Prince Albert spent most of his adult life stressed because of his self-imposed workload. His schedule was demanding enough to become the tenth Circle of Dante's Hell, making Albert feel "more dead than alive from overwork."
Yet, even if each task likely exacerbated his illnesses, he never stopped working until death fired him.
Albert didn't suffer from stress but likely from burnout, a state we reach when we let work-related stress accumulate. In this state, we don't suffer the regular headaches from stress but physical pain and mental illnesses like depression. Our chances of falling ill increase, too.
While the causes of stress vary between people, life and Palliative Care taught me two frequent causes of burnout. Unfortunately, I experienced both causes without a plan three times. But you don't have to.
Use solitude to find purpose in your life
The first cause of burnout is not having a purpose or end goal in life.
Without these, you can't measure if your daily tasks get you closer or further from your goals. Every activity is meaningless, theoretically. To make it worse, harsh feedback or the lack of recognition from colleagues can make you question if your job is valuable for anyone but your family.
At a faster-than-you-think-pace, the stress from not progressing and the lack of positive feedback become too hard to manage, leading to burnout.
Out of all the solutions to find purpose I tried, such as life-purpose-defining frameworks like IKIGAI or expert-led workshops, reflecting on my actions in solitude is the best one.
Every day, screens and people drain your attention from dawn to dusk, leaving you with no time to reflect on how satisfied you are with work.
Through solitude, that is, moments of your life when you are physically or mentally alone, you can think, shamelessly, about grudges with family members, resentment towards a friend, work dissatisfaction, or feelings of envy.
You don't need a cabin in the woods to reflect on your actions or job. Instead, reduce the time spent listening to others and add it to listening to your mind. For example, I stopped listening to videos, music, or podcasts while commuting, eating, exercising, or showering, freeing up more time to think.
Silence feels odd at first.
But you'll crave it once you uncover truths about yourself in these moments, like the fact you should apologize to an old friend or quit your job.
Use your life's purpose to avoid or stop toxic productivity
Productivity principles like planning every hour of your day help people to avoid procrastination.
If you are unused to acting based on a to-do list, executing your plan will be challenging. However, as time goes on, ticking every box from the list becomes as natural as breathing—Here's where the problem starts.
The, say, three tasks you have been completing per workday are no longer an accomplishment but a plateau—at least in your mind. So you start working longer hours to squish more tasks.
Inoffensive additions, you think.
Until the excitement from completing a new task doesn't offset the stress from accomplishing it. Stress that, if untreated, as it's often the case, evolves into burnout and devolves your energy levels to those of an emo one-year-old.
When you know your life's purpose or goals, you can avoid toxic productivity by focusing your attention on activities that always get you closer to your genuine desires.
You can follow an exercise to stick to tasks aligned with your goals. First, write your life goal on the right side of a paper and your daily tasks on the left. Then, ask yourself if the items on the left help you accomplish the goal(s) on the right or if the list aligns with your life's purpose.
A writer may find, for example, that it's impossible to fulfill his life's goal of visiting every country unless he quits his non-remote 9-5 job. Likewise, a startup founder may find managing companies boring and instead pursue her true passion, drawing.
Without a clear purpose, both of these individuals would've kept adding items to their to-do lists, likely getting closer to material or status goals they think they care about but don't.
Avoid regretting your life by defining a reason for being
When you are a child, parents tell you what to do, say, and think. Then, when you become older, parents and friends influence what you study and do for a living. If you are lucky, they directed you towards a path you enjoy. But that's often not the case.
The stress from contemplating another job or career path is unsettling. But, I assume the stress of being on your deathbed, regretting your lack of courage to choose what you genuinely want, feels worse. So, apply these solutions now, or experiment with your own—while you can.