How hard should I push myself?

What the science of stress tells us about peak performance

How hard should I push myself?

It’s a question I ask myself a lot, and I bet you do too. On the one hand I really want to push myself. I’m ambitious, I want to leave it all out on the field—some of my peak work moments have come from times when I’ve pushed myself to a place where I didn’t think I could go. We all have more ability to adapt to stress and pressure than we think we do.

On the other hand, I want to be kind to myself. I wonder how much the drive to push myself is really just a drive to make up for something that I feel is missing or inadequate—and whether pushing myself will actually fill the hole. I also sometimes wonder whether letting myself off the hook is just laziness masquerading as self-care. It’s hard to tell.

But importantly, I wonder whether pushing myself might, in fact, kill me. Constant pressure creates chronic stress, and there’s all sorts of scientific studies that show that chronic stress is really bad for you. It makes you more susceptible to heart disease, it makes it harder to recover from illnesses, it can affect your sleep, and it can even affect your working memory.

There’s also all sorts of literature (and conversations on Twitter) that says that stress is actually good for you. 

What gives? How much stress is good, and how much is bad? 

I think that in order to understand the question we posed at the top—how much we should be pushing ourselves—we have to better understand stress. We need to understand what the stress of pushing ourselves does to our bodies, how much we can take of it, and how we can, hopefully, learn to cope with it better.

That’s what Why Zebra's Don't Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky is about. Robert's a stress researcher, and as far as I can tell he's one of the good ones. He's the kind of intellectual who's smart, but also smart enough to know what he doesn't know. He's written a book, but he doesn't come across as trying to sell it to you—he's kind of like your zany self-aware smart-as-hell uncle who happens to study the stress responses of baboons for a living.

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