The 9–5 Workday Isn’t Our Problem, It’s How We Do It That Causes Burnout
Bring the vibe of a Model T bolt driver to your office — do less, then obsess
Did you know Henry Ford started the forty-hour workweek in 1926?
The story goes he structured the Model T assembly line into 8-hour shifts so workers had free time to buy consumer goods and, you know, actually contribute to the economy.
Similar to Silicon Valley adopting the open office after Google made it cool, every US organization adopted the 40-hour workweek after the Ford Motor Co — law firms, banks, even government agencies decided maximum human efficiency occurred in 8-hour stints.
Maybe they were right? After all, the United States was the most productive country in the world during the later part of the 20th century.
But something changed recently.
Burnout rates are at all-time highs, and job satisfaction sucks — especially among millennials. In a recent Gallup study of US employees, 28% of millennials claimed feeling constant burnout at work. An additional 45% of millennials say they sometimes feel burnout out at work, suggesting that about seven in 10 millennials experience burnout to some degree.
Work hours are stuck in the industrial age, but the work has changed
According to Christina Maslach, a psychologist at the University of Cal Berkeley, the fault lies not in ourselves, dear Brutus, but in our management.
Maslach conducted a survey of 7,500 full-time employees and found the top five reasons for burnout are:
- Unfair treatment at work
- Unmanageable workload
- Lack of role clarity
- Lack of communication
- Unreasonable time pressure
Here’s the problem with corporate management in 2021: Work hours continue to resemble the assembly line, but the work is vastly different.
Model T workers stuck to one task for the entirety of a shift. 8-hours to master a skill, find inefficiencies, and complete the assignment.
Today, managers ask employees to perform a variety of disparate tasks. Answer emails without delay: Engage in slack channels 24/7, attend every zoom meeting, manage yourself, manage others. And slip in your job somewhere between all that.
The writer Cal Newport calls this shallow work. “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.”
Is that not the cause of our stress, irritation, and boredom?
Mangers reward perceived busyness, not productivity
Unlike our industrial age ancestors, today’s office employees work without clear indicators of productivity.
On the assembly line, a worker can determine productivity by calculating the number of widgets produced during a shift. How does one determine the day-to-day value of an Associate PR Consultant?
And so the Associate PR Consultant, in an attempt to appear productive, does the following — works long hours at the office, walks around bouncing ideas off co-workers, calls no one in particular, attends every meeting, and spends all day responding to emails.
Cal Newport calls this the “Busyness as Proxy for Productivity.”
“In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”
I blame managers who continue to reward perceived busyness. What an unimaginative way to evaluate talent! A message to managers who uphold this practice: You’re no better than the people who drafted Mitch Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes.
Improve your work quality, express the value of your attention
Work quality is a choice — nay, it’s a lifestyle. A lifestyle that must be outwardly expressed.
Communicate to your coworkers the following:
Why you can’t attend a meeting about a project that doesn’t concern you. “Sorry, that’s my day for writing and creative work.”
Why you only take interviews on Thursdays. “I only take calls on Thursdays.”
Why you can’t drink tonight. “I need to be sharp tomorrow morning. That’s when I get my reading done.”
You want to maintain a schedule deliberately cut off from distractions and articulate with your peers and clients why you’ve made that decision.
I’m a blogger and a commercial real estate agent. Let me tell you; those two roles do not mix. Writers need hours of focused work so the mind can mull over complex problems. Meanwhile, CRE is a 24/7 always-on-the-clock gig. You could spend the entire day distracted if you wanted to.
What do I do?
I stash my phone away in a lockbox from 5 am to 11 am every morning. When I call my clients back, I tell them I’m writing during those hours.
Trust me, it feels weird, but people respect the lifestyle.
The “Do less then obsess” method
Morten T Hansen coined the phrase “do less, then obsess” in his book Great at Work. Hansen is a management professor at Cal Berkeley and a consultant for Apple. If you’re ever curious about productivity in the workplace, Hansen is the LeBron James of the field.
He admits that multitasking will help get things done but argues that it’s the least efficient thing you could do.
“The more items we attend to, the less time we can allot to each, and the less well we will perform any one of them.” — Morten Hansen
Hansen cites a study that found a 50% increase in multitasking led to a 20% decrease in overall productivity. That’s like trying to run a marathon with a 50lbs weighted vest.
The practice of taking on more tasks at the expense of quality (and sanity) is what Morten calls “do more, then stress.”
Here’s what we should do instead: Do less, then obsess.
“Greatness in work, art, and science requires obsession over quality and an extraordinary attention to detail.”
In commercial real estate, this might look like pouring over hundreds of property photos to find the perfect one for the listing page. In writing, this might look like writing four drafts and experimenting with 50 headlines before posting on Medium. In golf, this might look like taking an entire day hitting 80-yard wedge shots into a green.
The idea isn’t to pick 1 -2 priorities and knock them out without a care in the world. No! That’s just laziness. I’m talking about picking 1 -2 priorities and giving them 100% of your attention for a long time.
That’s the foundation of quality.
Bring the vibe of a model T worker
I’m one of the few millennials who will never cancel Henry Ford for gifting us the 40-hour workweek — perhaps he should be canceled for other reasons, but not that.
8-hours of prioritized, focused work created the most complex machine on the planet and made it affordable for most Americans. It’s a staple of what humanity can accomplish when we actively look for inefficiencies in ourselves and our organizations.
I’ll say it, deliver the vibe of a 1926 model T bolt driver to your office. Do less, then obsess, and watch the quality of your work excel and burnout diminish.
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