By Joel Dignam
If you have a full-time job, you are probably working more than full-time. Maybe someone expects you to chalk up a certain number of billable hours each week. Maybe there’s an implicit pressure when you look around and see your coworkers chained to their desks: it can feel strange being the last to arrive and the first to leave each day. Your manager might make snide remarks when you take leave or start late. Or maybe no one would dare make such snide remarks – but management praises those who always work overtime, who always volunteer for extra work, who seem to have limitless reserves to dedicate to the company’s will. What message does this send?
Overwork has heavy costs. Working longer hours is dangerous and ineffective. But poor management, the subconscious, workplace culture, and work volume, can each be a barrier to better workplace practices. Thankfully though, these barriers can be overcome.
If You Work More, You Get Less Work Done
Why shouldn’t you work more than 40 hours a week? If you work in the private sector, I might posit that working more than you are paid to constitutes a de facto donation to your employer, and last time I checked, they didn’t have DGR status. But let’s say you are working with, for example, a development NGO. Every hour you don’t work is an hour that you aren’t helping to make the world a better place. So 50 hours a week is 10 extra hours helping to improve governance in Papua New Guinea. Right?
Wrong. If you work more than 40 hours a week, your per-hour productivity declines, as does your overall output. That is, if you work more hours, you will get less done. In fact, “five-day weeks of eight-hour days maximize long-term output in every industry that has been studied over the past century.” Really.
Why is this so? One obvious thing: over the course of a workday you become physically and mentally fatigued and your output decreases. If you regularly work overtime, this physical and mental fatigue accumulates, affecting how well you work.
Two other things might be considered. Particularly when it comes to knowledge work, if you are willing to spend extra time at work, it is harder to decline work that is less valuable, so you spend less of your time effectively. As Timothy Ferriss writes in The 4-Hour Workweek, “Since we have 8 hours to fill, we fill 8 hours. If we had 15, we would fill 15.” Further, even for worthwhile tasks, if you have an unbound amount of time to spend, you will tend to procrastinate and work less efficiently. Ferriss describes this as “Parkinson’s Law”, which dictates that “a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion.” So, if your manager knows you will tend to work more hours, they’ll tend to give you extra work to fill those hours. You yourself will be an unwitting co-conspirator in this, working less efficiently because of the awareness that you will inevitably end up working overtime.
Another way in which overwork decreases total output is that it uses up the internal resources that enable you to work well. In Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys To Transforming the Way We Work and Live, Tony Schwartz describes how humans naturally need to “pulse” between work and renewal in other areas of their lives. Effective workers, Schwartz demonstrates, have a work routine that allows time out on a daily, weekly, monthly, and annual basis. Too, such workers experience renewal in other areas of their lives: emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual.
If you are working more than 40 hours a week, each extra hour is an hour away from something else that means something to you. Maybe you don’t have time to visit the gym, to make your partner dinner, to meditate, or to play a game of Capture the Flag with your friends. Each of us is a whole person, the person who goes to work each day is the same one who comes home. So if your work is adversely affecting you outside of work, it’s also adversely affecting you inside work. A poorer personal life leaves you deprived of the internal resources needed to work effectively.
But It’s Hard to Choose to Do Less Work
So we can see now what was clear to most managers and business people through much of the 20th century: if you make people work longer, less work will get done. Yet just knowing this isn’t enough. There are still various barriers between you and a sustainable – and productive – work life.
Your manager makes you less productive
Sometimes you can’t choose to work productively because your manager doesn’t give you a choice. Many modern managers are bad managers: they demand extra hours from their staff, completely oblivious to the adverse impact on staff output – let alone staff wellbeing. If you are in this situation, you have lamentably few options. You could actively stand up to your boss (we have unions for a reason!). You could passively stand up to your boss – let them say their piece, but still have the breaks that are your right. You could find a new manager, or a new job. Or you could grow gradually bitter and resentful. So if your manager is a deadbeat, you aren’t entirely screwed, but you aren’t in a great place.
But even when your manager isn’t a deadbeat, even when you aren’t being asked to work overtime, it still isn’t so easy…
The voices in your head want you to work more.
A primary barrier to a productive worklife is “projection”. First conceptualised by Freud (although possibly in a different context), projection is when you subconsciously reject a negative attribute of your own, defensively pushing it on to others. Or, as Trent Hamm puts it more concisely: “you’re putting your own thoughts into their heads”. Have you ever left work early, or told a coworker you couldn’t take on that extra project, only to then think to yourself how slack people must think you are? Feeling judged or lazy is a serious disincentive to working less.
In this situation, it’s important to recognise that these are your own thoughts. We can’t know what others think of us, and if we are concerned that our manager thinks we’re freeloading, that’s a conversation better brought out into the open. Rather, these thoughts reflect our own self-judgement and discomfort – given the dominant culture of overwork – with looking after our own selves adequately. Recognising these thoughts for what they are can help us to accept them without being controlled by them.
You want to work as much as everybody else does.
Workplace culture can also be a barrier to working less. Glen Ochre of The Groupwork Institute describes culture as “the way we really do things around here”, and this definition perfectly captures the potential problems. Even if it is explicitly OK to restrict one’s work to 40 hours a week, it is implicitly not OK to do so if everyone else in the office is working unpaid overtime. We’re all accustomed to discerning the difference between what people say and what they do, between what people say is acceptable and what actually is acceptable. The leaders in a workplace have great influence over its culture, and their behaviour – more so than any induction manual – indicates what is expected of others. The risk is thus that the leaders themselves work a great deal of unpaid overtime, and other staff feel compelled to do the same – because that’s the way people really do things.
There are two ways to mitigate this risk. The best way? For leaders to model sustainable work practices. If your manager walks out of the office with a surfboard at 5pm on Friday afternoon, it makes it OK for you to spend more time with your family. If your manager never calls or emails you outside work hours, you know that it’s OK for you to have boundaries too. Managers can also fight the temptation to talk about how busy they are or how much work they’ve been doing, instead chatting about the lovely weekend they just spent in the Grampians. This is true leadership that means much more to employees than any words could.
Perhaps, though, this isn’t an option. It’s possible the manager practices sustainable work but it doesn’t seem that way – they might be first in, and last to leave, but duck out for two hours every afternoon for a nap in a park. Maybe everybody sees the manager working 6-day weeks, but nobody knows about the 5 week holiday they’re planning on taking in a month’s time. Here, the best option might simply be honest communication: talking to staff about what expectations actually are, while naming the implicit pressures that might exist. “Lots of people here do lots of work, but each one of them has found a balance that allows them to do their best possible work,” one might say. “It’s incumbent upon you to do the same – even if, and especially if, that means working fewer hours.” While few things are stronger than culture, open and ongoing discussion around workplace norms can give people permission to look after themselves as they need.
But there’s so much work to be done!
It’s 4:50pm and you’ve just emailed your colleague the minutes from your most recent meeting. You’ve completed your goals for that day and am about to head out to see a play (“The Importance of Being Earnest”) with a youth worker you met at a recent Equal Love rally. And then your manager comes up and asks if you could quickly handle some not-only-urgent-but-also-important task. Luckily, you hadn’t pre-booked tickets: you send an apologetic text and get straight back into work.
Even if you get it, even if you understand that finishing work on time is important, these sorts of moments can easily overwhelm you. It’s hard in the moment. And let’s face it – it’s hard to say “no” when we want people to like us.
But let’s face it – there’s always more work to do, and at some point you have to turn off for the day. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to turn off if you are in the middle of your best work, or if you desperately need to meet a deadline that’s one hour off. But the mere fact of there being more work doesn’t mean that you should do it now. And, in fact, if that deadline is tomorrow, or a week off, you’re probably more likely to meet it if you have a break in the meanwhile.
Katrina Shields, in In the Tiger’s Mouth, talks about “the urgency of now” – this moment can always seem like the most important moment, this action like the most important action. But is it? Asks Shields, “Do you believe that if you just work a little harder it will stem the flood of demands? Do you put life on hold until everything is cleared up? Unfortunately in most cases the demands are endless.”
Yes there’s a lot of work to be done. It can probably wait.
Work It Out
Work can be immensely rewarding. It’s possible to wake up energised by the thought of what you’ll achieve at work that day. It’s possible to glance at the clock, see that it’s 5pm, but decide you want to finish writing that paper you’re right in the middle of. This is all healthy.
What isn’t healthy, whether you love your work or not, is overwork.
So, if you want to do the best work you can, do less work. Centuries of research and experience point to a lesson that is pretty obvious even after just one 60-hour workweek: humans don’t work well if they work more than 40 hours a week. Yes, there are barriers to working less. There are bad managers, your sneaky subconscious, insidious workplace cultures – not to mention the deluge of emails in your inbox.
But you can do this. You can give yourself permission to chill. You owe it to your employer, you owe it to your clients, and above all, you owe it to yourself. Work less. You’ll work better, and you’ll feel better.
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