What happens when you work 80+ hrs a week

September 26, 2016

If you want to understand why it’s so hard to rise out of poverty, work 80+ hrs/wk for not a lot of pay. Even if you’re (mostly) doing work you enjoy, as I am now, it’s illuminating.

What I’m being brutally reminded of is that it takes time and effort to save money. That seems obvious, and the typical rejoinder is “If it’s important, you’ll make the time!” But what if there isn’t a lot of time to make?

I can manage all the work I need to do in a given week, and get enough sleep too, mostly. But errands like grocery shopping keep getting pushed back, not because I’m lazy, but because I’m run so damn ragged that getting to the grocery store seems like an undue burden. Then I need to cook too, so I can eat well and cheaply, and I have an advantage there, because I know a bunch of yummy recipes I can make well. But what happens if you’ve always been working, and your parents were always working when you were young? You won’t have the tools or the recipes. You’ll have to learn it all from scratch, and you’re so tired. So one of the chief ways to save money (and eat healthy) is made even harder.

Another truth I’m becoming closely acquainted with is the limit I can work before I say “Fuck it!” and act irresponsibly. At my current work pace, I find this happens about once a week. Sometimes I can hold it off, but I haven’t yet managed to go two full weeks without a breakdown that leads to a completely wasted day.

Here’s how it happens. I plan out my weeks on Sunday, and if everything goes pretty well, I can fit it all in. It doesn’t even need to be perfect! I’m wise enough to program in some slack, but I also don’t have much slack to give. I’m already operating at 80+% capacity, so if I unexpectedly need to help with deliveries on Tuesday, or get called into my night job on Thursday, my relaxation time for the week disappears. When that happens it almost immediately spirals out of control as the stress builds fast, and soon I hit the breaking point and say “Fuck it!”, and hang out with friends or watch a movie or do nothing when I should be working.

Read that last sentence again. I’m not even doing anything wrong! Having a couple of beers at the brewery I work for shouldn’t be classified as irresponsible, but it is when you have a million things to do, and the first thing that’s sacrificed is the book I’m trying to write, or building new accounts for my brewery sales.

Exercise? Books? Self-improvement? Hahaha! Don’t kid yourself. Here, too, the important is sacrificed for the urgent.

And don’t get me started on what happens when you’re hit with unexpected expenses. When you’re just trying to make ends meet, any unexpected cost can throw your plans off badly. I’m not even in a bad situation there. An unexpected fee—say, transferring my driver’s license and registration to my new state—is annoying, it stresses me out and keeps me from building my buffer or replacing belongings that badly need it, but it’s not catastrophic. For others, that’s not the case.

It’s not a matter of willpower, not really. The will is there, but it gets depleted every hour you’re working—even when the work is enjoyable or not that hard—and soon enough the tank is empty and you just can’t even. That happens even when you work 40 hrs a week, but there are days off to catch the slack. I haven’t had a day off in months.

And once again, I have advantages. I know how to cook and I have exercise equipment in my living room and I live cheaply and most of all, I have an end date. I won’t be doing this forever. Mine is a matter of holding on for a while longer, and anyone can do this for a while—my health won’t even be effected much by being inconsistent with working out for a few months.

But what happens when you have no end date? What happens when the 80+ hour weeks stretch out into infinity, and there doesn’t seem to be any time to gain the knowledge or skills you need to lift yourself above the debilitating grind?

Humans aren’t suited to working this much. We can work a lot, and we can do it well for a while, but too much for too long and the system breaks down. The mind, the body, and the spirit break down, and soon there’s no escape.

This experience has given me new appreciation for the working poor. I don’t qualify for their ranks, despite the hours I work—I’ll be back to a reasonable work week before long, and I’d be fine now if I didn’t insist on writing through all of this. I’m just an idiot like that.

It’s certainly given me a greater understanding of their situation, though. It’s not a matter of willpower, it’s just a badly set up system. Humans can’t be good humans without time to read, or cook good food, or chat with their friends and family without guilt. We may be social animals, but we’re not pack animals, and acting like oxen trudging through the mud doesn’t suit us.

We shouldn’t be surprised when the people we ask to do that keep breaking down, and making unwise decisions, and repeating the same mistakes over and over again. They don’t have the time or energy to think their way out of the trap.

As always, thank you for using my Amazon Affiliate link (info).

By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.

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