That feeling that you are working more is likely true, a 2014 Gallup report found that the average U.S. worker’s 40-hour-work week has crept up to about 47 hours—and could be longer, depending on where you live.
What’s wrong with us?
Possibly nothing, says Matthew Kelly, president of Chicago-based workplace consulting firm Floyd Consulting, Inc. and author of Off Balance: Getting Beyond The Work-Life Balance Myth To Personal And Professional Satisfaction. More of us than ever love our work. And if we’re not hurting ourselves or others, it’s OK to work longer hours.
“We’re caught up in this balance idea, that every day or every week or every month should be balanced. Whereas, I say to people, ‘Go out and find incredibly satisfying personal and professional experiences.’ They’re likely not to be balanced experiences. They’re likely to come from either end of the spectrum,” he says.
But, there are times when work takes over in unhealthy ways, too. That’s not about the number of hours at a desk or how much work blends into our lives, but about more personal measure, such as satisfaction and happiness, he says. If you’re working so much that it’s hurting your relationships with those outside of work or if you’re becoming physically, psychologically, emotionally or otherwise unhealthy, it’s time to take some action.
Before you can cut back to more manageable work levels, you have to know what that means, says Elene Cafasso, founder and president of Enerpace, Inc. Executive Coaching. If you’ve been routinely working to the exclusion of most other things in your life, you may have lost your sense of what it feels like to work a reasonable amount of time or to know when you’ve done “enough” for the day and can resist that just-one-more-thing urge to keep going.
Assuming your manager isn’t at the heart of your overwork, reach out to him or her to define clear expectations. If you work for yourself or otherwise have control over your work day, Cafasso suggests taking some time to plan the day in advance, setting two or four goals and setting aside time blocks for each to get them done. Be sure to allow for some down time in case you have an urgent demand or your task takes longer than anticipated, she says.
Sometimes, the motivation to work too much comes from being afraid or feeling trapped, Kelly says. Are you feeling trapped or that you must work even when you feel like you don’t want to? Do you feel like you lack choice? Some people convince themselves that they’ve got a good thing going and that doesn’t exist anywhere else, so they have to work unreasonably hard to retain it, he says. If fear is ruling your work life, you need to examine why and take steps to change it, such as setting better boundaries or even seeking out new work that doesn’t make you so fearful.
Every time you say “yes” to working beyond what’s comfortable or reasonable, you’re incurring an opportunity cost, Kelly says. Sometimes, it’s a price you’re happy to pay, such as when you’re engrossed in a thrilling project. If you’re constantly grinding it out with little joy, missing out on other parts of your life, and damaging your relationships, you need to look at the true cost of your sacrifices.
“Are they really seeing the fact that those opportunities are going away? Your five-year-old daughter isn’t going to be a five-year-old forever. Guess what? When she’s 16, she’s not going to want to hang out with you unless you hang out with her when she’s five,” he says.
Sometimes, we work too much out of habit, says Joyce Maroney, senior director of customer experiences and services marketing at workforce management technology company Kronos and head of the workforce management thinktank The Workforce Institute. Once you start to make progress in reallocating your time to activities other than work, it can be easy to slip back into old patterns and fill quiet time by working later, compulsively checking your smartphone, or retreating to your home office, she says. You have to turn off the constant stream of information, at least for short periods of time.
Of course, one way to work less is to get more done in the same time. We all have times of day where we’re more productive than others, Maroney says. Work on keeping your tougher or more focus-intensive work for these “on” times. If you do your best work before 10 a.m., don’t go down a Facebook rabbit-hole first-thing in the morning and waste that opportunity to get a lot done, she says.
Cafasso says focusing on the task at hand rather than trying to multitask can help you accomplish more in less time. You might feel like you have to check your smartphone all the time, but very few people actually do have such a need. Instead of checking your phone or email between meetings, take that time to go through the agenda and prepare properly. That investment of time may make your meeting go more quickly and free up even more time.
Sometimes silence and reflection can help you quiet the noise and help you refocus on what you want to accomplish in your day–and within your big-picture goals. Kelly says that having a spiritual practice, even if it’s just taking quiet time every day to reflect on your life and what you want out of it, can be enlightening and help you find solutions and inspiration to overcome overwork.