The Cult of Overwork

Yesterday, The New York Times published a fascinating article entitled "How Some Men Fake an 80-Hour Work Week and Why it Matters." I was immediately struck by this headline because it promised to discuss one of my favorite subjects: productivity and time management.

The article was inspired by a study done on one, unnamed, consulting firm in which several employees reported "faking" an insanely long work week of 70-80 hours because the culture of the firm encouraged it. The article mentioned that workers who tried to demand flexibility in their schedules, thereby challenging the culture, were punished with lackluster performance reviews. And while many people did, indeed, report working up to twice the typical work week for an American (which is 35 hours), others were more creative. Instead of demanding flexible hours or flaunting their personal hours (doctors appointments, time spent with kids, vacations, etc), they simply did what they needed to do to have a balanced life and didn't make a big thing about it:

Some 31 percent of the men and 11 percent of the women whose records Ms. Reid [the professor who interviewed the employees] examined managed to achieve the benefits of a more moderate work schedule without explicitly asking for it.
They made an effort to line up clients who were local, reducing the need for travel. When they skipped work to spend time with their children or spouse, they didn’t call attention to it. One team on which several members had small children agreed among themselves to cover for one another so that everyone could have more flexible hours.
A male junior manager described working to have repeat consulting engagements with a company near enough to his home that he could take care of it with day trips. “I try to head out by 5, get home at 5:30, have dinner, play with my daughter,” he said, adding that he generally kept weekend work down to two hours of catching up on email.
Despite the limited hours, he said: "I know what clients are expecting. So I deliver above that." He received a high performance review and a promotion.

Basically, they let the work speak for itself. They got just as much done as their colleagues who slept at their desks in way less time, and no one was the wiser.

I have been reading about time management for a few years, thanks in large part to the work of Laura Vanderkam, an author and time management expert whose first three books, including 168 Hours and What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, I edited in my previous life as a business book editor.

Ms. Vanderkam's primary goal is to change the way we think about time and productivity. The first step, she argues, is in understanding just how we currently spend our time. If you read any of her work, you'll quickly learn a few hard truths about this subject, specifically, that we really have no clue how we spend our time. Studies, including the annual American Time Use Survey, consistently show that Americans overestimate how much they work (by a lot) and underestimate how much they do other, one would argue more enjoyable. things like sleep, watch TV, or mess around on the internet (though we don't tent to underestimate how much we exercise because we make plenty of excuses to not exercises because we think we don't have any time to do it). 

We've all done it, and we've all heard others do it. We talk about our 50 or 60 or 70 hour work weeks with a pleading look in our eyes. But haven't you ever noticed that when people do this, it often comes across as bragging rather than complaining? And have you ever felt guilty when someone talks about how much they work and you realize that you haven't worked as long--and therefore as hard--as they have? 

Isn't this shameful? I know that I have, at times, felt ashamed when someone tells me how much they work and I think "Hmmm, this week was pretty manageable for me. I did what I needed to do at work and gave it all my best effort, but I didn't have to scramble to do it." Instead of feeling thankful that I don't work in their demanding job, I feel like I'm not earning my keep, like I should just give back my salary because I clearly haven't earned it. Instead of reflecting on the work that I do, I think about the hours I put in even though I know full well that productivity is measured in output, not input. 

Don't get me wrong. I have met people who have worked themselves to the point of breakdown, and, in those cases, I have felt sorry for them, not jealous. Overwork is a real problem, and I don't mean to trivialize it in any way. What I want to challenge is the notion that overwork is something we should be proud of. That we should measure our self-worth in terms of the hours we put in.

This is a fallacy, and a harmful one, because it rewards people for working hard, not well, and can inadvertently punish people for trying to live a balanced life. Perhaps it's just the American way, a holdover from our Puritan forbears who put the fear of God in all of us by preaching that "idle hands are the Devil's workshop." As a result we judge ourselves and others based on how much stamina and endurance we have, and we deny ourselves and our colleagues the chance to enjoy all of those things that make our lives rich, meaningful, and truly productive. Aren't we all happier, and therefore more engaged, when we have a well-rounded life? Aren't we more creative when we get out of the office and meet people or read a book or travel the world? Aren't we more ready to work when we can exercise and get a good night's sleep? Yes, of course we are.

I realize that I am fortunate. I have a lot of flexibility at my job, and my coworkers lead fulfilling and productive lives both in and out of the office. But what I love about the aforementioned article is that it proves that, even in an office culture that promotes and rewards long hours, it is possible to lead a balanced life by simply showing up, doing your work and doing it well, and then making time for the other things in your life that give you energy and bring you joy. Even if you're not fortunate enough to work in an office with a lot of flexibility, it is possible to take matters into your own hands even if you have to fake it.

The Only Test I've Ever Failed

The summer after my Freshman year of college, I took a part time job at an Office Depot in Nashville, Tennessee. It wasn’t my first choice for summer work, but I had already signed on for my second summer working part-time as a student runner at Vanderbilt University on weekday afternoons. Given that I didn’t have a car of my own, it was either find a job in the area to occupy my morning hours or spend 5 hours every day wandering the campus of a university where I was not a student. Vanderbilt has a beautiful campus, but since my job there already required me to walk around it for up to 2 hours every day, I felt I’d grow tired of it quickly.

As part of the Office Depot application process, I had to take a drug test. Let me point out that this is the only job—out of about ten I’ve had throughout my life—for which I had to take a drug test. For three years in college I tutored seven-year-olds; no drug test required. I did not—and do not—use drugs, so I expected it to be a breeze—I’d walk into the clinic, pee in a cup, and have them declare me coke-free and employable. It ended up being a two-hour ordeal that I will not explain here because this is not a story about that test. I passed that test, despite almost fainting in the shower that morning, vomiting, and being forced to chug black coffee to induce peeing. Oh yes. I passed that test and took a job as a cashier at the Office Depot on West End Avenue for the Summer of 2004.

It ended up being a pretty okay job. Nashville summers are hot and sticky and largely miserable, but the store was well air conditioned, and since most people don’t like thinking of office supplies in the summer, we had few customers. We were actually open on the Fourth of July. Guess what people don’t  buy on the Fourth of July? Printer paper and binder clips. We did have a few customers come in that day, including one up-and-coming country music star who I accidentally offended by not recognizing him. But that, too, is another story.

I have a good work ethic, and I don’t like it when people yell at me. I was the perfect part-time, hourly retail employee. I got paid minimum wage, but some innate drive to please people—a trait Darwinism really should have stamped out of the population by now—coupled with an equally destructive addiction to stress drove me to be attentive, courteous, and efficient. Looking back, I’m surprised they didn’t promote me to manager by August.

At the end of the summer, I left Nashville to go back to school. The following June, I returned, eager to pick up extra cash. First stop: my old Office Depot. I expected they’d welcome me back with open arms. Unfortunately, I was met by a staff that had been turned over by about 90%, so I had to start from scratch. I dutifully filled out an application, citing my demonstrated excellence at the job.

“Thanks,” the manager—a different one from the one I’d had—said as I handed him the application. “Now you need to take the personality test.”

You see, after I’d started the job the previous summer, corporate had augmented their application process by requiring all prospective employees to take a short, Myers-Briggs-like test to see if they were fit to join the esteemed ranks of Office Depot’s frontline employees. I thought I’d get a pass since the company should have some sort of file on me that showed I hadn’t engaged in any deviant or troubling behavior while on the job. I was wrong.

I took the test on a computer located smack-dab in the middle of the entryway to the store. Why they put it there, I’ll never know. Maybe so customers walk in and think “Oh wow. The employees at Office Depot must be the cream of the crop if they can pass a computerized personality test while standing next to a checkout line! I will spend money here!”

The questions were pretty straightforward, designed to test my ethics (“If you saw a customer stealing, what would you do?”) and people skills (“Is the following statement true or false: ‘I like to be around people all of the time’”?)

Looking back, I can see it was questions like this last one that tripped me up. I am a smart person but a terrible test taker. I’m too literal. So if a question is phrased at all ambiguously, I will answer it as written, which is often the opposite of how it was intended. I almost failed my written driver’s test this way. But, again, I passed that test.

I finished the test, left the store, and waited patiently for a phone call telling me I was, once again, gainfully employed by one of the biggest office supply store chains in America.

A few days passed. The call didn’t come. Meanwhile, I started an internship—my first one ever!—at a local magazine. The magazine didn’t have a formal internship program. I’d gotten the position by cold calling the editor and asking if he needed cheap—or even free—help over the summer. It was a pretty easy process. I was bright-eyed and eager and what respectable media enterprise turned down cheap labor?

But the part-time, minimum wage internship wasn’t helping me rake in the dough I was hoping to make. It also wasn’t keeping me occupied most days of the week, and I was restless.

During my lunch break one day, I called Office Depot again to see the status of my application. Perhaps the manager had been extraordinarily busy that week. Perhaps there had been an accident involving an Office Depot freight truck that had left the store out of stock of toner or highlighters. What if there were thousands of paper clips lining the freeway somewhere and dozens of angry customers waving sheaths of uncollated documents around the store demanding attention? No wonder she hadn’t looked at my resume.

The phone rang. A man answered.


For a second I thought I’d dialed the wrong number and inadvertently woken this poor person. Office Depot employees don’t answer the store phone with a drawling, tired “Hello.” They answer with a perky, “Office Depot, how can I help you?” At least, that’s how I used to answer the phone when I worked there.

“Uhhh…is this the Office Depot on West End?”


“Can I speak to a manager about an application I filled out last week.”

“Uh yeah. One second.”

I listened to some hold music until a manager picked up.


“Hi, yes. My name is Brooke Carey. I worked for your store last summer and just applied for my old job but haven’t heard anything. Can you tell me the status of my application?”

“Oh yes,” he said after a pause during which he retrieved my application. “We reviewed your application but unfortunately we can’t ask you in for an interview because you didn’t pass the personality test.”

“Excuse me.”

The manager went on to explain that, under the new employment policy, applicants had to score high enough on the personality test in order to even be brought in for an interview. The fact that I had worked there for three months the previous summer and had never had a complaint did not matter—I know this because I asked. I asked if he could tell me what my score was or why it didn’t meet Office Depot’s clearly rigorous criteria.

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Why not.”

“Corporate policy.”

Figuring that if I continued to argue my case, the manager would simply throw “corporate policy” out as his default response to my questions, I hung up, defeated. This was the first test I’d ever failed.

I called my mom, furious, but also a little amused. She was, as usual, indignant on my behalf.

“That’s ridiculous.”

“I know.”

Later that day when I picked my mom up from work, I found her in the back office on the phone. She mouthed to me excitedly, “Brooke, I’m on the phone with the district manager of Office Depot!”

I had not asked her to do this.

“Here,” she said into the phone. “My daughter is here, why don’t you talk to her.”

I protested. As irritating as the Office Depot reapplication process had been, and as pissed as I was that a corporation wouldn’t look past a clearly phony personality test in order to actually evaluate its job candidates, I didn’t relish the idea of making a fool of myself, with my mother’s help, to a man I didn’t know who, most likely had better things to do and already resented me and my mother for preventing him from going home to his family.

“Hello,” I said after my mom shoved the phone into my hand.

The manager introduced himself and told me he could tell me my score on the test since I’d asked directly. “We don’t normally do this, though.” Boy, did I feel special.

“It looks like you scored just fine on three of the four categories we test for, but, unfortunately, you didn’t score high enough in the energy category.”

The energy category. “What about that guy who answered the phone at the store when I called today? The one who sounded like he’d just woken up from a long night of drinking? How high did he score in the energy category?” I wanted to ask this, but I refrained.

“Unfortunately, despite your previous employment with us, our corporate policy dictates that we cannot consider any applicant who fails to score high enough in all four categories.”

Thus ended my career at Office Depot. Later that week, I went and got a job at Staples.