Long hours ≠ good work. If you have a desk job and you’re working yourself to the point of exhaustion, maybe it’s time to reconsider your approach.
“I’m so busy” is a common humblebrag often jigsawed together with similar pseudo-complaints about tiredness and overwork. But why do we place such value on the simple state of being busy? In itself, is it really something to be proud of? Busy-ness doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re making a worthwhile contribution, and being present isn’t the same as being productive. Plus, it’s easy to fake – anyone can bustle around with a clipboard, knitting their brow in faux concentration.
In the end, what really matters is not how much time you spend, but what you actually do with the time you use. And it has a knock-on effect on how you feel, too. Think about the difference between how you feel after you spend two hours really getting to the heart of a project, versus how you feel after spending two hours wrangling your inbox. We know what works deep down, but we’ve been socialised to appreciate the appearance of hard work.
Centuries of conditioning mean that we find it difficult to uncouple the amount of perceived effort from how valuable someone’s work actually is, both with regard to our own work and that of others. Oliver Burkeman wrote about this for 99U, calling this phenomenon “the Effort Trap”. He writes, “it’s dangerously easy to feel as though a 10-hour day spent plowing through your inbox, or catching up on calls, was much more worthwhile than two hours spent in deep concentration on hard thinking, followed by a leisurely afternoon off. Yet any writer, designer or web developer will tell you it’s the two focused hours that pay most—both in terms of money and fulfilment.”
The success of your work, and your level of satisfaction with it doesn’t depend on how busy you perceive yourself to be! But still, we struggle to understand this about ourselves, and the feeling also permeates the working world. The only way to combat it is to realise it, and actively adjust our attitudes. It may be easier to start this with those around you rather than with yourself, given that we tend to work in patterns, and hold ourselves to higher standards.
Start by consciously focusing on altering your attitude to time spent in the office by those around you. If a colleague or employee is getting their work done and leaving the office on time everyday, don’t grumble because they’re not stressing themselves out. Deliberately pay attention to what people do, rather than how long they spend doing it.
And don’t forget to apply your new accepting attitude to yourself. Burkeman recommends the old advice about starting your day with the most important tasks, so that even if you do get bogged down in ‘busywork’ later on, you are more likely to feel like you’ve already accomplished something worthwhile. He also recommends cutting down on the amount of working hours in your day in order that you can focus on quality, not quantity.
Good work should be energising and rewarding, not draining. By deliberately adjusting your own take on what it means to work well, you’ll be swimming against the current of generations that have told us that working to the point of exhaustion is a virtue. Just because it’s traditional, doesn’t mean it’s right!