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The Complete Guide To Your Insane Working Hours

Why are we working ridiculously long weeks? Because of the way we measure work, our cultural history, and how constantly connected we are. Here's how we can finally break free.

[Image: Flickr user Dale Joseph Bolender]

"Because everyone demands instant gratification and instant connectivity," says Goldman Sachs investment banker David Solomon, "there are no boundaries, no breaks."

Which translates into ridiculous hours.

For the record, there are 168 hours in week. Some Wall Street folk put 120 hours of them into their jobs. As New Yorker writer James Surowiecki explains, it goes beyond finance. In 2008 Harvard Business School did a survey asking after the hours of a thousand professionals: 94% of them worked 50 hours or more per week, while almost half topped 65 hours.

But what’s perplexing about the "cult of overwork," Surowiecki says, is that those long hours "diminish productivity and quality." Industrial workers have more accidents on overtime, knowledge workers have a drop off in cognitive performance when they’re tired. As Duke-NUS sleep research Michael Chee has told us, sleep deprivation makes you worse at telling if new stimuli is relevant or not and can make your reaction time much slower. Surowiecki adds that junior bankers start to "break down" in their fourth year on the job: depression and anxiety went up while their performance-reviewed creativity and judgment went down.

If long hours are so bad for health and performance, why do we cling to them?

Sometimes it’s a matter of economic incentive: if you operate off of billable hours—like law firms and consultancies are apt to do—then you’ll naturally want to maximize how many hours you put in. Like the sociologist Donald Campbell predicted, the more a quantitative indicator is used for making decisions, the more it’ll pressure those decisions. As Extreme Productivy author Bob Pozen says, time becomes the easiest metric to measure how productive a person is, even if it doesn’t connect to what they get done.

Then there are culturally ingrained habits. As Surowiecki observes, the cycle "I went through it, so you should" is a hard one to break. He asks us to consider the case of medical training: when regulation put a ceiling of 80 hours a week on residents working hours, docs said training standards were falling—even though their European counterparts work fewer hours.

"In a culture that venerates overwork," he continues, "people internalize crazy hours as the norm."

What’s needed, then, is a cultural shift.

How to shift a culture (really)

Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow did an intervention with the legendarily over-worked Boston Consulting Group. The Sleeping With Your Smartphone author asked one team what the biggest problem in their working lives were. They agreed that it was unpredictability: even if someone had planned time off on a given night, that could be quickly forsaken if something came up.

So, together, the team came up with a solution: they started a job-sharing program where each person shared 20% of their job with another. That meant that subject expertise wouldn't be limited to a single person—and so if a fire needed to be put out, the job-sharing partner could jump in.

If you want to make a similar change in your team, Perlow starting with the following steps:

1. Choose an issue that resonates with everybody:
Doesn't have to be the number one issue, but one everyone relates to. At BCG it was unpredictability. At Perlow's new station at a pharmaceutical company, the problem is endless meetings, making work spill into off hours.

2. Share the same goal, without modification:
For BCG, the night off created something predictable. For the pharmaceutical company, a meeting-free day of working from home ensures work gets done.

3. The goal has to be concrete and measurable:
You either took the night off or you didn't; the meeting-free day either happened or it didn't. Getting specific with the goal allows not only for easy tracking, Perlow says, but also reflection, allowing for ongoing learning and re-thinking of the way work gets done.

So that's one way out of the badge-of-honor-martyr-complex.

Readers: who do you deal with long hours? Let us know in the comments.