Why You Need to Stop Bragging About How Busy You Are

Author Brigid Schulte says companies should stop rewarding overworked employees and focus on productivity instead.

Editor's Note: This article is part of "10 Ways To Be A Better Employee In 2015." Read the full list here.

Do you rush through the morning paper, barely skimming the headlines while answering emails and making kids’ lunches? Do you compete with coworkers over how late you stay at the office each night?

When journalist Brigid Schulte found herself immersed in one of the most hectic, time-crunched industries, she, like many of her busy coworkers, was feeling overworked and overwhelmed by the demands of her work and home life.

"I was just feeling so busy and holding on by my fingernails through every day, trying to work crazy hours, not only being good at what I did, but great and amazing at what I did, and then [at home] I was trying to be supermom," she says. Baking cupcakes until 2 a.m. and hosting professional interviews while sitting on the floor outside her kids’ dental office was the norm for Schulte.

Yet even though she was working as though her hair was on fire, she felt unproductive and inadequate. Schulte had bought into a "culture of busy." That is, a work environment where logging in long hours and complaining about not having any time in the day is considered a status symbol and a sign of success.

Now, in her new book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, Schulte argues a workplace culture that rewards those who are overworked is flawed and she challenges managers, business owners and leaders to adopt a new attitude of work, one where performance rather than time, and a life outside of work rather than a life consisting of work is the norm.

A culture of busy

"In our workplace culture, we reward people who work all hours, are completely work-devoted, and don’t care if they have a life [outside of work]," says Schulte.

This culture of busyness began in the 1980s as economic uncertainty set in and white collar workers began logging in more hours, trying to make themselves stand out amongst the regular 9 to 5ers. "There are many workplaces that still measure hours and not performance even when hours aren’t really what matter."

Leisure time where the best ideas are born

In her book, Schulte recounts a study by Florida psychologist Anders Ericcson who wanted to understand what it took to be the best at something. He went to Berlin to examine the time logs of the most successful musicians and discovered that the virtuosos were those who practiced the hardest for no more than 90 minutes and took more breaks and naps than the musicians who weren’t as good.

"In the breaks, that’s where the ‘aha moment’ comes," says Schulte. It’s in the moments of leisure time that the brain is working to solve issues so you can begin your next burst of intense work with a renewed perspective.

"When you look at human performance science, there’s such great evidence that working all of those hours really doesn’t get you where you want to go," says Schulte. While you may be able to work a few 60-hour weeks, eventually you will be so burnt out that you lose the ability to be creative and innovative.

Adopting a new workplace culture that devalues busyness

Schulte sought out real-life examples of workplaces that implemented this theory in practice and found it in one of the most shocking places—the Pentagon. Long hours at the office were leaving Pentagon staff burnt out and struggling to balance the demands of family and personal time. Alternative work schedules and flexible work policies were implemented that reflected a fundamental shift in cultural values.

"People were no longer bragging about long hours. If they bragged at all, it was about how they got their work done more efficiently," says Schulte. After this cultural shift that invalidated busyness rather than rewarding it, the Pentagon noticed the quality of work improve and thinking became sharper.

Schulte also examines a software company, Menlo Innovations, where staying late at the office is viewed as a sign of inefficiency and can result in dismissal. "[This company says] if you cannot figure out how to do your job in 40 hours, we will fire you," says Schulte. This from a company in an industry that is notorious for overworking employees.

The boss has to go home first

Rewiring a company culture to value leisure time rather than busyness makes economic sense, but Schulte warns, it’s a process that is top-down. "The culture is set by what the leadership does. If you work crazy hours, even if you [tell employees] to go home and be with their kids, no one will do that. They’re going to work how the boss works," says Schulte.

[Image: Flickr user Mikael Moreira]

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  • Great article. Most of the time the ones who come in early and leave very late are usually the ones who are not in their seat doing their work but gossiping, chit chatting and doing everything that is not relevant to their work.

  • Ben Classen

    This is interesting to me. I call these people "Office Martyrs". If you are able to build an air of business you can build perceived value. It's tough to lay a person off who is carrying such a large work load. So we are being incentivized to boost that story and it's often a fabrication or exaggeration, at least. When a person is running around with too much to do, bouncing from task to task, and stressed, I see a person who struggles with time management, organizing their work flow, and defending a healthy work-life balance. Maybe that's just me, but I'd like to meet more people in the professional environment that know what their band width can handle, and where they need to say 'no' to focus on what is on their plate today.

  • Judith D Sherling

    Lisa - great article! Thank you for covering this story. I worked with two guys (we are talking C-Suite) who will tell you everytime how busy they are. How many hours they work. Unfortunately they are procrastinators and have pretty big egos. I also worked several years ago with a guy that everyone felt sorry for. He was at the office 7 days a week, and you needed a trained scout to enter his office because paper was stacked everywhere sky high. This was his 'visual' statement of how busy he was. The sad thing was that he was escaping from a difficult home life but his chances of moving up were zero because he was viewed as a hard worker and that was it. I think this busyness syndrome can be a career killer. As a freelance writer (basically self employed) and others like myself (a business consultant) we don't need busywork to impress anybody do we!

  • There is a lot to be said for the quality of work that get's done in 40 hour work week as well. My experience is once people plan to get things done in a normal work week, their level of delegation, proper planning and execution goes up. "I'll get to it later" is a phrase that goes away. Yeah- long hours are going to happen, but this mind set & culture is also about employee retention, so just read to 200+ articles that state personal and professional balance is key to keeping your top performers.

  • Great article. Managers who focus on employees being accountable for results are good at setting clear expectations, negotiating unreasonable timelines, and being realistic about the capacity of people to get the job done within the parameters. The worst managers give the work of the under performers to their best talent who find that unrewarding because it is "busy" work. They don't lose their best talent because they are too busy and burned out, it is because they get tired of the manager not holding people accountable and working around them.

  • Appreciate the perspective and personally believe reward for hours is irresponsible. I also believe that an employer and employee agree to a specific role (during the interview process) that has an expectation of a certain amount of productivity that requires a certain amount of time. Those who are more productive in that amount of time receive greater reward. Those who require more time to meet the minimal productivity expectations need to make the temporary commitment to improve on their skill set so it doesn't require additional time in the future. But I believe this last point is important...sometimes it requires more hours and that's a part of the job.

  • My Doc was right when she told me the golden rule for an adult life balance: 8 hours sleep, 8 hours work, 8 hours leisure, culture, family. I don't take it rigorously, (like 8+8+8 in a row) but It works perfectly. Increase of happiness, less worries and more productivity was what I got.

  • Hi Lisa,

    Great article, hits home. Having worked in an International agency in Germany. I found this to be the culture that took over the past year. I completely agree that there are times when there is necessary overtime to be done, but once overtime becomes a norm and impacts your life outside of work and even your health, I see warning lights.

    I find it to be mediocre, once a team lead starts comparing their employees "hard work" with their overtime made, instead of looking over the achievements made while being productive. I myself as a creative person need my time off to recharge so I can work faster and more productive.. The body can only take so much and no job is worth risking your health or life. Like Mita Duran http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2525584/Copywriter-dies-tweeting-working-30-hours-energy-drinks-blamed.html

    I will definitely check your book. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  • This is yet another business article that attempts to oversimplify reality. Great in theory, impossible in practice. The author makes some valid points but is only half correct.

    There are two types of work in most roles. Task work and creative work.

    If your employer assigns you a large volume of projects or tasks that take 100 hours to complete in a week and gives you no people or resources in which to delegate, there is no way around it. You're going to put in those hours or it won't get done.

    In terms of creative tasks, I agree with the author 100%. The best ideas come during recreation and downtime. Putting in too many hours will stifle the thought process.

  • It is not impossible in practice, your fist step on getting away from this mindset is accepting you need to change. Just like any other addiction, until you recognize you need help there is no way for you to understand there are other ways to live.

    If your employer assigns you a large volume of projects or tasks that take 100 hours to complete in a week and provides no resources it is YOUR responsibility to say. I can't do what you are asking me to do, I have 40 hours in a week and you are asking me to do 100.

    The problem is that you just start working on the tasks and your employer gets used to it and they now have the freedom of giving you those 100 hours to complete on a 40 hour week, because after all you won't stand up for yourself and tell them that is not reasonable.

  • Just look at the facts. Do you think the Pentagon are all involved in creative work? Funny thing is - it is your comment that is oversimplifying! As a worker in the software industry I can tell you: it is not all creative, far from it, lots of low level coding to be done. Yet software companies do benefit from this kind of practice. It's all about the right balance. People need to have clear heads in order to spot the efficient ways to go about tasks. This is very important in software development. You also need to put the hours in actually coding. But even there mistakes due to being tired will put bugs in and these often take much work to fix!

  • Toccara Willis

    I was always taught "work smarter,not harder" . This book seems to touch on that. I may just have to pick it up. Its a work ethic that has gotten me far.

  • 10? How about a whole country? Have you heard about outsourcing? How about getting replaced?

    Of course, if you fill your mind with those thoughts instead of becoming better at what you do in a smarter way you wont be able to get ahead and you in fact will be replaced.