As people manage their careers, it is common sense that they need to stand above their peers if they want to outperform them from a career perspective. This is why you see people working 14- or 16-hour days. It’s become such common behavior that it is a central meme in just about every movie or show about law or medicine or financial services, not to mention the uncountable references in tech movies.
But is working insane hours the best way to stand out? And beyond that, is it even a good practice if you are trying to maximize productivity?
First, there is a myth about knowledge workers that we can endlessly crank up the hours to get even more done. I suspect this comes from what appears to be a largely term-paper culture in many of the companies I have worked at. Regardless of the scope of work or length of project, a disproportionate amount of activity tends to happen in the closing days and hours before a deadline. This is similar to when in college we all used to stay up all night to finish a term paper.
In the short term, this burst of activity is real. When you are in the heat of a deadline, your body actually responds chemically. You produce adrenaline as sort of the nerd equivalent of getting psyched up for a big football or hockey game. The adrenaline is enough to keep you focused for longer hours than normal, working productively through the night.
But adrenaline is a funny thing. It doesn’t pop up as a source of energy; it is a natural reaction to higher-than-normal amounts of stress. As your body gets acclimated to certain stress levels, it takes even more stress to get the same adrenaline pop. This is why Adrenaline Junkies have to try ever more extreme sports to continue to get the rush that they felt the first time they took to the slopes or the skies.
Applying this to your work life, it means that the adrenaline burst you got the first couple nights you stayed up until 3a to complete a project will decrease over time. And if you look to those moments as proof that you are capable of working 16-hour days, you will fool yourself into thinking that mode actually produces stronger results over time. To continue to get the boost, you need to create ever more stressful situations.
And you wouldn’t be alone. There is a common misconception reaching epidemic proportions that this is how we knowledge workers function. And it is wrong.
There is another dynamic at play when people try to work longer hours to stand out. I call it the Johannesburg Syndrome. When I was visiting Johannesburg a few years ago, I noticed the ridiculous level of home security in the larger houses in the city. Walls, razor wire, electric fences, and armed guards. It’s actually not too hard to see how this happened.
On Day 1, every house has a fence. There is a break-in or two, and the more wealthy people converted their fences to walls. The next break-ins will hit the less secure homes, so over time, those homes build walls and everyone is equal. So the more security-conscious people add razor wire to their walls. So does everyone else. So they add electric wires. And armed guards. It’s a classic arms race.
In a work setting, if the primary distinguishing factor is hours worked, then everyone will start at some base. When everyone is working 50 hours/week, some people will increase that to 60. Then 70 and 80 and so on. This arms race eventually makes everyone look the same. The funny thing here is that people think they will be recognized for their hard work, but the culture this creates makes every employee virtually indistinguishable along that axis.
So how else can you stand out?
First, some really tactical advice from an executive I met at Juniper whom I have the utmost respect for. Greg Pryor (VP of HR) once told me that the most effective people time shift. They work the same number of hours as other people, but they tend to skew their hours either earlier or later so that they can get more productive time in. And when I looked around the company, sure enough, the most effective people were all either early risers or late leavers.
I personally skewed my hours early. I would frequently be in the office by 6a. And you know what happened? People noticed. They didn’t get in until 8a or 9a, but they new by virtue of where I parked that I had been in early. I developed a reputation for always being in the Pole Position (the first spot in the parking lot). And that made me stand out. I could leave the office earlier and still get noticed for the number of hours I had worked. The truth is that I probably did work harder than many, but it was the time shift that got me noticed.
Another really tactical one that is easy to do and surprisingly effective concerns all-hands meetings. I used to always sit front row center at every company or group meeting. Those spaces are always empty, even when there is standing room only. Over time, people noticed me and it became one of my things. I would have my entire team sit with me. What happens before these meetings is that all the executives or group leaders stand around and chat before the event. And I was there participating in these conversations with a CEO who knew me by name and his exec staff who all knew me through sheer exposure. It’s a great way to socialize 2 or 3 or 4 levels above your pay grade. In short, it’s a great way to stand out.
This last one is a little bit less tactical. The reality is that you cannot sustain 16-hour work days. No one has that kind of focus, no matter what anyone tells you. You need to break up your days some and contribute to your own personal growth. The best way to stand out is to show that you are forever improving and expanding your skills. I advocate taking an hour a day and devoting it to reading in the office (blogs, trade sites, books, whatever).
And when your boss or someone asks you what you are doing, do not sheepishly close or hide the browser or set aside the book. Tell them unapologetically that you are reading. Tell them that you believe in growth. Not only will you earn respect, but you will definitely be a stand out. Most people do not take their own growth seriously, and those that do are the ones we call High-Po or high potential. This has the added benefit of breaking up your work day, allowing you to return to heightened focus after a period of renewal.
Standing out is difficult, but almost by definition, you cannot stand out doing what everyone else is doing. You need to be different. So try a couple of these tactical tips and consider rethinking how you approach your workday. It has made all the difference in my career; I suspect it can help yours as well.