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Working absurd hours is not a badge of honor
AI is already faster than you at busywork, so why try to outrun it? Find high-leverage work the machines can't do, cull the rest...
My entire career I’ve worked hard to ensure work-life balance (ironic, but you have to). Yet I’ve always been productive because I reduce meetings, refuse to give in to bureaucracy, and focus on results-oriented activities and things that really matter/I’m passionate about. I put in the work up front to know what has the highest potential of returns and do that. I don’t lose sleep ignoring pointless busywork, have never cared if that would get me fired, and to date is still hasn’t.
With that, I’ve never understood those who work absurd hours all the time and flex about that on social media, or the miserable managers who insist it. I’ve been lucky and actually never worked for a company who was measuring their team’s productivity based on ‘butts in chairs’ or demanding 12-14 hour days each day. Some agencies and startups expect it. It makes no sense for anyone.
These things are absurd, similar to fighting remote, because people not interested in their work will always find a way to waste time, and for your productive, A-list employees there are human limits to how long they can function and remain effective. They’ll leave you to go elsewhere if you abuse them. Besides, focusing on time at work is the wrong metric, one that makes sense for making sandwiches at Subway or assembling widgets in a factory. There’s nothing wrong with that work, by the way, but few of you reading this do those things. Instead of time, create objectives/key results and measure those. If given the right tools and you automate/script the busywork, your team may even exceed goals without killing themselves affording them the time to look ahead. And, AI may make it so you have to get here to survive.
There’s a big theme of flexing about ‘how hard’ you work again lately. My friend Alex’s post from a bit ago puts succinctly why it’s silly:
The late night check-outs of your office.
The tweet/check-ins on Saturday and Sunday trying to humblebrag that you work weekends.
No one should glorify working long and hard hours. Working hard does not mean you are working smart or even getting more done. It might even mean you can’t figure out how to focus on the important stuff.
Working hard vs. working smart is something you don’t learn until you burn out a few times. I cringe when I see the young founder or business person push out that tweet or check-out about how hard they are hustling or the fact that they are leaving their office at midnight when I’m skimming my feed for news in my bed about to go to sleep. Having no work/life balance can only work for so long and it is not fulfilling. So let’s cut it out, please.
…every hour you work over 40 hours a week is making you less effective and productive over both the short and the long haul. And it may sound weird, but it’s true: the single easiest, fastest thing your company can do to boost its output and profits — starting right now, today — is to get everybody off the 55-hour-a-week treadmill, and back onto a 40-hour footing.
By the eighth hour of the day, people’s best work is usually already behind them (typically turned in between hours 2 and 6). In Hour 9, as fatigue sets in, they’re only going to deliver a fraction of their usual capacity. And with every extra hour beyond that, the workers’ productivity level continues to drop, until at around 10 or 12 hours they hit full exhaustion.
Burnout is real and very difficult to recover from. People who are stressed to this point think poorly and produce frequent mistakes. It’s possible to avoid this entirely by simply avoiding the hustle culture trap.
I’m also reminded of a famous Bill Gates quote which he may or may not have said but not the point here. This one…
Of course the real point of the quote isn’t to hire ‘lazy’ people per-say. I have found these types of folk actually aren’t even lazy, they just hate boring work and are more interested in doing important, meaningful, valuable stuff. They’ll obsess over removing pesky, repetitive tasks from their plates via automation to be able to spend time on more interesting and creative things (which, in the knowledge economy is always the most valuable). You want people who strive to relentlessly remove the mundane to get to work on the higher meaning — it’s just such a great mindset. Probably a good interview question to get at somehow. And remember, if you don’t actively encourage this, your team probably will do it anyway and just not tell you.
Of course, in some fields online such as marketing, you could literally work forever in a high leverage fashion. There are always more posts to create, communities to nurture, campaigns to imagine, conversions to optimize and strategies to flesh out. Your growth is in many ways up to you. Like everyone else I am guilty of occasionally working too long, but balancing here is really the key to survival. It’s a marathon, not a sprint and I’ve managed enough teams long term to understand how to keep them motivated and excited to work every day: it always comes down to balance.
So let us acknowledge the traditional notion of an 8-hour factory mindset was long ago replaced by a realization that the right efforts, executed by the right individuals, can yield outsized returns. It’s unpreceded that in just a few hours the right PM, for example, could implement something that unlocks millions if not billions in valuation or revenue. Only a few companies such as Google organize their teams around this (and try to feed team members as much inspiration as possible by investing in continued education through Talks, MOOCs etc — plus actually giving them the bandwidth to think). Soon more will. Adhering to a factory-like 8, 10, or even 12+ hour a day mindset in the current high-leverage knowledge economy makes no sense if ambitions are high. And yes, sometimes you might work more. Sometimes less. But there’s no real reason it has to be fixed, as creativity doesn’t happen on a fixed schedule and humans are not machines. We were always going to evolve beyond a factory, there’s no reason to want to claw back that world.
We should not be so concerned with raw time spent, but rather the strategic deployment of talent, technology and process in a way that accomplishes what we need and a sustainable pace we can maintain over the long term. If you don’t know what you’re doing and why, you could easily have people grind on the wrong things forever, feel productive, but never post a W. Let competitors work themselves to death while you stride out at a sane pace in the right direction. You could be a pioneer in harnessing asymmetries, or try and sweat your way there running up impossible to climb hills. With things like AI breathing down your neck, how do you think the latter will go?
A final existential question for some: what are you really hiding from in your busywork?
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