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Long hours are for suckers!

March 16, 2012

Photo by crashmaster, CC BY-NC 2.0

I’m in the middle of my doctoral candidacy right now. This process is supposed to be a nightmare, but I feel oddly at ease with it all. However, I certainly know a few people right now who are freaking out about it. Why the big disconnect? Simply, I think it all boils down to hours. No, I haven’t been driving myself crazy by working 70 hour weeks. Not 60, nor 50, but 40 like every other week. In fact, in times of great effort and potential stressors such as this, I redouble my efforts to not work more than I absolutely need to. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it keeps me sane and productive.

The Great Career

You might ask, “If I don’t work hard, will I ever be successful?” Larry Smith, an economist at the University of Waterloo,  has a great answer to that question:

Mommy and Daddy told me that if I worked hard, I’d have a good career. So if you work hard and have a good career, then if you work really, really, really hard you’ll have a great career. Doesn’t that, like, mathematically make sense? Hmm, not, but you’ve managed to talk yourself into that. You know what? Here’s a little secret. You wanna work? You wanna work really, really, really hard? You know what? You’ll succeed; the world will give you the opportunity to work really, really, really hard. But, are you so sure that’s going to give you a great career, when all the evidence is to the contrary?

This cuts right to the core about why working hard isn’t necessarily the path to a great, fulfilling career. I take the saying “past results are the best predictor of future performance” very seriously. In this context, the types of jobs that you will get in the future will closely mirror the kind of work you are doing now. So, if you work yourself to exhaustion, the types of jobs you will do in the future will likely be the same way. By working in a particular manner, you are building career capital of a particular type. If you want to have a successful, happy career then you need to start working the way you want immediately and stray from that course as little as possible. A post over at Study Hacks sums this up very nicely :

If, for example, your vision involves working four hours a week from a beach, the capital obtained from an investment bank is not the right type of capital for the career traits you seek.

If your vision instead involves impacting major world events, then banking capital can serve you well.

If you think that simply working really, really hard will automatically bring you a great career then you’re taking a big misstep; you’re just inviting more hard work, whether it’s fulfilling or not. Long work hours don’t do us any favors, either. Even adjusted for work stress, the simple addition of extra hours per week drastically increases the likelihood of a depressive episode. Another study shows that personal health is the largest contributor to happiness, and we all know how stress affects health. Peoples’ deepest regrets are most related to love and social relationships, not work. Quality of work depends far more on how time is spent, not on how much time is spent. In some cultures, the worship of hard work is so sacrosanct that it drives people to death. I learned something interesting while researching for this post: Japan has it’s own word for “death from overwork,” karoshi. I’m considering posting that word up on my cubicle wall.

Protect What’s Yours

Graduate school can become a trap for workaholics and people who are easily intimidated into working long hours; I’ve written about that before. If you don’t watch out for yourself, it’s easy to fall into bad working habits. So how can you break those habits? First, ask yourself this question: “exactly how many hours, on average, do I feel comfortable with working?” For me, that number was 40. Make a weekly hours chart, and stick to that number as closely as possible. At the end of the week, write down everything you accomplished; this builds a sense of pride in what you finished, and inoculates against workaholicism. Taking control of your time is strongly linked with happiness, so take advantage of that!

If you think your boss won’t like it, be prepared to defend yourself. You might be confronted by bitter or holier-than-thou coworkers who think that you are a worthless slacker. Pay no mind, you’ll soon be able to tell the sane and insane apart. Never lie. Tell people exactly how much you work if you are asked. Keep fresh in your mind that your life belongs to you. Not your parents, not your boss, not even your family, you. Take a moment and think about your life:

For employees, the fundamental realization is that an employer who asks for more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week is stealing something vital and precious from you. Every extra hour at work is going to cost you, big time, in some other critical area of your life. How will you make up the lost time? Will you ditch dinner and grab some fast food? Skip the workout? Miss the kids’ game this week? Sleep less? (Sex? What’s that?) And how many consecutive days can you keep making that trade-off before you are weakened in some permanent and substantial way? (Probably not as many as you think.) Changing this situation starts with the knowledge that an hour of overtime is a very real, material taking from our long-term well-being — and salaried workers aren’t even compensated for it.

Raise your hand if you’re still okay with working long hours. Don’t everybody go at once.

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From → Food for Thought

2 Comments
  1. rochester numerical permalink

    typical american…

  2. Tammi permalink

    Americans live to work. Pathetic.

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