The Many Reasons Long Hours Are Awful For You, Your Work, And Your Clients

Longer is not always better.

To designer Jason James, long hours are several sorts of awful: they effectively make us work for free, they set unreasonable and unsustainable expectations, they evidence cultural problems, they evidence project management issues, they indicate weak leadership, they have a high opportunity cost, they promote martyrdom, and they don't ensure better work.

To James, the long-hours pandemic is a symptom of the tech and design sectors' "badge-of-honor-martyr-complex." It's not only in tech and design, however; research shows that managers think the employees that show the most face time are the most dependable and committed. And as Anne Marie Slaughter observed, part of the reason that women can't have it all is that American business has an grown time-macho culture, "a relentless competition to work harder, stay later, pull more all-nighters, travel around the world and bill the extra hours that the international date line affords you."

Why all the madness around hours worked? From what we can tell, it's the same reason folks get all proud about cheating themselves of sleep; they mistake quantity of attention for quality of attention. As productivity philosopher Bob Pozen has written, we inherited this misapprehension from industrial-era thinking.

"Hourly wages and the classic 40-hour work week have trained us to measure our labor by the number of hours we log," he wrote in a powerful HBR piece. "However, this mindset is dead wrong when applied to today’s professionals. The value of lawyers, consultants, and analysts isn’t the time they spend, but the value they create through their knowledge."

The thing about value, though, isn't that it ain't quite quantifiable in the same way that hours are. There are, of course, metrics that can suggest the value being created, though they are incomplete in their assessments of worth, for even Google gets mired in internal metrics. Figuring out what the value you need to create, then, requires criticial thinking rather than deference to spreadsheets: as nine-time entrepreneur Daniel Epstein says, spreadsheet-worshipping efficiency becomes stupid when you're organizing around the wrong goal. But that's another blog post.

In this one, let's see what happens to us after all the long hours.

Long hours = fatigue = awful work

When you work an insane number of hours, you're going to get fatigued--for your neurons can only handle so much effort until they get worn out.

What's happening here? Psychologists call it decision fatigue: the phenomenon where the more decisions you make, the worse at deciding you get. It's part of the reason why judges give harsher rulings late in the day and hiring managers prefer the people they interview in the morning. Additionally, if you're tired, you're more likely to make unethical decisions--which suck and are to be avoided.

When the long hours make sense

That being said, we have to also acknowledge that the stories of the greats tend to have passages of insane dedication: Bill Gates fell asleep at his keyboard while he was building the software industry as an undergrad; Marie Curie lived in her lab on the way to discovering radiation. However, you could argue that the reason this was beneficial was not because they were working for a demanding client or boss, but for themselves, doing work that they were deeply interested in--as Annie Murphy Paul has reported at length, interest makes effort sustainable.

Burnout, that feeling of dejection, alienation, and dissociation from our workings lives, provides a contrasting frame: people get burned out when they don't see themselves in the work that they're doing, in the long hours they spend at the office.

This calls into the larger question of what we're looking for: as Viktor Frankl, the holocaust survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning, will tell you, the seed of resilience is meaning--if we find the work we do to be significant, to be meaningful to ourselves and to world, the healthier those hours--short or long--might be.

Hat tip: We Are Mammoth

[Stampede: Katrina Leigh via Shutterstock]

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3 Comments

  • scotty

    Great piece! but this sentence seems wrong to me "The thing about value, though, isn't that it ain't quite quantifiable in the same way that hours are." Don't you mean 'The thing about value, though, is that it ain't quite quantifiable in the same way that hours are. '

  • Bjorn Commers

    Thanks for the article. I especially enjoyed the incorporation of Viktor Frankl's book at the end. Having meaning in one's work is a key exception to a rule that otherwise rings true for me.