How often do you find yourself working, not because you actually have to, not because you want to, but because you feel that you have to?
Overwork: working solely because you feel like you have to
I believe that overwork is the biggest single cause of career failure and general unhappiness among knowledge workers.
If you are a knowledge worker, you probably regularly experience the negative effects of overwork without even knowing what is causing them: low motivation for work, constantly feeling disengaged from your job, low levels of proactivity, poor performance at tasks that you could you nail in your sleep if you really cared and the ongoing fantasy of being your own boss or the day when you simply never have to work again.
One of my most liberating insights has been that it is entirely possible to eliminate overwork from my life, and indeed from all our lives.
The first reason for this opportunity is simple: overwork is psychological. Its conditions reside solely in the mind. The problem is working because you feel you have to. Deal with the mental elements causing you to feel this way and you come close to eliminating overwork in one fell swoop.
Overwork is also individual. What constitutes overwork is personal to you, it’s relative to your workstyle and your ambition. You can decide on your own definition of overwork by first defining how much you do want to work.
It’s up to each of us to identify our own unique workstyle, the way we individually work best – be it as an intense sprinter or as a long distance slogger.
Building a practical work structure combined with addressing its mental drivers completes the pincer movement to eradicate overwork.
Overwork ≠ working long hours
Although I personally don’t work long hours (due to my workstyle and ambition), the call to help people avoid overwork is not a call to stop people working long hours. As the above definition should make clear, working long hours does not equal overwork, so long as you want to work those hours rather than because you feel you have to.
On the flip side, if you don’t want to work long hours but regularly force yourself to do so anyway (understanding why you do this is important), then that is of course overwork, the precise problem these articles aim to address.
Working long hours = an uninspiring lack of ambition
Wanting to work long hours because it’s the way you work best is one thing – there are some people who both genuinely love their work and love working long hours.
But, loving what you do by no means necessitates doing it all the time. And most people who work long hours no more want to be doing it than they want to be living in a 4 bedroom, semi-detached, suburbian house with 2 kids – they just unawaredly drift into doing it as the path of least resistance in a largely unexamined life.
I’ve been guilty of this too: I spent years trying to find that one business opportunity that would get me excited to work 100 hour weeks. What a waste, when right in front of my eyes that entire time were countless business opportunities requiring me to work only 20 hours a week! What could be more exciting than that:
You need to love the way you work and what you’re working for as much as you love what you’re working on.
The call to avoid overwork is a call to love how you work: to figure out how you work best and stick to working that way, avoiding the temptations to deviate – I cover this in Article 2.
This is quite distinct to the call to love what you’re working for and to stop working long hours, which is a call to wake up and get a life – I cover this in Article 3.
The causes of overwork (why do people feel they should want to, or have to, work beyond their natural level), the implications of it (lack of motivation, burnout) – all are interesting. But, far more important is learning how to stop overworking in the first place.
As I’ve outlined, the first step to stop overworking is to eradicate the feeling of having to work. To do this, you need to learn to trust yourself – I cover this in the remainder of Article 1.
Improving my work ethic: learning to trust myself
I’ve never enjoyed working long hours.
For a long time, I saw this as something about me that I needed to strive to change. If I had a better work ethic, then I’d get better results in all my endeavours.
I always thought: “If my results are good now, imagine how good they could be if I worked as much as everyone else?”
It never struck me that my results were good because I didn’t work as much as everyone else.
An unexpected breakthrough…
For 3 years, from the middle of 2015 until the middle of 2018, I more or less worked for myself1. That changed in 2018 when my co-founder and I decided to take VC investment.
Suddenly, under psychological, societal and practical pressures, I found myself in the familiar predicament of trying to motivate myself to work more hours.2
But this time it was different. Rather than accept that I needed to step my game up, I was now emboldened by the fact that, for the past 3 years, I had been at the top of my game – while never working sustained long hours (albeit unconsciously).
For the first time, I categorically challenged that impulse to work more: did I really need to up my hours, or was it time to finally let go of my insecurities around my work ethic?
- I looked back over my life: although at various periods I had tried to fight it and work more, I had always worked best when I worked a small number of regular hours.3
- I looked at the lives of successful people: working a small, regular number of hours was the norm, not the exception.4
- And finally I looked at the science: this wasn’t just a hunch, there were stacks of data and evidence to support the productivity benefits of spending less time working.5
Although at some level I had suspected it for a long time, this was the first time I explicitly admitted to myself that regularly working a small number of hours was my natural way of working at my best.
“I do my best work when I work less.”
… with far reaching implications
Accepting this truth about myself had many positive implications.
- The biggest impact was psychological
In my quest to do my best work, I had been needlessly fighting myself for years. Working more (which I regularly strove to do) was not only unenjoyable, it was adversely impacting my self-perception and the quality of my work.
Embracing working less meant the relief of no longer fighting and doubting myself (I wasn’t worth less because I didn’t work more), the enjoyment of no longer forcing myself to labour unproductively and the ultimate benefit of doing better work.
- Practically, my worklife changed
Working a small number of hours each day meant precisely defining my work routine.6
I had been focusing my limited store of energy in the wrong direction. Rather than fighting myself to focus on the discipline of working longer hours (the discipline to force myself to endure, even when I want to stop), I now focus on the discipline of working regular (the discipline to follow the same routine, every week, avoiding distractions), shorter hours (the discipline to stop working, even when a part of me feels I should continue).
- As my worklife changed, so did my life outside of work
Allowing myself not to work outside of my defined work routine required identifying ways to relax and take my mind off work.7
The realities of working less
Working less is still work in progress for me. The pressures (psychological, societal and practical) that drew me to overwork all my life still exist2.
However, now I believe that these pressures can all be overcome: I believe that I can build a sustainable routine, working a regular, small number of hours each week. I believe this because I now know beyond doubt that I do my best work when I work less.
Exercise: Trusting your own workstyle
- Identify: Look back over your life to identify how you have worked best at various times
- Accept: Explore the wide variety of workstyles of successful people and accept that there is not a “one-size-fits-all” workstyle
- Implement: Build a structure to enable you to work your workstyle (see the following article for detailed guidelines)
Next: A Work Structure that Works (II/III): a practical guide to eliminate overwork by building a structure to prevent it
Footnotes: 1. Primarily affiliate marketing; always on multiple projects. 2. The Struggle is Real - an exploration of methods to overcome the psychological, societal and practical pressures to work more 3. Coming soon: [A guide to assessing your own worksyle] 4. “Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work” by Mason Currey is packed full of examples of great minds who routinely worked a small number of hours 5. “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang offers a scientifically researched perspective on the optimal number of hours to work each day (4 hours) 6. Here is the exact workplan I created for myself 7. The biggest step forward was realizing that I needed to set explicit relaxation time during which to allow myself to do nothing productive