Last week, a heated Twitter debate among college professors over the numbers of hours they’re working drew national media attention. The back-and-forth started with an NYU professor citing research suggesting that professors typically work 60-hour weeks on average. Quickly lost in the discussion about overwork (an entirely valid one, by the way) was how many hours a given professor–or anybody, really–should be working.
Of course, that questions often feels moot, especially if you’re feeling overworked to begin with; when you’re spread thin already, contemplating the duration of your ideal workweek may seem like a totally moot question–one that your boss or employer all but answers for you. But one exit route from the powerlessness of this common predicament is to reframe the question.
After all, if you have to ask, “Am I working too hard?” chances are you already know the answer. So try asking yourself these three questions instead.
1. What Are My Values?
Obviously, if you want to be the best in the world at something, you’re going to have to work hard and long at it–perhaps harder and longer than anyone else (though you’ll need to have some talent, too). And, conversely, if you don’t want to work that long and hard, you’ll have to admit to yourself that world-class performance isn’t something you value.
It’s harder than you might think. Culturally, it isn’t cool to say that you don’t want to be “the best.” We’re constantly bombarded (including by Fast Company!) with models of top-performing CEOs, “thought leaders,” and innovators. But it’s actually okay to want to play a role for your organization without being its top star.
Whatever you do, don’t just follow the crowd. Work cultures are powerful things. Their subtle rules and politics impose all kinds of behaviors on people that can lead to burnout, resentment, and worse. In many offices, the workday ends with an unspoken waiting game: Who’s going to be the first to head to the door so everyone else feels comfortable following them out? Habits like these come down to sociology, not your personal value structure.
Your values may change over the course of your life, so every year or so, it’s worth taking stock of what’s important to you and reorienting your work to suit. That may mean when or whether you go after that promotion. It might mean how much effort you put into the job you already have. Or it may mean switching careers entirely. No matter how you respond, it’s important to be explicit (with yourself, anyhow) about how your values drive your decisions about work.
2. What Are My Needs And Wants?
Of course, no matter what you want to do (or what you value), the world may have other plans. You might have student-loan debt to pay. You might have responsibilities to your family. Those needs are going to affect the hours you put in as well.
This is worth noting since the Twitter kerfuffle last week was a somewhat privileged discussion to be having in the first place. Many people work long hours simply because they have to–in order to keep roofs over their heads, food on the table, and heat on in the winter. While everyone has basic needs, it’s easy to recategorize non-necessities as necessities soon after your income satisfies them.
If you feel you’ve been working too card in order to cover certain expenses, take a quick inventory of your purchases over the past couple weeks. Some of that may reflect rent, food, and utilities, but mixed into that may be iPads and deluxe smartphone data plans that you could afford to pare back or forego temporarily.
This isn’t to wag a finger at consumer profligacy; the ranks of the working poor in the U.S. are large and growing due to longstanding and recent policies that, by many accounts, exacerbate income inequality. Advertising and entertainment compound things; every time you turn on a sitcom set in an “average American home,” you absorb a set of expectations about material consumption that influences your own spending habits–and all of that influences your attitudes toward work.
So the next time you’re standing in a big-box retailer contemplating a new tablet, or browsing on Amazon, take the price of what you’re thinking of buying, and mentally translate it into hours worked at your current rate. Don’t let the easily-blurred line between your wants and needs lock you into an endless grind of overwork.
3. How Well Do I Work?
When I speak with companies about ways to be more productive, I usually mention the term “fake work,” and it tends to draw knowing chuckles. There are definitely times when you’re sitting at your desk but aren’t really there mentally. Maybe you’re Googling random things, scrolling Facebook, or staring blankly at a document.
A little fake work is inevitable; so is a dose of procrastination. There will always be moments when you just don’t have the focus or mental energy to be productive. People have a maximum sustainable amount of work they can do in a day or week–beyond that point lies burnout. So the key is to figure out where the line falls for you.
Do a little experiment with yourself over the next few weeks. Trying getting to work a little later, leaving a little earlier, or avoiding work at home. Mix it up. Then pay attention to how much you got done during the week you made X change to your workday versus the week you made Y change. With a little patient testing, you may find you can slice several hours off your workweek without being any less productive. In fact, you might even be more energized, and get more done in less time–and finally stop asking yourself whether you’re working too much.