To Cure Burnout, Embrace Seasonality

For most of human existence, the pace and intensity of productivity varied widely from season to season. During the roughly 300,000 years that Homo sapiens wandered the earth in bands of hunters and gathers, nature dictated the rhythms of their daily activities.

After the development of agriculture around 10,000 B.C.E., the relationship between work and the seasons became even more structured, with predictably busy planting and harvesting seasons interleaved with predictably quiet winters.

It was the Industrial Revolution that ruptured this natural work cycle. In a mill or a factory, unlike on a hunting ground or a farm field, the relationship between effort and reward is constant: The more hours you run your factory, the more products you produce. This led to a conception of work as something that should occur at the fullest possible intensity, without variation, throughout the year.

When knowledge work arose as a major economic sector in the 20th century — the term “knowledge work” itself was coined in 1959 — it borrowed this approach from manufacturing, which was the dominant economic force of the time. Office buildings became virtual factories, with members of this growing class of workers metaphorically clocking in for eight-hour shifts, week after week, month after month, attempting to transform their mental capacities into valuable output with the same regularity as an assembly-line worker churning out automobiles.

In recent years, I’ve come to believe that the decision to treat the pacing of cognitive jobs like manufacturing jobs was a mistake. We seemed to have forgotten that life in the mills and factories was miserable. The unrelenting pace of those jobs eventually required the formation of labor unions and regulatory innovations, like the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which introduced a mandated workweek and overtime pay — all of which emphasized the artificiality of forcing our efforts into such an unvarying and demanding rhythm. And yet, as more of us shifted into the comparable comfort of office buildings, we carried over the same flawed model forged on the factory floor.

The problem with the virtual factory, however, goes beyond the fact that it makes us unhappy. It’s also ineffective. The process of producing value with the human brain — the foundational activity of many knowledge sector roles — cannot be forced into a regular, unvarying schedule. Intense periods of cognition must be followed by quieter periods of mental rejuvenation. Energized creative breakthroughs must be supported by the slower incubation of new ideas.

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