What Long Hours Really Mean

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In the tech and design sectors there’s a lot of folks working long hours, like 70+ hours a week. There’s a certain badge-of-honor-martyr-complex-thing that comes along with it. But let’s set the record straight. Here’s what long hours really mean:

You are working for free.

If you’re salaried, you’re working for free. After 40 hours a week, every hour you work adds $0 additional dollars into your pocket.1

Long hours set unreasonable and unsustainable expectations.

The pace of design and development that happens with long hours will be the pace clients and bosses come to expect.

Workplaces that allow long hours have a huge cultural problem.

Working 80-100 hours a week simply destroys people. It’s entirely unsustainable and unhealthy, so people quit. When they quit, I can guarantee they’ll tell their colleagues why. Not only is there a high employee turnover problem, but even worse, the company will have to combat a reputation for abusively overworking their employees. The long hours end up being extremely short-sighted on both the recruitment and retention fronts.

Long hours indicate weak leadership.

Long hours mean no one had the guts to tell the client, “We respect ourselves and our people enough to honor their time and their personal lives so we cannot agree to your deadline.” When companies cave to clients on these matters, they lose respect and diminish their status as an equal partner. With Servant and Master dynamics, long hours are just the beginning of what the company will agree to to make the client happy.

Long hours are a sign of poor project management.

When teams of designers and developers regularly work weekends and late nights to hit deadlines, this is either 1) known and expected or 2) not known and unexpected. Either way a Project Manager didn’t allow enough time to complete the project in a sustainable, respectful manner and/or the PM messed up the estimate very, very badly and should likely be fired.

Long hours have a high opportunity cost.

For every hour you work you are foregoing everything else you could have been doing. Often times, the cost of long hours comes on the backs of our significant others and families. But even for single folks, it compresses all of life’s normal responsibilities like laundry, grocery, and dishes, to a much smaller allotment of hours. This in turn decreases time for sleep, relaxation, and enjoyment – things every person needs to feel rested and ready come Monday morning.

Long hours promote martyrdom.

Many of us have heard, “How long did you stay after I left?” or “I got home just after 10.”2 To the people who pride themselves in long hours, let me put it plainly: You have been duped. Your company has tricked you into believing your self-worth is tied to working longer and harder than others. I’m going to venture to say, that’s not a fair assessment of your worth and value, as a person or an employee.

Long hours ≠ more productivity or better work.

Ben Pieratt recently put it nicely: “I find that when I give myself more hours the only thing that scales up is procrastination. There’s little difference in my productivity in a 80 or 40 hour work week.”3 When you’re tired, stressed, and burnt out, it takes longer to generate creative solutions. Done work becomes more important than great or even good work. Stretched out over years, is that really a career and a body of work worth building?

The Truth

Now, to balance this out some. Long hours are a way to supercharge your career when you’re first starting out. As a newbie, you’re trying to establish a core-level of competency within a field or make a name for yourself. Long hours are a shortcut to get there – one most successful people I know have taken.

However, these long hours are best spent on projects and pursuits that enliven you, not just staying longer at an office doing free work that you hate. While discussing this topic with friends the other day, I realized that I still work long hours, but I spend it on personal projects like ChiPD, or learning Ruby on Rails, or writing and mentoring. Because these are things that fill me up, rather than drain me, they are sustainable. And because they are on my own terms, whenever more pressing concerns (like Homeland and Boardwalk Empire) arise I can easily put them aside.

This is to say, if you are going to put in the extra hours, make sure it’s on your own terms. And if some place or some job is making you feel like long hours “come with the territory” just know they are misleading you to their benefit, and you can find a better situation with some extra effort.

Footnotes

1Salaried employees are salaried to allow the company some flexibility. This flexibility is often compensated for, but compensated in a 41-50 hours a week sort of way, not an 80 hours a week sort of way.

2Thanks to Steve Woodson for jogging these memories. It’s been awhile since I’ve been in that world, so I’d forgotten that people actually say these things.

3Work versus Life. Greatness versus Family. by Ben Pieratt – A great read to supplement the thoughts contained in this post.

Jason James makes design things  for @wammoth, @kin_hr, @getdonedone, and others. For more opinionated designy thoughts, follow him on Twitter – @jas0njames.

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Comments

“Stretched out over years, is that really a career and a body of work worth building?” really puts it into perspective. I think this captured our discussion perfectly, there’s a huge difference between working late because you WANT to and working late because you HAVE to. Unfortunately it seems so prevalent in an agency environment that the long hours somehow equates to a better employee, now I have something to share when I hear a coworker boast about their long hours.

Craig Bryant - ( November 5, 2013 at 2:10 pm )

There’s a time in life when we need to pay our dues. The company offering that opportunity for a junior-level person (dev’r, designer, whatever) is saying “here’s some good work for you to cut your teeth on”. That’s a good thing. You get something out of it by learning, producing, shipping. They get something out of you in return: passion and drive. I would not have accomplished what I have w/o those chances to bust my ass and build my chops.

That said, it’s a slippery slope lined with burn-outs. It’s an important skill to recognize when sweat equity only profits the employer. You gotta move on at that point instead of playing the hero who never gets thanked. The latter is a dark, futile place that smells like stale Redbull.

Well said. If you are working ridiculous hours it should be because: 1.) you are loving it so much that you’d rather be doing that than anything else; or 2.) you had better be learning something new, fascinating, or valuable that will be worth the sacrifice down the road. It gets harder to keep the pace you used to as one gets older too.

I work as a freelancer for an assortment of my own clients and larger web agencies. There are times when I work many hours in a week, and sometimes not, but that is of my own volition.
If you are in a full-time job where 60-80 hour weeks are expected, that’s not a good sign, for all the reasons mentioned in the article. It’s important to manage client expectations from the beginning – it’s part of being a professional organization.

The glorification of workaholism is a trademark of startup culture, and it’s very dangerous. Being the person who works the longest doesn’t make you more machismo than everyone else, and it likely means that you are not good with managing your life. It’s been proven scientifically that after a certain point, working longer only provides diminishing returns. The stress of being forced to work long hours as an ongoing thing puts one in a mental state of disempowerment, shich is no good for anyone.

Ask a lot of people who who have gone the 80 hour a week route for any extended length of time. It wears you down mentally, physically, and emotionally. Dying on your shield doesn’t help anyone.

Hello,

For people who love to work long hour to praise bosses, you gotta come to Singapore/Hong Kong to work. Majority of Bosses here love to see you work long hour as they think that you are very responsible and hard working (doesn’t matter you work like a moron). This method can easily get promoted. If you keep meeting with your boss everyday and tell him/her that how hard you work and complain about your colleague, this is an add-on for speeding up your promoting.

This is the stupid culture here.

Cheers,
Mark

‘LONG HOURS ARE A SIGN OF POOR PROJECT MANAGEMENT.

When teams of designers and developers regularly work weekends and late nights to hit deadlines, this is either 1) known and expected or 2) not known and unexpected. Either way a Project Manager didn’t allow enough time to complete the project in a sustainable, respectful manner and/or the PM messed up the estimate very, very badly and should likely be fired.’

I also think there is a responsibility on the team member to communicate to the PM what they need to finish the job. To communicate clearly and be able to forecast your time is the only way for the PM to know what is required so nothing is promised incorrectly.

I have burned more than my fair share of midnight oil … both when I wanted to and when I had to. In the long run, it has worked out … yes, sometimes I had to do it because the Project Management was fubar, and the management did not have the guts to say no … but there were occasions when it was to create something that I wanted to … these were personal projects, products which when launched did well. I like the fact that you separated out the salaried part of the workforce … good point.

Stephen S - ( November 6, 2013 at 3:04 am )

10,000 hours worth of experience until you become notably proficient at something.

For young staff members to put a fair amount of hours in, in the early years might not be so harmful for an 80 hour week this is about 2.5 years if a company is able to provide a young staff member with new responsibilities then the staff member should benefit. Beyond these 2.5 years its probably time to move on- not necessarily due to burn out though!

Couldn’t agree more. I pity the fools that take pride in long hours unpaid, whilst I’m there enjoying my holiday, at the gym, with friends or generally enjoying my life outside of work.

Here in Spain we have that problem too, bosses usually promote people just by being all day in the office. No matter the quality or quantity of work done what it matters is you being there. Then you can have a long breakfast, time for coffee… but the most important is to leave the office really late. With most bosses entry time doesn’t matter as they tend to arrive even later.

Andrew Allsop - ( November 6, 2013 at 3:50 am )

I was reading this happy in the knowledge I’d moved from one place where over working was part of the fabric to another where at 5.30pm, the only work done was on the football table. That was until I realised that in my spare time now, I’m spending it doing things that still contribute towards work life…learning Ruby on Rails, MySQL, writing etc. But then I came to the same epiphany, not only do they contribute towards my professional success, they’re enjoyable, they give more than they take, they recharge me for my next 9pm – 5.30pm day and they provide a value that overlaps the periods of direct application more than any 10pm finish ever could.

Great post.

Agree with this, especially the bit about ‘weak leadership’. It comes from the top. If senior leaders can’t role model what a decent work/life balance looks like the game is lost in this regard.

One point I wish this article should have made was about ‘Energy management and not time management’ . I think this is a very important thing to remember that whether we spend 2 hours or 10 hours on a work, the energy required by the actual work can take it’s toll regardless of the time spent.

I’ve heard that the legal distinction is that if you are an hourly worker, you are paid for your time. If you are salaried you are paid to get the work done, no matter how much time it takes. There should be a lot of freedom in the latter, but it’s hardly ever realized.

I’ve always felt that long hours are a way for businesses to mitigate losses on poorly estimated projects at the developer/designers expense.

We are constantly in a battle to give estimates, whittle them down and try to legitimize them to our managers and clients. And then to reduce them again to match whatever original budget the sales team promised the client.

This leaves developers and designers left paying for the negative margins with uncompensated over-time for the 30+ extra hours that never officially made it into the budget.

But look at the bright-side: Free Chinese food and beer.

Sometimes you need to work long hours to meet your obligations. That’s just the way the world works.

Unfortunately, long hours often become an unnecessary and counter-productive habit, with all the drawbacks that the article mentions.

Such habitual inefficiency is a sign of management laziness.

Conversely, if your management team is on the ball, then everything will hum along sweetly.

It is a sad statistic that only 5% or so of management teams even approach competence.

The peter principle and selection bias see to it that incompetents, psychopaths and megalomaniacs rule the roost. (I am over-generalising, but you get the gist).

I agree. When you spending time more than what you should. It should be totally in our terms. It should add value to us, it should cater to our passions & interests. Thanks for putting up clear thoughts.

Management Consultancy - ( November 6, 2013 at 9:03 am )

Staff working long hours means higher revenue through greater billing hours for our customer’s accounts.

Greater billing hours for same salary means less cost to the company.

Higher revenue + less cost = Better Profits.

Oorrah.

I full heartedly agree that JRs should consider doing >40 hrs a week (say 50 for example). But spend those 10 hours upgrading yourself and the code you produce. Not by doing more.

Spend 10 hours figuring out how you can DRY the code, add better tests, use a design pattern or learn a new way to do things :learn a new DB, a new language, an new “add on” for your main language (eg, learn async, moment, underscore or something for JS, learn about internals for PHP), learn about related technologies : VCS (git, mercurial, svn), IDEs (from vim to Visual Studio), bug tracking (git hub, jira, fog creek) etc. etc.

If you spend the time to upgrade yourself, your value will grow much faster than inflation.

I’ve worked at a company where the upper management was told their expectations were unreasonable, deadlines unachievable and their decree was “work more hours!” Needless to say anyone with a brain left that company in short order.

I’ve also worked at companies where most of the people working long hours were, essentially, failing to communicate properly. “Yeah this will be done by next Friday”…right up until the night before…If it’s the latter that’s clearly your fault, not to be confused with anything else. Some programmers are hourly consultants, in which case…make sure you’re getting compensated for your hours that are actually billable. If you’re a programmer hired though to develop something as a function of your job, then it’s on you to deliver what you committed to and that’s part of being a professional.

100% agree.
Long hours should be a tool for the employees, not for the employers. In many cases, there’s nothing good comes out of an exhausted employee. Perhaps it’d be better if all Project Managers could draw a plan along with its contingency plan that doesn’t involve long hours. Long hours should only be as a last resort.

I interviewed at a company where the CEO asked me directly if I was willing to work 60+ hour weeks. Saving face, I just replied, “I’ve never worked 60+ hour weeks so I do not know” when in reality, I was thinking of how to politely end the discussion.

He went onto boast, “We don’t believe in work life separation, we believe in work life integration”

Shortly after I learned the company was 10 years old, and not just a scrappy start up, trying to strike it big.

I do not see anything wrong with working long hours if its by your own volition, which really only exists in self-employment. Most of us work because we have to, there are those few who say, “I wouldn’t know what I’d do if I didn’t work”…. I know exactly what I’d do as I’ve been laid off twice in my professional career and each time has been easily the best times of my life.

You are forgetting about law firms, banks and consulting companies where working long hours is a standard. It’s not a result of poor leadership skills or poor management.

Jason James - ( November 7, 2013 at 10:38 am )

Hey Adam, I can’t speak to corporate cultures in law firms, banks, and consulting companies. That’s why I limited my scope to “In the tech and design sectors there’s a lot of folks working long hours…” from the onset of this post.

IT people are glorified mechanics - ( November 7, 2013 at 12:00 pm )

Sounds like overconfident wealthy people wrote and commented on this article. Not everyone has the luxury of choice in where and for how many hours they work. This is exactly what is wrong with our country right now — no empathy.

Jason James - ( November 7, 2013 at 12:37 pm )

Hello “IT PEOPLE ARE…”,

There is a high degree of privilege right now within the tech and design industries. There’s a lot of work available, which allows design/tech workers a lot of leverage in their workplaces. This post is directed to those people.

I, as well as everyone at We Are Mammoth, realize we are fortunate to be in professions that are in-demand. And we empathize with the folks who don’t have the leverage in their workplaces to advocate for a reasonable work week. I realize it’s not easy for a lot folks, and this post doesn’t claim to have a one-size-fit-all solution to long hours.

Best,
JJ

Richard Best - ( November 7, 2013 at 2:41 pm )

The bottom line: If they ‘steal’ time from you, you’re a good team player, but if you steal time from them, you could get fired or worse.

As “IT PEOPLE ARE …” wrote, it’s not always possible to have a way out of this situation. I live in a country with high unemployment rate, where multinational companies exploit this fact as best they can, making people work ridiculous hours (even if they get paid to do so, no amount of money can compensate for that much lost life time) and weekends.
Also it’s not always the PMs fault. Another classic reason here, is that companies tend to make impossible and unreasonable proposals to customers in order to get a project (and the money that goes with it of course) and then as GREG stated, they demand their employees to work longer hours even if they know beforehand it’s an impossible task. If you don’t like the long hours or burning-out, you can quit, but then….yeah.

What if you are hourly? No, seriously. I am working today, Sunday, and will be all day. I work for myself, so am balancing the needs of multiple clients (and non-paid stuff like speaking and writing) to work those 80-100 hour weeks.

But what about hourly employees of agencies? I think there’s something to compensating for work over and above. Back when I was functionally the CD for an agency, the interns were hourly. Interesting projects would find them there all day (aside from school hours) and working on weekends. I reviewed so I knew the work was good, or corrected when not, but they weren’t burned out (I think) and got to trade work and sleep for money and experience.

Since the relationship was flexible (they can declare themselves busy, then I had to do it, or rope one of the few salaried people into it) it gave an out for boring work, and a way to not ruin their life and to catch up on sleep.

But, I want to hear other’s opinions/experience as well.

I have 14 years in as a developer for a Fortune 100 company. I’ve put in 90 hour weeks and 36 hour shifts, but those are outliers. For the most part, 40 hours is expected but there are times when I need to ramp up and I do. I just think that’s part of job and as long as it’s not the norm I’m fine with it.

This is a bold and amazing article. I have been in the industry 10 years now and there are very few people in management or leadership positions that would have the guts to say this, let alone put it into practice. The value that comes from understanding the benefits of not pushing people and abusing them is completely underestimated.

I am blessed to have just completed year one at a new company where I am a partner and we have had many conversations about time management and productivity. One of the things that is very important to us is boundaries and the work home life balance. To combat our temptation to overwork ourselves or put unrealistic expectations on one another we have put a cap on our work weeks at 40 hours. No more and no less. If off one way of or the other you have a single week to bring back into alignment or you subtract the time out of your vacation time whether you were over or under.

The idea is that you prioritize things heavily as you only have a certain amount of time to attack tasks per week. We have noticed that it has increased all of our productivity and moves us through decisions more quickly.

Read more here. http://neversettle.it/actual-40-hour-weeks-in-a-startup/

Have a ton more I wish I could share about the benefits that this has afforded my partners and I but I probably have rambled enough. Blessings and thanks for an awesome article. I am adding it to our on boarding kit.

Hat’s Off to my director, CRT, for being the wonderful leader she is. She sent this article to all of her employees. She gets it. She practices it. She expects us to practice it. She cares.

I am 60 years old and wish I had worked for someone like her earlier in my career. There is NOTHING like working for someone who is truly a real leader.

So many people THINK they are God’s gift to leadership…clueless.

Reminds me of one job where I had to tell my boss, “I can do one of two things. Either I can [continue to] produce the results you want me to produce, or I can work the hours you want me to work, but I cannot do both.”

Another way to put this article that would perhaps be better for managers that get it is maximizing creative energy hours (as opposed to zombie hours). Part of long hours is an attitude of “an hour is an hour is an hour”, meaning more productivity the more hours are punched, vs. in the IT industry, good programmers being 10x more productive than average and great programmers being perhaps 100x. This high functioning is the first casusalty of bad boundaries.

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