After last week's post on overwork and burnout, several people reached out expressing similar struggles. Some felt relief that they weren't the only ones feeling a pressure to always be producing.
For the last few years I've had a loose mental model of a way to help myself deal with highs and lows. I'm sure I've read it somewhere before, or someone helped me create this model, but unfortunately I can't remember. So I take no credit here, but just share it to hopefully kick off more discussions.
Alright, let's get hypothetical for a bit.
Suppose this is a made-up person's happiness. This person doesn't have highs or lows, and we might call them perfectly content:
This horizontal line represents baseline happiness. It represents being neither joyful nor upset. It represents things going well, things feeling steady and being generally predictable.
Of course, this person doesn't exist. This figure is a more realistic representation of an average person's happiness over time:
I can look back on times in my life where I was intensely happy, or maybe not doing so great, and moving between those extremes every few months as external conditions changed. Maybe it was a crappy project at work, or something happening with a relationship – for many reasons, I experienced extreme fluctuations above and below a baseline of happiness.
Note: My x-axis is on the scale of months. Daily high/low fluctuations might be signs of other things going on mentally, which I can't speak to.
A few years ago someone taught me about a new mental model that aims to reduce the height of the peaks and the valleys of the lows. Extreme fluctuations over time are unpredictable, indicate a reliance on external feedback mechanisms, and don't feel healthy. The lack of consistency and predictability can make life feel chaotic or unfair.
Enter a model which, for lack of a better name, I'm calling The Squeeze™. The Squeeze is about using internal feedback mechanisms (aka self-awareness) to move yourself closer to baseline. It's about recognizing that long-term sustainability can be improved by increasing the predictability of your life.
It looks something like this:
After the squeeze, your happiness over the course of a year might look closer to this:
Notice that we're not eliminating highs and lows, peaks and valleys. We're not trying to lift all the valleys upwards and extend the peaks. No, we're trying to move closer to the middle, the baseline where things are predictable and driven by internal narratives.
Implementing The Squeeze is hard. It takes self-awareness, and it's easy to forget when you're at the most extreme ends of a peak or valley in your life.
The thing I like about The Squeeze is that it applies to way more areas of my life than an ambiguous happiness level. It applies to the way I think about work and relationships, exercise and discipline. It accepts imperfection, but strives for consistency.
Here's exercise. The gray line represents consistent growth and action over time. In my world that would be 4 days of exercise, one hour each day, every single week. I remember in high school and college I would go through the most extreme peaks and valleys of an exercise routine. For 3 months I'd be on-point, exercising nearly daily, taking care of my diet, and feeling great. Then I'd burn out, take 3 months off and lose everything I'd worked for.
It was exhausting. I remember being so frustrated that I could never see long-term results. There were only short-term gains in those 3 month sprints. I'd be riding a high, feeling good, getting stronger, only to suddenly tip and fall into a valley where ice cream for dinner was an acceptable cheat meal.
Thinking about exercise within the scope of The Squeeze looks more like this:
I'm always aiming for baseline. That consistency is an ideal. But I understand that life isn't consistent, so I embrace it but remain mindful of whether I'm above or below that baseline. Success is squeezing towards the center as much as my mind will allow, fighting for consistency and growth. But to miss a week, or even a day, doesn't cause me to tip and quit completely.
I like The Squeeze because the model helps me to deal with productivity:
And almost anything else that is impacted by time as a variable.
The Squeeze isn't a one-time thing either. You don't just do it and then feel better. It's a constant effort and practice of introspection to find consistency and balance. It takes discipline to not become overjoyed by external factors, and inversely to become depressed when things aren't going well.
Here's a more ideal world, for me:
I'll quickly talk about some arguments and questions about this model, and how I've wrestled with them:
The Squeeze would make life boring
Why should I Squeeze towards the center, instead of just pushing up from the valleys?
- Why would I want to dampen the peaks of happiness/productivity/x in my life?