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Hard Work, Not Over Work

We have all seen it. That person who posts Instagram and Snapchat stories showing themselves studying or at work extremely late at night. When we see this, we immediately think about how admirable their hard work is and glamourize this busy lifestyle. This in particular is a huge part of university culture. However, this needs to stop.

We constantly commend others for working themselves past their limits; however, we rarely commend people for taking time for themselves, getting a good night’s rest or taking a night to socialize with friends. Unfortunately, there is a perception that people who take this time are lazy, lacking motivation and initiative. I do not want to shame those who publicize their busy lifestyles – I have been very much guilty of this – I want to emphasize that this cultural norm is what needs to change. Below are three common examples of myths/trends that normalize burnout culture and the glamorization of overworking oneself in university.

#1 The “University Triangle”

Students have tremendous pressure on them to get good grades, be involved and maintain a social life. One of my personal pet peeves is the university triangle that has a point at each tip – good grades, enough sleep, and social life – and the centre of the triangle says, “You can only choose two”. This viral image is a prime example of this dangerous cultural as it validates the normalization of missing one of these three essential pillars in university and to a further extent normalizes poor health. University is a large step for students and is challenging, however it should not result in completely missing one of these pillars.

#2 Amount of time spent = Quality    

We focus on the length of time that one spends studying or in the office as opposed to the quality of work and intensity of focus. This leads to a severe burn out culture as we feel that we always need to be busy and that taking breaks is lazy.

I was introduced to the concept of “Deep Work”, as examined by author Cal Newport as “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” Being able to complete deep work allows one to be more engaged enhancing their learning experience and furthermore improving their quality of work. These states of deep work can also lead to greater productivity allowing one to get more work done in less time. When one loses this focus, it is okay to take a break and step away from work or switch to tasks that require less mental energy.  

#3 Exhaustion is Glamorous

I can tell you personally that it is not, and I think most people can agree with this. Many people have conversations that turn into a competition of who is busier and who has more of an excuse to be stressed rather than taking this as a sign to take a break. Being constantly stressed in many cases is seen as a sign of a hard and valuable worker. Being constantly stressed is exhausting, decreases one’s quality of work and life, and to put it simply, feels awful. This mentality results in a “lose-lose” situation. Stress is normal and a part of university and life, but should not become a lifestyle.  

What’s Next?

A culture shift is difficult to achieve and takes many people. Rather than glamourizing over work in others, ask them if they are okay or need to take a break. This shift should apply not only to individual students but also to University faculty and administration. In the lessons that professors teach they should be realistic about expectations and the time students are spending on their course. Areas such as co-op centres should be teaching effective deep work skills as opposed to telling students they should be working late every night. All together, universities should be encouraging hard work, not over work.