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Why You Shouldn’t Work Long Hours

When I worked on Wall Street (for an investment bank), the working hours were normal because I was in the front office. The traders went home shortly after the market closed. However, the back office people were expected to work long hours. The “80-Hour Week” culture is common for jobs where their managers lack the ability to evaluate performance based on merits. The traders I worked with on Wall Street had clear metrics of performance. As long as the metrics looked good, they didn’t need to prove anything else.

However, I think some people do “80-Hour Weeks” just as a backup plan in case they cannot match the expected metrics. I would imagine that lawyers do this just in case they lose the case. In other words, people use long hours to make up for their poor performance.

Graphic design is a highly subjective field but it actually has a pretty clear metric: client approval. As long as you can come up with a solution that makes your client happy, how long you work on it is irrelevant. A great designer could come up with a great solution in 5 minutes, while others may spend 80 hours only to come up with something inferior. Again, I think bad designers try to make up for their poor performance by working longer hours.

In jobs where there is no clear metrics of performance, it is almost entirely dependent on the ability of the managers to gauge performance. For instance, suppose you manage a team of programmers. At the end of the day, when your employee submits the work he completed, how would you know whether it should have taken five days for an average programmer or half a day? If the former is the case, this employee deserves to take the rest of the week off, or get a raise of 5 times the average programmer’s salary. If you have the ability to accurately measure performance in this way, you can create a performance-centric culture. But most managers can’t do this. So, they use the most obvious, easiest, and laziest metric: hours worked. Because of this, employees too play safe and make sure that they have that metric covered.

But this is really bad for business. These days, thoughtless tasks that take time are all being replaced with computers. What we have left for humans is our ability to solve problems creatively. Hours do not correlate to creativity. Pushing employees to work long hours discourages creativity, and encourages mindless tasks.

In one book I read, a team of researchers studied the daily routines of top athletes to see if they can find a secret pattern, and they found nothing. Only when they started looking at what they were NOT doing (that is, how they were resting between training), did they find a pattern that was different from lesser performers. The top performers were great at disengaging and resting deeply, while mediocre athletes were unable to fully disengage and recover.

To be creative, you need to set your brain and mood to the optimal condition. It’s not about how long you work; even if you can get your brain to be optimal for 5 minutes, it’s better than working for 12 hours under a sub-optimal condition. In that 5 minutes, you could come up with a solution that is superior to your competitors.

But again, none of this would matter if there is no way to evaluate the performance. So, the solution to this problem of 80-Hour Week, I think, is to figure out how to measure performance.

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