finding enough challenge in their jobs, whether they are learning new skills, and whether they also have enough success and enough time to perform routinely, giving them a rest from constant pressure.

Our language speaks of the need to stop a while and not always keep pushing: “Stopping to smell the roses.” “Enjoying the fruits of our labor.” “Resting on our laurels.”

Successful CEOs are those who can work with their staffs, providing enough excitement to motivate them without so much unrelenting pressure that they will burn out. In fact, “burn out” has become a common ailment, meaning too much challenge, either in the amount of work that needs to be done before a deadline or the too-high standards the work needs to meet.

Individuals too can learn to pace their activities in terms of their goals. There are several types of goals. Life goals such as “Someday, I’ll write a book,” yearly goals such as “By this time next year I will have achieved X,” and daily goals such as “I’ll have the bills paid by 5 p.m.” Each of them must have a realistic component and a time frame. Some are challenging, others are routine but must be done. Finding a balance for ourselves and for those who depend upon us means frequent reappraisals of those goals. Socrates said it best: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” This is also true for life outside of work. “Where are we going and is it still where we want to be headed” needs periodic re-examination.

When our three daughters, who all work fulltime, had school-age children at home, they were constantly exhausted and wished for less pressure. Our friends’ daughters who are stay-at-home mothers look for something meaningful to do outside of the family. Many of our friends who are self-employed, such as psychologists and consultants, bounce back and forth constantly between having too much work and worrying when there is not enough. It’s either too many clients or too few. Making a decision ahead of time as to how one wishes to lead one’s life sounds simple, yet, events take over, and we bend to circumstances often outside our control. So vision and flexibility are the key ingredients for a balanced life.

Socrates also said: “Know thyself.” He must have meant thy ambitions and limitations.

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Josefowitz is a freelance writer and author based in La Jolla. This article previously appeared in La Jolla Village Voice

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