Today I had a case of the Mondays. Like at the start of many weeks, I was under-slept from the night before, and came into the office late, to face a pile-up of work which had accumulated over the weekend. Sigh …
So yeah, I had to just grit my teeth, plug in the headphones, put my back into it, and I got it done. But at several points through the day, I had to just slump against my desk, put my forehead down, and sigh some more. Take a few breaths. Rest my eyes. Let my brain idle just a bit.
Each time, the thought ran through my head: I don’t want to be here.*
This doesn’t feel good.
My body whined at me like a spoiled child. Quit asking me to focus, it said. Quit making me concentrate. Quit trying to do your job. Just chilllll …
It occurred to me that such a response, while entirely normal, is still a bit perplexing. So today I was curious — why does work hurt?
More specifically, I mean: when your work load is higher than normal, and your energy supply is lower than normal — we’ll call this state being weak — why does that automatically cause your body to revert to childish behavior? Why does it feel unpleasant? Why do we get cranky and needy and selfish when we’re weak?
Everyone has felt this. Nobody is a stranger to it. But still, I’ve never considered why our bodies and minds respond by protesting.
Some conjectures, which are strangely Newtonian-flavored:
Objects at rest would prefer to stay at rest, and you’ve got to apply force in order to change the situation. When our minds and bodies are at rest, they usually are for some reason happier (??). Forcing yourself to get moving, either mentally or physically, requires the application of force, the administering of cognitive focus, the flexing of muscles, etc. We are simply lazy, and would prefer to save our energy. Is there like an evolutionary psychology thing there? Are we trying to save energy for the next hypothetical famine time? Or … is it like a sin nature thing? Either/or.
Evidently there is an issue with friction. If it was just inertia in play, then once you got started working, it should be relatively easy to continue. But, for most of us this isn’t true, and today it sure wasn’t easy for me. I could get started and continue for spurts of 20-30 minutes and then I’d lose momentum and have to rest and refocus. So clearly there is some kind of internal resistance going on, with work. In the case of physical labor, it’s easy to see that biomechanical friction comes into play. With mental work, which is most of my job … I guess the situation is more nuanced. I know that the whole sodium-potassium pump thing requires energy to operate, and that’s why thinking makes you tired.
But, it’s really easy for me (even when I’m exhausted) to browse the web for outdoor gear, or cruise through Facebook, or even check my email. Why is that? These things clearly require thinking and focus as well … they are just somehow far more interesting to me, and evidently entail far less friction. How does that work? Does anybody know?
3) Stimulus deprivation
This last bit perhaps answers the question from the previous item. Aimlessly cruising through outdoor blogs and facebook profiles is a great way to feed my brain with a bright stream of varied stimulus, which it seems most of us need almost constantly. By comparison, trying to focus on e.g. answering emails is an uphill battle from the start, because there is so little stimulus variation. Or something like that. So perhaps (3) here should really be (2b).
Okay, that’s a start, anyway. So my question for today was essentially — why does work hurt us when we feel weak? My haphazard conclusions for now are:
- It takes energy to get to work, and for whatever reason most of us would prefer to retain energy rather than expend it.
- Focusing on work for more than a little while takes the exertion of the will (read further energy), because work doesn’t seem to provide nearly the stimulative variety that we get from even marginally entertaining distractions and passtimes.
I think at the end of all this, I may have simply affirmed that it hurts to work because work doesn’t feel good, or at least that’s almost entirely the case when we’re tired and overloaded.
There. Good. Quite a deep thought for today. Boy, that sure makes me feel noble. I get whiny and selfish and short-tempered when I’m tired and I have to work, all because it doesn’t feel good. Ha. The human race. So inspiring.
Anyway, if you have a better theory on this, I’d love to hear it.
*Just to be clear here — I think my job is great. I’ve already discussed how there’s not really anything that my employer could do (within reason) to improve it. The notion of not wanting to be here has little to do with overall morale or my commitment to integrity in the work itself, but instead concerns the mind’s generic reaction to being forced to wake up.