We know when we work too much—we just don’t know what to do about it.
Whether we love or hate our job, it’s easy to become consumed by it and destroy our work-life balance in the process.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
We can work less and not feel bad about it. We can work less and become more successful. We can work less and be more productive. It’s possible.
It’s not magic, it’s a mindset.
Over the past few years I altered my approach to work based on a series of counterintuitive observations about how work works.
Here’s what I learned…
1. Work expands to fill the time we give it.
We approach work as a finite thing.
Something that’s assigned to us, must be accomplished, or crossed off our to-do list. Something with a clear beginning and end.
But it’s not.
Work is fluid. We can always find more to do, but we can also find LESS to do.
Our work expands (or contracts) to fill the time we give it.
If we choose to work for 18 hours a day, we’ll find 18 hours worth of things to work on.
(I could work on For The Interested for at least 18 hours a day if I had the time!)
We’ll never get ALL our work done. There’s no finish line. We can always find new work to do if we look for it.
This means our decision to stop working can’t be tied to our completion of work. Instead, we must learn to accept the inevitable — there will always be undone work left on the table whenever we stop working.
When we realize we won’t ever get everything done, we lessen the guilt associated with working less and become more comfortable with stepping away from it.
We no longer judge our progress against an impossible goal.
2. The less we work, the more productive we become.
“As long as it takes” is a dangerous phrase. It’s a productivity killer.
Because our productivity is not a result of the amount of time we work — it’s a measure of how well we prioritize the work we have to do.
Working more hours doesn’t make us more productive — it enables us to be LESS productive.
If we only have five hours to work on something, we’re forced to figure out how to generate the biggest results in that time.
But if we know we won’t hold ourselves to that five-hour limit and decide to work “as long as it takes” to get something done, then we set ourselves up to be unproductive.
It may seem counterintuitive, but productivity thrives on constraints.
The more we pin ourselves down and limit our work time, the more efficient we become.
Our goal is to be productive in the time we work — not to work as long as it takes to be productive.
3. Our employer’s not responsible for our work-life balance. We are.
It’s easy to blame our boss, employer, clients, or customers for our work-life balance getting out of whack, but it’s not their fault.
No matter how demanding they are or how excessive their expectations may be, we’re in charge of our own lives. We choose what to accept.
If we’re overworked by our employer it’s often in part because we’ve allowed it to get to that point.
If we don’t protect our time, we encourage our peers to take advantage of it.
If we immediately answer every email we get at night, we convey to others that we’re available to work at night.
If we agree to take on extra projects that have nothing to do with our core job responsibilities, we send a message that we can handle it.
The choices we make around work signal our boundaries (or lack of them) to our colleagues and they will act on them accordingly.
It’s rarely somebody else’s sole fault that we feel overworked — we’ve always played a role in the situation.
And if it really is a case of working for the world’s worst boss or company?
Then it’s still partially about us.
Because we choose to work there and we choose to put up with those expectations. If it’s that awful, then it’s our responsibility to take our talents elsewhere.
4. Being busy isn’t a sign of success.
When was the last time you asked somebody how their job is going and they said something other than how busy they’ve been?
That’s because we’ve created a false narrative that being busy is a sign of success.
We want to seem important and successful, so we humblebrag about how busy we’ve been, how crazy things are at work, and how many fires we’ve had to put out.
Here’s what nobody says:
“Work’s been so easy lately. I’m on top of everything and feel completely in control. I’ve really got this job figured out.”
But if somebody did say that, would you view them as more or less successful than the person who talks about how busy they are?
This may seem like a minor conversational quirk, but it’s reflective of a much larger issue. As long as we connect the idea of being busy with being important and successful, we’ll look for ways to keep making ourselves busier.
People brag about pulling an all-nighter to finish a project.
They eagerly share that they didn’t have five minutes to think during the course of their busy day.
And they describe eating lunch at their desk while simultaneously replying to emails and being on a conference call like they just mastered a new magic trick.
Our success isn’t tied to how busy we are, it’s tied to how much control we have of your time and how we choose to use it in effective ways.
Busy is not a worth goal or metric. Ever.
5. Time spent working does not equal working hard.
It’s great that our culture values hard work.
But it’s significantly less great that our culture equates the amount of time spent working with how hard you work.
It’s likely a residual belief carried over from the industrial age when somebody who put in 8 hours at a factory actually did work harder than somebody who worked fewer hours.
But times have changed.
The average person who works an eight-hour day isn’t necessarily working hard. It’s likely they work less hard than some people who work just four hours a day.
Modern work days are filled with distractions, interruptions, meetings, and all sorts of other wastes of time. That’s why time spent working isn’t a good measure of hard work.
We need to disassociate the time we spend working with the concept of working hard in order to accurately judge the work we do.
The idea that working harder is tied to working more is one of the main ways we screw up our work-life balance.
If we leave the office at 5 pm every day, that doesn’t mean we work less hard than the person who’s there until 8 pm.
It’s not how much time we spend working that matters, it’s what we do with it.