Why You Are So Overworked (and What to Do About It)
Imagine you are on your deathbed. You’re thinking about your life and all the regrets you have. Maybe you think about that girl you should have asked out back in university. Or to go to the South Pole. Or maybe it’s saying ‘I love you’ to your mother and father and children at least one more time.
I am certain though that one of your regrets won’t be “I wish I worked more”. No way that is possible.
Michael Hyatt and Megan Hyatt Miller, in their recently published book Win at Work, Succeed at Life, suggest that we can be successful in our careers and our lives outside of work. How you might ask?
Let’s first look at why we overwork and then I’ll share the five principles from the book along with my takeaways for how we can win at work and life (Michael and Megan call it a ‘double win’).
Why we overwork
There are seven reasons listed in the book about why we overwork:
- Work is fun — Certain aspects of your work can be fun. Working on challenging problems, working with ambitious and smart individuals, work that makes a difference. We can sometimes have too much fun at work and overdo it.
- Personal growth and identity — Often, we tie our identity to our work. “I’m a doctor” or “I’m a lawyer” instead of “I’m a father with a good job who spends time with my family”, though that’s not to say that either is good or bad. But when we tie our personal growth and identity to our work, we feel compelled, maybe even obligated to work, otherwise who are we really?
- Experience of flow — When we work on challenging problems that are just outside the limits of our abilities and knowledge, we experience a sense of flow — that is, time seems to pass by without our awareness.
- Definable wins — When we are in ‘flow’, there’s the feedback that lets us know how we are doing. High achievers know what to do, and know that when they do it, they’ll know. That’s not the case at home — for example, how do you know if you’ve spent enough time with the kids?
- Status and value signalling — There used to be a time (and maybe it’s still true today) that when people asked you how you were doing, and you said “crazy busy”, people looked at you in awe. If you’re crazy busy, you must have extremely important work or a job where what you’re doing has a great impact. So we put in hours on the weekend and evenings to show others how ‘crazy busy’ a.k.a. important we are.
- Sky-high expectations — Are there expectations that bosses and executives should be working more hours? Michael and Megan believe there is, which leads to bosses, managers and executives putting in way more hours to meet those expectations.
- The treadmill effect —You may know the treadmill effect from buying things — the thrill and excitement of purchasing that new TV goes away, and we have to buy an even better TV the next time to get a similar level of thrill and excitement to buying the old TV. A similar effect is at play at work — when work is fun, we get the thrill of finishing projects, but finishing a project just means we seek new projects and additional work.
Are these reasons exhaustive? Not at all. But they do point to the cult of overwork.
What can we do about it? Enter the five principles.
Michael and Megan outline five principles to help us win at work and succeed at life. Those five principles are:
- Work is one of many ways to orient your life
- Constraints foster productivity, creativity, and freedom
- Work-life balance is truly possible
- There’s incredible power in nonachievement
- Rest is the foundation of meaningful, productive work
Let’s look at each principle in more detail:
Work is one of many ways to orient your life
Many people see work as the only way to orient their life. Work seems to be a given and then whatever happens outside of work becomes their life. Michael and Megan say that there are actually ten different domains we should look at for our lives:
While work may cover one or more of the above domains, it certainly does not have to. The problem is when work is your primary ‘domain’, the rest of your life falls behind. How do you make sure you have a life? Outline your non-negotiables. Everyone, according to Michael and Megan, should have three:
- Self-care — What are you doing to take care of yourself?
- Relational priorities — Are you spending enough time with your family?
- Professional results — Are you driving results in your work?
Takeaway: In other words, make sure you schedule time for self-care, relational priorities, and professional results in your calendar first. Everything else is done if you have the time.
Constraints foster productivity, creativity and freedom
You may be familiar with Parkinson’s Law: work expands to fill the time for completion. If you are writing a report, and you decide you’ll spend 2 hours writing the report, the report will magically take 2 hours to write. If you decide you’ll spend 3 hours to write it, again, the report will take 3 hours to write. Michael has a corollary to this: work contracts to the time permitted. Why spend an extra hour (or more) writing a report when you can constrain the time and still get the same output? Just as you are the most productive before a vacation (and need to get things done), you can use the same constraints at your work. Create hard stops at 6 PM (or whatever time works for you). Don’t think to yourself, “if I don’t get this done, I can do some more work after dinner”. Burn your ships and get it done now.
Constraints also foster creativity. Whenever I hear this, I always think to the story of a professional speaker talking about creativity. The speaker takes out a brick and tells everyone to partner up with the person next to you, and to list out all the ideas for using a brick that is different than it’s normal function. Some time goes by, people are talking, and then they have a list of ideas at the end. Then the speaker tells them to switch and to do the same exercise, except to think of ideas for the brick in the kitchen. What the audience will find is that with the constraint of the kitchen, they will come up with more ideas than if they had no constraints at all. Constraints limit the number of possible options, allowing you to concentrate your creativity and generate more creative ideas.
Constraints can also promote productivity. Although our days are often 7–8 hours, studies have found that workers are most effective at 6 hours, with little to no increase in value produced after that. Michael and Megan’s company The Hyatt Co have cut the workday shorter, finding that the team is more engaged and productive and eliminating any nonessential activity.
Takeaway: Rather than working more hours, create a hard boundary for when your work will end. In this way, not only will you be more productive, you will cut out a lot of ‘fluff’ — because you just don’t have time for it.
Work-life balance is truly possible
An interesting insight I learned from Michael and Megan is that when people say they need work-life balance, they often mean to say “I am overworked and I need some rest”. Work-life balance does not mean rest, although rest is a big component of that balance.
Work-life balance is dynamic — you will never find long periods of time where work hours and life hours will be constant. Work-life balance is intentional as well — it’s about spending the appropriate amount of time in each of the areas of your life.
Takeaway: So how do you achieve work-life balance? It’s about scheduling your priorities into your calendar first. If you know you need to go home to eat dinner with the family, or that you have to get a workout in the morning, schedule it in, and then when other items come up, schedule around the priorities you have already put in your calendar. As a result of the learnings from the book, I set a 5:30 hard stop so I can work out — I can work all night if I didn’t have the hard stop, but having that hard stop helps with making sure I have ‘balance’ in my life, but am also using the constraint to increase my productivity.
There’s incredible power in nonachievement
Imagine getting a book that is filled with words and sentences. There’s no white space. There’s no margins. The book would certainly be illegible. And it would not be fun to read.
These margins and white space represent rest and non-work in your life. And the same thing happens when you fill your life with tasks, activities and busy-ness. Your life will not be very fun.
Knowledge workers, i.e., almost everyone these days, need time to think. Why is it that we often get our best insights when we’re in the shower? It’s because we are turning off our mind and allowing random ideas to jump in and make connections with existing ideas. If you fill your life with activities, projects, and non-stop work, when are you ever going to have time to stop and think (and solve problems and get insights)?
Takeaway: Say you have a 7 or 8 hour work day. Take 1 hour out of your work week (or day if you feel you need it) to think and get things out of your head. In stopping and reflecting on my GTD system, I get ideas out of my head, which makes room for new ideas that I then jot down.
Rest is the foundation of meaningful, productive work
Although we often think about rest as something that happens at the end of the day (i.e., an afterthought), in the bible, work is positioned as something happening in the second half of the day. Rest is seen as the foundational activity that allows for work to happen. It isn’t something that happens after you have worked.
What this means to me is that rest should be our priority, not work.
If rest is so important, how do you get a good night’s rest?
- Make sure your room is dark
- Have a night-time ritual
- Beware fitness trackers (they may make you anxious about sleep and turn sleep into something you obsess on improving)
- Sleep at a consistent hour every day
How does your life change when rest is seen as something needed to do work (and not just what helps you recharge from work)?
Through the five principles, you can also win at work and succeed at life:
- Work is one of many ways to orient your life
- Constraints can help foster productivity, creativity and freedom
- Work-life balance is not a myth
- There’s incredible power in non-achievement (rest, hobbies, other pursuits without specific goals in mind)
- Rest is the foundation of meaningful work