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Overwork… Doesn’t Work

This post is from a series about the ideal worker archetype in my online course, Science of Finding Flow. Read the rest here.

We can check our email before breakfast (and while we wait in line for our lattes), and make calls during our commute. Most of us can keep working straight through lunch while we eat–how wonderfully productive is that? And after dinner, we can log back in and KEEP WORKING when our grandparents back in the day might have been, say, conversing with a neighbor or spouse or child. Or perhaps reading a book. For pleasure.

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Gemma Correll commissioned by JetBlue for Humankinda

The truth is super hard for us to hear: Overwork does not make us more productive or successful. For most of the 20th century, the broad consensus (among the management gurus) was that “working more than 40 hours a week was stupid, wasteful, dangerous, and expensive–and the most telling sign of dangerously incompetent management to boot,” writes Sara Robinson, a consultant at Cognitive Policy Works who specializes in trend analysis and social change theories.

Moreover, according to Robinson, more than a HUNDRED YEARS of research shows that “every hour you work over 40 hours a week [will make] you less effective and productive over both the short and the long haul.” Really! Even, or maybe especially, for knowledge workers!

Why? The human brain did not evolve to operate like a computer that gets switched on and can run indefinitely without a break. Just as a fruit tree does not bear fruit 365 days a year, human beings are only productive in cycles of work and rest.

So if we are to be our most productive, successful, and joyful selves, we must create a new cultural archetype for the ideal worker. One that is based on the biology we actually have and the way that we actually are able to work. That is exactly what we are doing in this course.

Choices to make

This idea will be threatening to the people around you who still strive to be ideal workers. But sticking with the status quo—a life of unrelenting work—will break your heart slowly, as one of my clients so aptly put it. True happiness and fulfillment, it turns out, are not found in the unyielding pursuit of an impossible ideal.

To develop our multiple talents, we must stray from the herd of our cultural archetypes. This can be terrifying and disorienting—after all, humans are deeply social animals, so our nervous system sends distress signals when we break from our group. But we will not find flow by conforming to unrealistic ideals or outdated stereotypes. We’ll find it by allowing ourselves to be complex and divergent–our most authentic, balanced selves.


This post is taken from “The Science of Finding Flow,” an online course I created as a companion to my book The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less. I’m sharing one “lesson” from this online class per week here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!

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