In America, working a lot of hours is considered normal. Indeed, people who clock out promptly at the end of the day might be looked at askance, as if they aren’t giving enough of their heart and soul to the company. Over the years, I’ve tended to be one of those who works as long as it takes to get the job done, whatever it is. If I leave the office early enough to beat the traffic, that means I’m going to be hitting the VPN once I get home to finish off whatever it was I’d left undone. (And when I pop back online, the other loonies reveal themselves by their available IM status.)
I know for certain that I can’t push too many hours in the day, at least not on tasks that require my brain to be engaged. I’ve often wondered why that is. Mostly, I sit at a keyboard and type. I configure network equipment, I troubleshoot problems, and I keep projects moving along. I don’t have the sort of job where I’m doing much physical exertion. So, why is it that after several hours of purely mental exertion, I feel exhausted? Apparently, that’s just the way we humans are. Working longer hours doesn’t equate to greater productivity, because we’re simply not able to push hard endlessly.
In “Bring back the 40-hour work week“, Sara Robinson brings up a number of old (not new!) findings that explain the struggle people, including knowledge workers, have when working beyond 8 hours a day. Consider this telling quote from Sara’s piece.
Everybody knew that eight hours a day was pretty much the limit for a guy swinging a hammer or a shovel; but those grey-flannel guys are just sitting at desks. We’re paying them more; shouldn’t we be able to ask more of them?
The short answer is: no. In fact, research shows that knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than manual laborers do — on average, about six hours, as opposed to eight…You can stay longer if your boss asks; but after six hours, all he’s really got left is a butt in a chair. Your brain has already clocked out and gone home.
One of the most obvious signs to me that I’ve exceeded my mental usefulness in a given day is that I make mistakes. I can type quickly, and I do so much CLI configuration of network gear that certain routine code blocks flow out of my fingers automatically. If I’m tired, I’m more likely to struggle to generate that code, or to lose focus of where I am in a complex change. Or I might paste the right code into the wrong window, or fail to notice an error a device spit back at me after submitting a command. Sara observes,
…the potential for catastrophic failure can be every bit as high for knowledge workers as it is for laborers. Robinson cites the follow-up investigations on the Exxon Valdez disaster and the Challenger explosion. Both sets of investigators found that severely overworked, overtired decision-makers played significant roles in bringing about these disasters.
Weariness has a price, and yet many of us put ourselves in the position day after day of dangling over the abyss of mental exhaustion. I’ve tried to change this in my own life, and made a least a little bit of progress so far in maximizing what I get done during the hours my brain is useful. The biggest changes have been forcing myself to sleep enough and relaxing from time to time (totally disconnecting from work and doing something else).
I’m still not doing well at working only 40 hours per week. Somehow, stopping at only 40 feels wrong. But I’m getting more comfortable with the idea. I’ve noticed that letting minor issues roll to the next day doesn’t incur the wrath of anyone, and that when I do tackle tasks while rested and charged, I’m better able to get them done. I’m still keeping up, I’m less stressed, and overall I have a better sense of well-being when I limit the number of hours I’m working. Still, there’s more to it that Sara captures well.
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…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.
Indeed. Thinking of working more than 40 hours as being stolen from is a whole different way to view the workplace. I don’t know if I’m ready to take it quite that far yet, as my overtime is rarely compulsory in my case, but it’s an idea with a lot of merit.
Narbik Kocharians, one of the most accomplished people I’ve ever met, once commented to me that he didn’t believe work is an end in and of itself. Work is a means to get along in life – to enable us to spend time doing the things we want to do, and to involve ourselves in the lives of our family and loved ones. There’s got to be more to life than work. He is, of course, right. I’m still looking for that balance.