Science Away Your Long Days

Lila Krishna
Jan 13 · 11 min read

Why I Care About Long Hours

With the New Year, I’ve been wondering about how to use my time better, as is everyone else. I want to write my novels faster, and I want to be better at my work. Time management has never really figured in my top 10 skills. Or even my top 50.

With NaNoWriMo, I realized it’s all about focus and hours. Focus matters, but hours do too. If I spend more time on something, I obtain better outcomes. Even social media engagement — if I spend half a day on Twitter, I tweet more, engage with more people, and just get the hang of it better.

But every now and then, there’s some research or the other that tells us a 6 hour workday is better, or a 4 hour workweek is better. While I’d love to spend only 6 hours at work, I don’t think it gives me the depth and immersion to do my job well. It’s been a while since I worked at a place where I’m supposed to stay chained to my desk for a certain duration, and I don’t have an outsized workload.

Additionally, in 2019, I took some time off to focus on my side projects and writing. I realized I needed the structure of an 8 hour workday, and if I spent more time doing my work, I got more done.

Family members, colleagues, and even Marissa Meyer, all swear by the power of long hours. A big reason cited for fewer women in Tech/Wall Street/Entrepreneurship is that motherhood means they can’t do the hours.

So do hours matter, or do they not?

A lot of the talk about how we only actually do four hours of real world a day, work bullshit jobs that mess up our bodies, and feel stressed and stretched thin have several confounding variables. Things like not liking your job, having a long commute, being forced to pretend to be working, or having to be at your desk for a fixed period of time, or having to be extremely creative, and the generalizations we read don’t account for those variables.

And yet, from my own NaNoWriMo experience, I realized how chores, socializing, gardening, and sleep all go for a toss when I’m laser-focused on one goal. Though, I’m not trying to make the cover of Good Housekeeping, and my list is honestly pretty minimal, I understand that any sustainable goal needs to account for a tidy home, healthy meals, and regular sleep.

I have a very specific focus — If I want to build a product I love (an app, or a novel, or a screenplay) , which is a bit of creativity and a lot of just doing the work, what kind of hours can I work sustainably to get there, as a well-supported woman with few responsibilities?

Paper 1: Long Hours and Chinese Entrepeneurs

A lot of people in China work long hours — 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week. There isn’t a cultural stigma about working long hours; if anything, it seems to be the norm. Even the protests against the 996 system asked for a 995 system instead, which still comes to 60 hours a week. So there isn’t any cultural bias towards wanting a short (<40 hr) workweek. Plus, the culture is structured so as to support people with long hours. In the US, you do everything yourself, basically, whereas you have more family support in Asian countries.

And entrepreneurs usually are working on things they care about. So Chinese entrepreneurs are my ideal use-case. So I looked at this paper titled Time Allocation and Firm Performance — The Case Of Chinese Entrepreneurs.

This paper analyzed results of a time use survey among Chinese entrepreneurs in the manufacturing sector. That’s a bit different from what I work on, but let’s go with it. In the survey, the entrepreneurs specified how much time they spent each day on management, networking, and studying. The researchers filtered the results to only study those who had a majority stake in the firm they worked at, as that would be a proxy for passion/engagement.

They found that the average age of the entrepreneur was 43 years old, and the average age of the firm was 5.6 years. Experienced people, possibly with families.

On average, the entrepreneurs spent 6.8 hours managing, and 3.8 hours networking. The average workday was 10.6 hours, adding to a 53 hour workweek.

They found an inverted U curve relationship between firm performance and networking time, as well as between firm performance and management time.

The optimal time to spend on networking was 4.9 hours a day, and to spend managing your firm was 6.8 hours a day, after which it becomes counterproductive and hurts your performance. There’s no significant relationship between time spent studying and firm performance, though it’s possible those effects occur over longer time arcs.

The point of the paper was that people need to be smart about allocating time on different activities, because if you spend 8 hours just managing (like a lot of firms did), you probably aren’t using your time well.

From this, it looks like you can work 11.7 hours a day as an entrepreneur before you actively begin harming your firm. I assume this accounts for starting off, winding down, and all the other things you do around work.

That said, keep in mind this is a study that just tries to correlate reported hours with money, and there might be a lot of other things like product-market fit which might be confounding variables either way.

Paper 2: Long Hours, Workaholics, and Metabolic Syndrome

I’m not a long-hours person, and I believe it’s bad for me to do so. In grad school, I worked all the time, didn’t get the results I wanted, didn’t have a great personal life, and burned out. It took me a year to recover, and ever since then, I’ve been vigilant to hard-stop working every evening, and switch to other activities.

But I have friends who work all the time! They make more money, have more job success, and are actually happier and more engaged at work! What gives? Am I doing it all wrong? Why can they do it while I can’t?

I found this paper titled “Beyond Nine to Five — Is Excess Working Bad For Health?” and it had all the damn answers. Do read the paper, it’s very easy to read and the findings are very accessible. They even have video and audio of the authors describing their work.

This paper distinguishes between “working long hours” and “workaholism”. Working long hours is just that — long hours. Workaholism is defined as working excessively, and working compulsively. This means you’re thinking about work even when you’re not at work, and feel compelled to respond to each email as it comes, you know the tells.

What they did was to employee surveys for 763 employees at a Dutch firm, that covered workaholism, engagement, and hours worked, as well as subjected them to a health check. They found no correlation between long working hours and bad health, or workaholism and bad health. On the surface, you know this is the kind of result a company will use to keep their employees working a lot.

Thankfully, our researchers didn’t stop there. The survey had questions about how engaged the employees felt with their work. This included vigor, dedication and absorption in their work. Questions like “When I’m working, I become lost to everything else”.

They found that for the workaholics that had low engagement, their health outcomes were worse. They were showing risk factors for Metabolic Syndrome, which is what leads to things like high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. For highly engaged workaholics, the risk factors for metabolic syndrome were low!

They dug deeper by questioning the workaholics on their mental well being. They tested for depressive feelings, impaired sleep, and feelings of needing to recover after work. People who reported these issues were the ones who were also showing risk factors for metabolic syndrome.

Things like depressive feelings, impaired sleep, and being unable to recover from work are indications that you can’t switch off work. So essentially, being unable to switch off mentally from work when you’re not at work was what was leading to bad health.

These are the feelings I have felt at every terrible job I’ve had. The constant feeling that I haven’t done enough, and the constant guilt when I did anything that wasn’t work, because it meant I wasn’t doing my best. I simply couldn’t switch off. Whenever I managed to, it led to negative consequences, which trained me to never switch off.

Why don’t engaged people develop these issues?

They found that engaged employees have resources that they use to deal with these feelings. They would take days off, or rely on social support from their family, or move projects around if they had job autonomy, or use time management skills to smoothen their schedule.

Basically, having resources made these stressors into challenges, versus sources of stress. Approaching things from a challenge mentality greatly changed how it impacted health.

Engaged workaholics started developing health issues, but apparently stress response is like a muscle for some people. They learned to get used to it, and to use their resources to make these easier to deal with, and it didn’t impact their health. This was because they got positive feedback from their work, and that helped them get used to it and see it as a challenge instead of a threat.

It All Makes Sense Now.

This explains a lot with my trajectory. When I started grad school, I was an immigrant with no support structure, and all my close friends were far away from me. I was very engaged with my work at first, but thanks to a mix of bad guidance and bad decisions, the rewards were diminishing, and I developed anxiety and depression. I had a host of issues including undiagnosed ADHD which contributed to the diminishing rewards. To make it worse, it was prohibitively expensive to eat out, not that there were many options as a vegetarian. Just that simple change might have fixed a whole host of issues I had.

Subsequently, I thrived when I worked in cities where I had a solid support structure — space for hobbies, places to meet like-minded, accepting people, good therapists, and most of all, the time to find and set up all of this. In the workplace too, I needed guidance and mentoring, and calibration from people around me. In the absence of this, I floundered, and floundered terribly.

Also, as a writer, I’d feel awful when I wasn’t able to write. Which was all the time. I wouldn’t be able to focus at work because I felt like I didn’t belong in writing code, because my true calling was to write stories. When I combined that with the lack of guidance, and the writing industry not being very beginner-friendly, it was a huge mismatch between expectations and reality, and I’d be extremely depressed.

The times I felt most fulfilled was when I was attending classes in writing, because I’d actually write, and feel good. Now that support has shifted online, and I’m glad to have that flexibility. Basically, just being able to turn off the writing muscle when I’m at work, because I know I’m going to be doing it later reduced my stress hugely.

Other Research

I found other research on topics of work/life balance. There’s one paper that talks about how having friends at work, and hanging out with them after work helps with work satisfaction. Most people would surely like to work with friends, and my most hardworking, successful friends are on very close terms with their coworkers. But that’s not an option for everyone. I don’t like to share my personal life with coworkers, for fear of being judged, and for fear of it affecting my work life. I compromise by having lunch with coworkers. It only helps when you fit in with your coworkers, though (which is what would help engagement).

This paper about older entrepreneurs in Australia (who started their enterprise after age 50) is rather encouraging — it says that when you’re more experienced and older, there’s more correlation between the effort and money you put in with success. So more experience means you actually know the right places to put your efforts and money in, and you are more efficient. Even more encouraging is that older entrepreneurs didn’t put in more hours or money into their startups than younger ones.

And then there’s this study of tech and finance workers in Taipei which says while long hours cause stress and disruption in work-life balance, giving people more control over their hours helps with restoring balance.

Putting It All Together

  • On the topic of how many hours you can work before it’s totally counterproductive, I’m going to go with an outside estimate of 11.7 hours, if you’re passionate about what you’re doing, and there’s a variety of tasks to keep you occupied. Otherwise, I would go with the plethora of studies that all estimate between 4 hours and 8 hours.
  • If you’re at a job where you feel invigorated to work, get paid well, and have great colleagues you like hanging out with, go ahead and work your ass off. You’ll deal with it well.
  • If you don’t feel engaged at your job, maybe that should be your focus — getting rewards, and accumulating resources, so you can use that to ward off the stress, and train yourself to deal with it better.
  • If however, your job is giving you sleepless nights, and you feel ‘always on’, it’s probably not good for you, and scaling back, or looking for a new job would be a good idea.
  • It’s possible to look at a creative hobby as a second job. The important thing would be to not let one bleed into the other.
  • At your job, maybe bargaining for more flexibility (working from home, working your own hours) would be more satisfying long-term than more money (though, both would be nice).

Afterthought: Creative Burnout

On my writing group, we talked about writer’s block, and feeling stressed out about the long slog of completing a novel, just as I was writing this. What did we learn today that would be useful in dealing with that?

I guess, writer’s block and other creative burnouts are a period of low engagement. Giving in to workaholic tendencies, like obsessively writing, or not switching off from writing make it worse.

The solution would be to increase engagement, and to use your resources to deal with stress. A quick win would help get back to the grind, maybe? Maybe you complete a short flash fiction piece. Or you reward yourself for doing something important.

Another way might be to write a little, and then when you feel like you’ve had enough, stop writing and completely switch off. Or maybe you switch off from your novel and write a short piece that’s something completely different.

Maybe you can ask your support system to hold your hand through the hard parts. Or pay someone to do your chores while you spend the extra time recovering, or dealing with the painful bits.

We can also look back on our previous experiences and take strength from that to look at the current situation as a challenge rather than a roadblock.

The more I think about it, the more the second paper makes sense as a framework for analyzing work/life balance. Do take a moment to read it. It’s pretty great all through.

Lila Krishna

Written by

Writer of short stories. Programmer. Desi.

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