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.