Why Being a Workaholic Destroys Your Focus and Productivity

Do you work 60 hours a week? 80 hours? Are you proud of all you have to show for your long hours? Think again. Beyond a certain point, extra hours mean lower productivity. Learn to use your mind rather than mindlessly logging endless hours and you’ll be a whole lot more creative, productive and happy.

We’ve all known someone (or perhaps you are that person) who boasts about how many hours they work. 60 - 80 hour workweeks in some corporate cultures are the norm. Anything less is viewed as laziness.

In fact, many corporate cultures view long hours as the reason for their success. In China, the world’s fastest growing and second largest economy, many tech companies practice the “9-9-6” work system – employees are expected to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 6 days a week.

At Amazon, warehouse workers reportedly clock in for 10-hours shifts, and can work multiple twelve-hour shifts and 60-hour work weeks during holiday and other peak times. Across the U.S. overall, 85 percent of American men and nearly 70 percent of American women work over 40 hours a week.

Clearly, China’s meteoric rise, Amazon’s unprecedented success, and America’s coveted status as the richest nation on earth show that long hours equate with and are necessary for high productivity. Right?


Bursting the Workaholic Myth

While it’s hard to argue with the success of America or China or Amazon, research on working hours shows that they are actually leaving money on the table due to overwork. Whatever productivity they have comes despite rather than because of overworked employees. The reality is that most companies and individuals could achieve even greater productivity and better performance by working less.

While I don’t expect to convince Amazon or China, you can use these principles in your own work to achieve more and have more time left over.

A study by Stanford University economics professor John Pencavel shows that after 50 work hours a week, your productivity plunges. Any hours beyond 55 produce no new gains – if you work 70 hours a week, you don’t produce more than the person who works 55 hours.

Think about that. The person who prides himself on his workaholic 70-hour a week lifestyle is actually throwing 15 hours down the drain every week. And Pencavel is not alone in his findings. Many studies suggest that you don’t gain much after you cross the 40-hour a week threshold.

The reality is that your brain is not capable of focusing intensely for that many hours without breaks, any more than your body could work out endlessly without rest. If you work too many hours, you are less efficient per hour worked than if you work with fresh focus and mental clarity for a smaller number of hours.

So why is China so productive? The country has a massive number of workers and they are putting in a lot of time. If a lot of people put in a lot of hours, something will get done. But how much more productive would those workers be (not to mention happy) if they worked more reasonable hours under better conditions?

We don’t have to look far for the answers.

Chinese workers routinely suffer from a wide range of health maladies related to their overwork. Some Amazon employees have reported increased injuries and ambulance calls with increased overtime.

Several studies show that with long work hours come increased risk of cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression, substance abuse, high blood pressure, more injuries and even early death. It’s hard to justify all those health issues, and not seeing your family much, when the bulk of your work beyond 50 hours a week doesn’t accomplish anything.

In fact, the Chinese 9-9-6 culture has produced a backlash, with younger Chinese knowledge workers now rebelling in droves.

Measuring Your Work By Your Mental Focus, Not Your Hours

Some jobs – such as working in an Amazon warehouse – don’t offer many options to reduce your work time. And even in the knowledge sector, there’s often a non-negotiable expectation to rack up the hours. Law firms expect lawyers to bill a certain number of hours, regardless of the quality of those hours. Some tech companies are notorious for near-sweatshop conditions.

Nevertheless, the best route to productivity is to work fewer hours with greater focus and with enough time to rejuvenate so that you can put the most into your work hours. Let’s face it – even if you work a standard eight-hour day, chances are very high that you’re not actually doing anything productive during many of those hours.

In fact, the typical American worker has only three or four work hours that are productive, with the rest of the time squandered. Creating periods of time within your day to work without interruption will do wonders for your productivity. With two hours of uninterrupted work time, you can typically accomplish as much or more as most do in eight hours with distractions.

Sweden conducted an experiment reducing the shifts of nurses in one nursing home to six hours, while continuing to pay them an eight-hour salary. The nurses took half the sick time as those in a control group working eight hours, and were 2.8 times less likely to take time off in any given two-week period. The nurses also were twenty percent happier and had more energy at work, performing over 60 percent more activities with the nursing home residents. Even though the nurses worked less, the reduction in sick time and time off combined with elevated mood and energy resulted in more time spent with patients and a higher level of care.

If you work in a creative field, then you know that creativity does not respond well to overwork. Ernest Hemingway typically worked six hours a day. Steven King wrote four hours a day. No one could accuse either of inadequate output or lack of success.

Many famous scientists, such Charles Darwin, worked a limited number of intensively focused hours. Henri Poincaré, an eminent 19th Century mathematician, authored 30 books and 500 papers. He typically worked about four focused hours a day.

A study of scientists at the Illinois Institute of Technology found that the most productive professors were those who worked the fewest hours. Those who worked 60 or more hours a week were the least productive. Stanford’s Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, has concluded from his comprehensive study of top achievers in a variety of fields that many of history’s “game changers” were highly focused but did not work particularly long hours.

While there may be a few highly successful “super-humans” who manage to work nearly around the clock (e.g. Elon Musk, Bill Gates), that’s simply not going to be an effective strategy for most of us. Show me an 80-hour a week knowledge worker, and I’ll almost always show you a case study of someone who could be working far more efficiently and getting the same or more done in less time.

Even an Elon Musk or a Bill Gates, if they were willing to subject their schedules and their activities to deep scrutiny, would probably find that they don’t really need 100 hours a week to accomplish what they do, and like every other workaholic, some of their superhuman hours are not super productive.

But most of us are not superhuman. And even if you could work 100 hours a week, why would you want to if you could get the same work done in less than half the time?

Simply put, the more you can arrange for uninterrupted blocks of time where you focus intensely, the more you will get done and the better you will do it. At the end of the day, what you accomplish is far more important than how many hours you rack up.