Why Working Too Hard Actually Hurts Your Hustle
August 14, 2018
By this point, it’s been drilled into our heads that if we want anything in this life, we have to work for it—hard. And we do: Research shows that millennials are more likely to be “work martyrs” than previous generations, filling their time off with emails and spreadsheets.
The thing is, all that hard work might be in vain.
A new study analyzed the relationship between work intensity, personal wellbeing, and career wellbeing, and found that long hours at the office don’t just torpedo your social life—they may be tanking your career, too.
Researchers looked at data reported by over 50,000 European workers, looking at the effects that working overtime and putting effort into work had on wellbeing, as well as on work performance, job security, and career prospects.
What they found was surprising: Not only is excessive work tied to reduced personal wellbeing, but it’s also linked to worsened work performance. That means that marathon work sessions can actually backfire, leaving you worse off than if you’d called it a day.
Your best bet to still get stuff done but practice self-care, too: Work smarter, not harder.
Here, a few ways to start:
1. Work Until You've Hit a Peak
It’s a familiar scene: After a slow start to a project, you’ve finally found your groove. So you lock in and work for hours, through your lunch break or even past the time you’d normally wrap up. You head out once you’ve slowed down—only to wake up the next day completely exhausted.
It’s easy to see why you’d want to embrace a state of motivation, plunging ahead in fear of breaking your concentration. But the best time to call it quits is before you reach a downturn when you’re still humming away.
Take it from professor Emily Hunter, who conducted a study that found the best time to take a break is in the morning, during what’s believed to be the most productive time of day. "We think we’re like our cell phones, and we should deplete all the way to zero percent before we recharge back up," Hunter told the Washington Post. "But we have to charge more frequently." By taking midmorning breaks, "we're not allowing ourselves to get so depleted that we're at the point where we want to just get to the end of the day."
Think of it as quitting while you’re ahead: You’ll avoid burning through your creative juices, and start the next day by jumping into a task you’re excited about.
2. Take Frequent Breaks
Think a break is a waste of precious work time? Think again—even when we don't notice it, our brains get hungry for a little R&R.
“No matter how engaged we are in an activity, our brains inevitably tire," writes Ron Friedman in the Harvard Business Review. "And when they do, the symptoms are not necessarily obvious. We don’t always yawn or feel ourselves nodding off. Instead, we become more vulnerable to distractions.”
Like the study at the top found, what you see as hard work—look ma, no breaks!—can actually hinder your hustle. Try scheduling five-minute breaks every hour, or following the Pomodoro method, detailed here.
3. Quit Multitasking
Quick: How many apps do you have open on your phone right now? Tabs on your computer? Are you eating breakfast while you read this, or walking into a building? We often see multitasking as a sign of efficiency, but research suggests the opposite.
“Distractions are costly: A temporary shift in attention from one task to another—stopping to answer an e-mail or take a phone call, for instance—increases the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25 percent, a phenomenon known as ‘switching time,’” explain Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy in the Harvard Business Review. “It’s far more efficient to fully focus for 90 to 120 minutes, take a true break, and then fully focus on the next activity.”
4. Question Your 'Busy' Mode
These days, it’s almost required to spout on about how hard you work, how late you stayed at the office, how busy you are, all the time. But stop for a minute and think: are you choosing to be busy, or do you need to be busy?
“The present (busy) hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen,” author Tim Kreider writes in the New York Times.
Think of “I’m so busy” as a sort of self-fulfilling narrative—the more you say it, the truer it becomes. So try ditching “busy” from your vocabulary, at least for a week or two—you may find yourself with less on your plate than you thought.
5. Rethink Your Atmosphere
Overworking is a cultural problem: It’s easy—and oftentimes feels required—to hustle too hard when everyone around you does the same. Look for ways to change your own habits, and the office culture, simultaneously.
Maybe you can set an example for your coworkers by leaving at an appropriate time, or by opting out of a watercooler “I’m so busy” session.
If you work solo, look at those around you—does your coworking space offer 24/7 coffee? Is your Instagram feed full of posts advising doing more, at all times?
Shift your environment to cultivate a gentler approach, and remember: It’s not a competition. Whoever does the most in a given 24 hours doesn't win—it's the person who works smarter, not harder, who can excel without burning out.
Read next: To Hustle Smarter, Know Your Peak Hours