I have a buddy who loves to tell me how busy he is every time I see him.

“I had this opening and this rehearsal and my day job has this and I’m teaching this class” on and on and on.

Every time he tells me his litany of things he’s doing I get tired and always think “Why do I talk to this person? They’re obviously too busy for me.” The PNW is notorious for passive aggressive behavior and I always wonder if this is a subtle way of him telling me that he isn’t interested in seeing me.

I also wonder about this friend’s ability to actually get shit done. When you have so much happening in your life, when you’re SO BUSY, are you actually achieving anything or just spinning your wheels?

The Washington Post captured this sentiment well in an article last year about how working lots of hours is not only detrimental to you, but also to the people who work for and with you. This behavior often perpetuates an unrealistic expectation of what is necessary to get the work done.

If you’re a manager, you’re setting up your team to think the only way to success is to work like you do, which is a lot.

When I come across people who do work a lot, more often than not I assume that they are doing things in a wildly ineffective way, are super micromanagers, or are doing something out of their skill set.

The Prime Example in the Theatre Industry

Let’s take theatre tech rehearsals for example. During a normal tech, a person can work 60-100 hours in a week. There is a ton of research that shows after about 50 hours your productivity starts to decline, largely due to the sacrifice in sleep one makes to keep those hours. And yet we continue to perpetuate this model because we think it saves us money in the long run. Paying for hours of overtime versus scheduling more 8 hour days is cheaper, but would we be able to reduce overall tech time if we only worked hours that allowed people to get rest and come to work refreshed?

Watching my husband work a recent show that had a full month of tech, it was easy to see the decline in productivity. People became less able to problem solve after many weeks of 8am to midnight days. It made it so the simple act of stopping to assess how to move forward didn’t seem like an option. There wasn’t really a higher level assessment of getting the project done in the most effective way possible because everyone was so tired and caught up in the fact that things weren’t meeting the standards they had set that they just kept plugging forward.

Imagine if people had had a couple nights of 8 hours of sleep. The ideas that would have blossomed in a brain free of the fog of fatigue might have been outstanding. Maybe we could have saved some money by ultimately reducing the number of hours worked.

Evolutionary Realities and Cultural Expectations

We have lots of leaders that talk about how little sleep they need. In the Post’s article, Marissa Mayer talks about needing to work 130 hours a week to get a startup off the ground. I’m curious what goes into all these hours? And at what point do the hours start to be less productive because workers are so glazed and zombied that they can only really scroll through their social media feeds and maybe do 20 minutes of work here and there. By no means are those 130 hours actually full of effective work product.

Humans are made for rest. Our ancestors, despite needing to do a lot of physical work, had ample time to recover from strenuous activity or they deliberately did low level activity for longer periods of time. Think hunting vs gathering. The first was done in short bursts with time to cook and recover, the second was low level activity done over a longer period of time, requiring less output overall.

The American worker has gotten more productive since the recession started in 2008. Were we really more productive all along? Did we cut the fat from certain jobs leaving leaner task lists that made it easier to get stuff done in a normal workday? My guess is yes, we cut out tasks that were added a few extra steps to a job and made it so everything got done more efficiently and easily. We also matched up people with more appropriate skills so instead of having someone do a job they were partially qualified for, we held out for those who could meet all the needs. The applicant pools were bigger due to increasing unemployment rate, so employers could be choosier (and still are).

We also have our culture leaders talking about their ability to run on little sleep. The Clintons famously only slept 4-6 hours a night. President Trump has discussed regularly his need for less sleep, though it’s unclear if this is how all of these people have regularly functioned or if it’s a product of aging. Marissa Mayer can somehow function on 5 1/2 hours of non-work time during the day. Presumably some of this is used for eating, so maybe she’s only sleeping 4 hours as well.

This is not the norm and overloading one’s schedule is not impressive. The only people who are impressive for working this much are single parents. And that’s more reflective a societal tragedy that we can’t support them better.

How to Change the Pattern

If you find yourself working this much there are a couple things you can do.

First, check in about why you are doing so much. For some it is legitimately to pay the bills. If you have to work 2 minimum wage jobs to make rent, then, yeah, you’re going to be working a lot. But, more often than not, we use an overabundance of work to prove our worth or merit to authority figures, be they bosses, partners, or parents. If your worth needs to be proven through volume rather than quality of work, then it may be time to see a therapist and assess from where you are getting your guiding values.

Second, with the work you have left, conduct an audit. As I said above you may be doing things ineffectively, micromanage-y, or out of your skill set.

To find out if you’re doing something ineffectively, check in with a colleague who performs a similar task and ask how they do it and how long it takes them. Some tasks just take a long time, like data entry or writing. But there are ways to make it more efficient through shortcuts or ways to minimize distraction. This is where someone like me is really helpful since an external perspective can spot where you might be doing more work than necessary.

If you’re micromanaging, stop. No seriously, stop. If your team can’t get something done without you breathing down their necks, then the problem is in how you have laid out the task, not that they are lazy or unwilling to work. Check out this post on the foundation of good management and make sure you’re doing all of it.

If something is out of your skill set you can either continue to plug away to learn, get more training, or see about passing it on to someone else. Talk to your supervisor about getting more training so you can get better, or put together a good argument for why you should outsource it and to whom.

If you have done all of this and are still working a lot, it might be time to see if your job needs to be split into multiple jobs. My friend ultimately realized that one of his jobs required him to single-handedly run a company so he had to bring on more help to get things done and then train those people accordingly. He still occasionally talks about how much work he has, and I still roll my eyes, but I know the situation is much better than it was before, which means we spend more time talking about fun stuff than him listing all the tasks and reasons why he just can’t get coffee for another 3 months.