My membership in ‘The Cult of Work’


This doodle I drew last year during finals week. I have always had a problem with overworking. I said one of my goals was to improve my work-life balance, but I’ve haven’t said much more because I think it sounds like a humblebrag. At CMU, the stress culture is expected and understood. Everyone doesn’t sleep and everyone will tell you about it. It’s been normalized.

But I happened to read this great Medium article today, “The Cult of Work You Never Meant to Join” (Jason Lengstorf) about the creeping overwork culture of a lot of tech companies.

The insidious thing about the Overkill Cult is that it masquerades as all the things we like most about ourselves: dedication, ambition, follow-through, responsibility.


It tells us to push harder, stay later, sleep when we’re dead. It tells us we’re never going to get ahead if we don’t show up first and go home last.


Cleverly, wickedly, the Overkill Cult persuades us to hang ourselves with our own strengths.

The article sited a lot of great resources, including research that found once you work over 40 hours a week your productivity declines and can actually become negative!

This diagram is loosely based on one included in Sidney J. Chapman’s Hours of Labor.

I mean, we’ve all read the stories of the 8 ideal hours of sleep, how sleeping less will shorten your lifespan, taking breaks increasing productivity, etc, etc. But knowing and doing seem to be two different things to me.

(Here’s your tangent) The first time I stayed up nearly all night on a school project was in elementary school. It was a stupid Joan of Arc project I did as kind of an honors program at my elementary school.  I remember just struggling to come up with the perfect idea. I struggled and struggled over it for so long that suddenly it was the night before it was due I had nothing. I can’t remember the constraints of the project exactly, but we were supposed to make this themed treasure chest on a certain topic…I thought about music, a made up fantasy land called Belliffelough…but for I finally landed on the theme of Joan of Arc from a Wishbone book I’d read.

I just deleted a huge second paragraph I wrote about this story—suffice to say, the project still haunts me. The point is, I’ve been a long-time member of the The Cult of Work and worry that I actually can’t stop. I had all-nighters in high school and then…I never really stopped.

Lengstorf’s three signs that you’re in The Cult of Work:

  • Frequently working more than 40 hours a week
  • Frequently sleeping less than 6 hours a night
  • Feeling guilty about any time away from work— even if that time is with family and friends

He writes that we should be striving to sleep eight hours a day. That’s a really novel way for me to think about it. To seek that out as a primary goal instead of a luxury. Sleep is the first thing to go out of my schedule. In fact, I finally had to get groceries on Thursday after nearly three weeks of getting bits and pieces from the RiteAid and instead of doing it between my classes (which would interrupt my normal ~10 hours at studio schedule) I woke up early to go before class and ended up getting there before the store opened.

And the guilt you feel when you’re not working? My thought when I read about it was “YES! ME!” I can’t even hang out with friends or watch a movie without feeling wracked with guilt that I’m not working or being somehow productive. My dear friends Matt & Sarah visited me (separately) this month and I remember having to suppress my desire to work while they were here. And then kind of the bittersweet relief of getting back to work later. (Admittedly, that “getting back to work” is never as successful as it is in my mind).

I did this sketch last semester of how I spend a typical week:


It was for class. Basically we could make little diagrams of whatever we wanted and I thought it would be interesting to see how I spent my previous week. I ended up not showing it to the class because I didn’t even think it was admirable. It was just sad. All of the blue is work. The light blue is me trying to work or feeling guilty that I’m not working (ex: me sitting at my desk with the intention of working but I’m really not). And the dark blue is when I’m actually productive. I realize I spend most of my days trying to get myself to work out of guilt. I try to tell people that I’m not as productive as I look at school. I just spend most of my time trying to be.*

What’s more, I don’t ever, ever plan free time for myself. I just happen to do not-work things out of inner-rebellion on Saturdays. It feels obvious now that I don’t feel motivated to work because I don’t feel like I’m ever leaving it. This also just happened to be a week that I had exercised. Since I have only used 12 of my gym passes this whole year, I know that this is an over-representation of how much exercise I normally get.

Yes, for one thing I’m in grad school and that’s a notoriously busy time. But on the other hand, I know this is kind of how I run. During the two years while I was working, I still stayed up late working. I still had a wish list of hobbies and things I wanted to do but I never found the time for. I still never watched movies or read all the books I wanted to. It kind of feels like I’m day dream about this this Jacklynn and the Things She’ll Do that doesn’t really exist.

I’ve already started a list of all the things I want to do (learn, get better at…) once I graduate again:

  • Drawing
  • Writing
  • Reading
  • Dancing
  • Languages (German, Vietnamese, French, ASL)
  • Ukulele
  • Singing
  • Knitting (socks and gloves!)
  • Watercolor/Gouache
  • Public speaking
  • Calligraphy
  • Bookbinding
  • Baking bread
  • Learn Form
  • Continue reading Design Theory
  • Taking decent photos
  • Exercising (hiking, biking, martial arts)
  • Volunteer at a library again
  • Reading poetry

Half of me thinks I can do it and half of me doesn’t. Unless I turn these hobbies into work.

Half of me wants a work-life balance, half of me doesn’t. Not really.

What is addicting about it is that I’ve always gotten rewarded for overworking. I end up a little happier with my project, the client and teacher is accepting enough, and down the road it might prove some other benefit. There’s something satisfying about saying that I worked  relentlessly on a project to finish. Something more admirable than putting in the extra effort to make it special even if, in the long run, over working is making me less productive and creative…it’s hard to feel that way because I don’t have a comparison of me working 40 hours a week.

I thought about this summer when I was so happy. It was the closest thing to a work-life balance because on the weekends I would end up going out all day and end up feeling refreshed. But then, it wasn’t exactly balanced since I worked nearly 10 hours every day during the work week. I also have completely convinced myself that I only need 6 hours of sleep.

—I don’t have an end to this post. I don’t have an end to this habit. I don’t have a plan of action on how to make improve that I like in theory but not in practice. But I really liked that article (you should read it if you suspect yourself!) and felt compelled to write about it (instead of working on my thesis paper)  I feel like getting eight hours of sleep during this last three weeks of school is going to be impossible.

But maybe I’ll start this summer.


*I should note that this doesn’t apply for when I’m paid for work. Then I’m furiously guilty that I could be wasting someone else’s money. 


3 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Hi,

    I think there’s a difference between working for one’s studies (where you’re your own boss, there’s always something to be done) and being an employee at a company where the pressure changes over time. Working for a company, when you’re forced to work a lot, you focus on working it off, and when it’s done, you automatically reward yourself by doing something you enjoy until the next wave of pressure comes along.

    While I’m in a productive working phase, I often think of what I’d like to do once the work is done–that motivates me to finish it soon. If you’ve gotten used to constantly overworking, I guess the first thing that’s needed is learning to unwind. It’s clearly a different kind of pleasure/reward if you’re working for a client than if you’re doing something out of a personal interest, so you probably can’t go after work-life balance looking for the same kind of reward that you get at work.

    For me, the ultimate goal of my spare time activity still is to improve the quality of my work–just indirectly, by knowing myself better. Spare time activity allows me to discover new abilities or figure out my thought processes–all of this ultimately helps me while at work, too. So is your goal limited to obtaining work-life balance by following new interests, or does it already involve something deeper? I think spare time cannot be divorced from actual work, the two need to inspire one another. This is because I am one person that doesn’t wish to be split in two by following two entirely different tracks. In a way, you could say, work goes directly into work, while spare time activity is freeer, but also goes into work, just more indirectly. Then it’s your job to find the connections between the two, which is a very rewarding thing to do.

    I think this is an interesting topic to think about, I’m taking the opportunity of this blog to do so–I hope you enjoyed reading my comment. For me, my spare time activity is listening to music, reading or painting, my main work activity is learning (both ancient and modern) Chinese. Cheers, Arthur

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Arthur! Interesting points. Ironically, I haven’t been able to read your comment until just now because I have been working non-stop (and late) on projects for school. 2 more weeks left!

    I agree that what you do in you ‘free time’ will always influence you work. It gives you new perspectives that can help me as a designer think more creatively or deeply about my work. I’m not sure what my desire for work-life balance is, I think it’s just that I work to an unhealthy amount and forgo sleep and unhealthy amount—but you might be true that this might only be something that happens during school. I was talking about this with a friend and he put it a really great way: “there’s a subtle different between working “in order to feel a certain way” versus working “in order to not feel a certain way”, and I actually really like the first feeling, but these days I’m more feeling the latter.”— and I think I would like work because I’m invest and enjoy it, not because I feel like I have to, want to impress someone, or feel guilty.

    Hope you and your family are well! 🙂

  3. I understand what you mean. Focusing on the content of the work has always been more interesting for me than thinking about the effect it will have on other people. Yes, thanks, we’re doing fine! 🙂

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