The Seductive Fallacy of “Going All Out”

Ask any self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie or workaholic and they will say that any letting up of the gas until you have roared through the finish line is simply giving up or being half-hearted. More is more and we can rest when we are dead. Nothing can be incremental or moderate if one expects to see results. Gotta go all out. Leave it all on the field. Insert some other sports metaphor here, I’m sure there are plenty.

I actually get all of that. It makes sense to me. There is a rush that you get when you zoom ahead of your perceived competition that is electric. It’s an even greater one when you cross that line and clench the victory. I have felt it and, wow, it is all kinds of good–and addictive!

The problem is, most of the time in our daily lives not only is this extremest effort not required, it is detrimental to our productivity. A study from Stanford University found that working more than 50 hours a week showed a consistently sharp decline in productivity and that productivity dropped so dramatically beyond 55 hours a week that the effort was essentially pointless. Not to mention increased potential for mistakes or even malfeasance or malpractice.

So why do we keep doing it? It’s certainly not like we’ve never been told otherwise. Aesop and his tortoise and hare have been trying to teach us this lesson since about 600 BCE. I think it is because we have taken the wrong message from old Aesop. Or, at least, we have only taken half of the right message. For most of us, if asked what the moral of the tortoise and hare story was, we would say, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Well…not exactly. Logic and experience tells us that slow and steady doesn’t always win the race, so it can’t just be that. The more accurate moral of the story is that what “slow and steady” allows us to do is actually what wins the race.

When we slow down, rest, and recharge we take ourselves out of the fight or flight mode. Our brains, which had been dialed in to simply “Go, Go, Go” and survival, literally becomes more expansive. Blood flow which had been restricted to our impulsive limbic brain suddenly is released to flow into our thinking and creative prefrontal cortex. You see, the tortoise wasn’t just slow and steady, she was innovative and clever.

And what about that hare? The one who shot out of the starting gate so self-assured of his ability to “go all out.” The fable goes that he was so arrogant that he chose to nap after his initial, dazzling sprint and that is when the wily tortoise passed him by. But what if it wasn’t a nap at all? What if that hare burned himself out and his nap was more of a collapse? Whether by choice or by force, the hare finally did stop. And it cost him the race. Are there parallels in our own daily lives? Most of the time when I talk to professionals–particularly attorneys–about what it is like to take vacation time, they describe increasing their hours before and after the time off and never feeling able to relax and mentally escape while physically away from the office. Eventually, it can leave to professional burnout, depression, or substance abuse. Like the hare, they collapse but never fully rest.

Moderation might not be sexy. But innovation, energy, passion, and creative sure are. Fortunately, those are things that win the race.

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