It’s worth noting that our bodies are set up to handle physical exhaustion, and have nothing like the same mechanisms for responding to mental fatigue. One, we evolved for, the other we didn’t, and it’s the one we are not equipped to deal with that has come to dominate modern living. Not one of our better plans, that.
First up we have the lovely endorphins, the body’s natural pain relief. Bounce around being active, and you’ll kick of a chemical reward system designed to leave you feeling satisfied. You’ll also get shot of your stress chemicals, so even if you are wiped by the end of the excitement, you’ll feel good about it – satisfied and relaxed. Mental exhaustion does not deliver any chemical rewards. It just leaves a person feeling depleted and flat.
If I have a day of intense physical activity, that can leave me in pain. This is a good thing, because the next day I have a fair idea of what I won’t get away with. Mental exhaustion is not as self announcing, and shows up in apathy and reluctance at first – all things it is easy to feel obliged to overcome. If I keep pushing, so long as I am eating and sleeping well, my body will adapt and toughen up over time. You can keep pushing against mental exhaustion until you have a nervous breakdown. My body, I have observed, is much more willing and able to toughen up in response to a challenge than my mind is.
Certain kinds of thinking are more problematic than others. I can use my mind a lot and be fine if I can go at my own pace. Time pressure and stress create issues. Time pressure and stress is how we build our workplaces and careers. They are the most reliable raw ingredients in the mix. If I can think about things when my head is in the right place, I do a better job and suffer less. Again, most conventional jobs don’t allow this. I do better with interesting challenges to chew on, but what many jobs give us is work that requires effort and energy, stress, focus and thinking, but not problem solving or anything that produces a sense of achievement. Just churning it out, endlessly.
But then, ‘work’ as a social construct does not exist to improve the human condition. We don’t do it to solve the problems of our tribe, or take care of our home. We don’t do it for the glory of achievement, most of us. It’s not about some heroic outcome, but about making money, usually for someone else. Most of western human life revolves to an alarming degree around work. Work that leaves people exhausted, apathetic, demoralised, with no feel good factors. As systems go, it’s a shoddy one, and it is well worth wondering if we might come up with something better that could deliver a better quality of life to the vast majority of us. Not the absence of work, (because that depends on exploiting someone else) but work that has value enough to cheer us, and patterns that don’t make us sick.