What Long Hours Really Mean

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.


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.