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Why Rectifying Our Culture Of Overwork Is Easier Said Than Done

We tried to place some boundaries on our workdays, but we learned that guilt is more pervasive in the workplace than we imagined.

Why Rectifying Our Culture Of Overwork Is Easier Said Than Done
[Photo: Flickr user Thangaraj Kumaravel]

We write a lot about the culture of overwork and the perils of burnout. This is no way to be productive.

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Journalist and author Brigid Schulte explains that today’s workplace culture rewards people who work all hours and put their lives outside of work on the back burner.

Dr. Emerson Wickwire, an expert on sleep, also says that the less hours we have between work and bedtime, the less time we have to wind down. This is bad, he explains, because “creativity and innovation need space to emerge.”

As Co.Design writer Shaunacy Ferro explains, “working into the wee hours makes me a zombie. And zombies don’t come up with very clever headlines.”

Busyness may not equate to getting more done, but is cutting down on the time we spend working a feasible solution?

To find out we challenged ourselves last week to set a stopping time for work each day, a purported motivator to get important things done more quickly. And even when we were in the midst of a task, we vowed to follow in the footsteps of writers like Hemingway, who would stop writing mid-sentence to make it easier for to pick up the pen again the next day.

While we agree that pushing ourselves to keep going into the wee hours of the night isn’t the best thing for our creativity or productivity, we weren’t so convinced that packing it up for the night at a set time was the most realistic goal either. Here’s why:

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We Feel Pressure To Keep Going

Each Fast Company participant unanimously agreed on this: When our colleagues were still working and it was time for us to leave, we felt guilty.

Staff writer Chris Gayomali starts work at 8 a.m. each morning and should theoretically leave by 4:30 p.m. But he says when he sees everyone else (who started later than him) typing silently away at their computers until well beyond 5:30 p.m., he winds up staying that late, too.

For me it felt almost wrong leaving on time, like there was some unspoken rule that you should never leave the office before your boss. And when I would stop mid-task, even though I was able to pick up where I left off easily, I felt especially paranoid that I would be called out for leaving something partially completed.

“The funny thing is no one else is probably paying attention to your coming-and-going habits,” Gayomali says. “They’re probably on Gchat.”

Deadlines Are Complicated

On the one hand, deadlines are said to help us focus on the task at hand and eliminate other distractions.

“My day was definitely compressed and therefore a little more stressful, but that led to me being much more aware of my time, which was good,” explains FastCo Studios technical director Bryan Neilon.

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I found that time awareness to be helpful when thoughts of procrastination arose, and when my final 10 minutes of work rolled around, I wrote a list of all the tasks I hadn’t accomplished yet, transferring some of the guilt of not getting everything done from my shoulders to my digital to-do list.

But on the other hand, stressful deadlines can restrict the ways we think about things and limit our creativity. As Gayomali found, “letting your attention wander is necessary for the blogging grind.”

Ferro is also not a huge fan of deadlines: “I’m probably not supposed to say this as a reporter, but deadlines totally stress me out! Putting an exact time on when I’ve got to have something done (and in theory, perfect) makes everything creative inside me freeze up.”

We Don’t Work Alone

A theme we often see with these habit challenges is how other people’s expectations come into play. How we work doesn’t just affect us, but also the people we collaborate with on a daily basis.

We found that this habit change isn’t always feasible, especially when a coworker hands off an assignment at the end of the day with an early-morning deadline.

Even though we know we shouldn’t be overworking ourselves, we oftentimes do it anyway because that’s what’s expected of us.

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Neilon believes that this issue often arises from miscommunication. “I feel like I often work late because I’m fixing something that was poorly communicated or someone up the delivery chain decided their deadline was ‘soft’ because it wasn’t the end of the chain.”

Another reason is the nature of the business itself, argues Gayomali. “If you have to deliver, uh, deliverables on a daily basis it may not be realistic, but it could be healthier for company culture in the long run.”

Author Brigid Schulte contends a workplace culture that rewards those who are overworked is flawed. And while entry-level employees may have little hope of overhauling their workplace culture, managers can lead by example–just as employees take cues from their bosses about when to start their workday, when you leave at 6 p.m. every night, it signals that it’s okay for them to pack up too.

For the complete discussion, take a look at the transcript from our live chat last Friday.

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About the author

Rachel Gillett is a former editorial assistant for FastCompany.com’s Leadership section. Her work has been featured on PopPhoto.com, AOL.com, and elsewhere

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