Working long hours seems to be the norm. Lately we heard from the CEO who was confronted by his daughter with a list of all the important occasions in her life that he’d missed due to work commitments. We also heard of the extraordinary culture of long hours at Google, including a four-hour conference call every Sunday to “prepare” for the Monday morning meeting. Recently I came across an essay written in 1932 by Bertrand Russell called In Praise of Idleness (the fact that I found it is as good an example of confirmation bias as you’ll find). It now sits comfortably in my library alongside Jerome K Jerome’s seminal work Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. Russell’s essay focuses on his idea that everyone should only work for four hours a day. His Utopian notion is too flawed to be realistic. However, he does say that if limited to that amount then “…the work extracted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion.” For me, it is the second half of the sentence that is important. Many people these days work on the edge of tiredness. Overwork coupled with financial stress and the debilitating effects of commuting can lead to a constant weariness. Not only do we work too hard but also we’ve forgotten how to relax. Many use coffee for take off and wine for touch down. Extreme busyness is addictive; more so because everyone seems to be doing it.
Living and working at the speed of light is, of course, unsustainable. Burnout beckons those who constantly run. But managing the seemingly insatiable demands of modern living seems daunting. The cultural norms of business life seem to equate hard work with productivity, efficiency and commitment, and are rewarded both financially and in terms of status. This is despite the fact that the correlation between input and successful output is tenuous at best. Most people work incredibly hard not because they need to but because everyone else is doing it. And because they’re not able to pause for thought they can’t stop to reappraise their activities into what is necessary, important and redundant.
As both a coach and an advisor, I work with many people who struggle to get the balance of their lives right. Sometimes it is about apportioning the relative time between work commitments and family, and at other times it is about prioritising and learning to focus on what’s urgent and necessary rather than important and usual. For other people the issue is a more fundamental reappraisal of our attitude to work. We need to see work as something we do rather than a place we go. That means, for instance, structural changes such as encouraging flexi-hours, working from home, and job sharing. It also means making sure that we set boundaries to ensure that we use communications to liberate rather than dominate our lives.
The culture of long hours is endemic in many organisations. Individuals often find it hard to challenge the system. And so, at the very least, people need to take the opportunities they can to invest in themselves. Too many of us relax by doing things. Going to the gym or watching TV may make us feel relaxed but our brain and body are still having to work hard. Taking regular breaks during working hours to stretch and stand can be enormously beneficial. But the real goal is learning to switch off. Doing nothing is an art. Rather than look down on those people who can seemingly lose themselves in nothing, we should look up to them and try to emulate them. Only in the silence of true rest can we see clearly and get our priorities into perspective. Working too hard for imaginable futures is not as important as living restfully in the moment. For as Kipling said: “More men are killed by overwork than the importance of the world justifies.”