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Posted on: Saturday, 07 January 2017 by Rajiv Popat

Lately, there is a fad that’s been going around about the whole idea of ‘work life balance’.

Anyone you talk to claims that they are overworked and are finding it difficult to strike a ‘work life balance’.

But a question really worth reflecting on is, are we really overworked? Or are we becoming downright lazy (not because we don’t love hard work but) because we are unable to find any creative outlets in the work that we do?

There is this myth of folks working 80 / 90 hour work weeks and feeling the urge to strike a healthy work-life-balance. Laura Vanderkam decided to question the validity of the claims of people who say they are working 80-hour work-weeks and came out with some striking revelations in her book, 168 Hours - You have More Time Than You Think. For her book, Laura reached out to University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson about his research on the reality of work hours and the figures she found were astounding:

University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson and his colleagues analyzed people’s estimates of how much they worked, and compared those to the time diaries, they found that the more hours people claimed to work, the more inaccurate they were. You can guess in which direction.

Almost no one who claimed a 70-hour workweek was underestimating. Indeed, the average person who claimed to work more than 75 hours per week generally logged about 55. When I contacted Robinson recently, he sent me a working paper he was drafting using more recent numbers, from 2006-2007. The time spent working had come up a little for people whose estimated hours showed workaholic tendencies, but even so, the average person who claimed to be working 60-69 hours per week was actually logging 52.6, and the average person claiming to work 70, 80, 90, or more hours was logging less than 60.

Laura’s hypothesis is that people overestimate their workweeks. After all, we tend to overestimate the time we spend in things we don’t enjoy and underestimate the time we spend in things we love doing. Which is why most people underestimate their television watching time and overestimate their workweeks. Remember how, in your childhood, your study time never used to end but the study breaks used to run out in no time? It’s the same concept of relative speed of time when it comes to most people feeling that they are overworked. Bottom line, we aren’t spending 80-hour workweeks. We just feel we are spending 80 hour workweeks because we don’t love our work as much as we love watching television. And we don’t connect to the work that we do either. No amount of work life balance can fix that.

While Laura’s writing style is professional, this article is a bit more unforgiving and hits the hammer right on the nail:

Are you feeling drained and listless at work? One of the biggest reasons we find ourselves frustrated from our jobs is because we don’t have an outlet for things that are important to us but we need to keep at it because of bills and general adult responsibilities.

Us millennials have two major problems hanging over us: crushing debt and the desire (with no outlet) to do something meaningful. Some of us went to college with the hopes of a guaranteed job when we graduated. It’s now a hilarious thought on hindsight.

Unless you graduated with a degree in one of the STEM disciplines, you probably didn’t land your ideal job right out of college. And that’s likely the reason why you’re stuck in a job you feel has no real purpose, and why your student debt is still hanging over your head.

If you feel Laura’s claim and the article above isn’t scientific enough, Dan Ariely, Emir Kamenic and Drazen Prelec have a scientific paper where they try to decipher man’s search for meaning using Lego pieces. In this social experiment they paid college students money for making Lego Bionicles. There were two conditions in the experiment, the meaningful condition, where the Bionicles built by students would be kept on a table while they made new ones and the meaningless condition (i.e. the Sisyphus condition) where the experimenter would dismantle the Bionicles in front of the student, making it very clear to the students that their work served no purpose, before giving them new Lego pieces. Here is how the paper describes the two conditions:

In the Meaningful condition, after the subject would build each Bionicle, he would place it on the desk in front of him, and the experimenter would give him a new box with new Bionicle pieces. Hence, as the session progressed, the completed Bionicles would accumulate on the desk.

In the Sisyphus condition, there were only two boxes. After the subject completed the first Bionicle and began working on the second, the experimenter would disassemble the first Bionicle into pieces and place the pieces back into the box. Hence, the Bionicles could not accumulate; after the second Bionicle, the subject was always rebuilding previously assembled pieces that had been taken apart by the experimenter. This was the only difference between the two conditions.8 Furthermore, all the Bionicles were identical, so the Meaningful condition did not provide more variety than the Sisyphus one.

The results of the test are astounding. Here is what they found:

Despite the fact that the physical task requirements and the wage schedule were identical in the two conditions, the subjects in the Meaningful condition built significantly more Bionicles than those in the Sisyphus condition. In the Meaningful condition, subjects built an average of 10.6 Bionicles and received an average of $14.40, while those in the Sisyphus condition built an average of 7.2 Bionicles and earned an average of $11.52.

The Wilcoxon rank-order test reveals that the reservation wage was significantly greater in the Sisyphus than in the Meaningful condition (exact one-sided p-value = 0.005). The median subject in the Sisyphus condition stopped working at $1.40, while the median subject in the Meaningful condition stopped at $1.01. Hence, the difference is a visible count in both conditions economically as well as statistically significant, as the Sisyphus manipulation increased the median reservation wage by about 40 percent.

Put simply, remove meaning out of a person’s work and they will work less even at a 40% higher payout. Not to mention the fact that the person would end up being much less productive, feel tired much quicker, would burn out and would give up much faster.

So the next time you get this urge to establish a stronger work life balance and you feel that we are overworked, it might be a good idea to sit down and reflect on if you are really doing 80 hour work weeks or are you just overestimating how overworked we are? Are you in a job that makes you excited or do you need to find additional work that we love doing on the side? Are you relying on your jobs to provide you meaning when your organization expects you to be toiling like Sisyphus?

There was a time in my life when I would have said that you can find meaning outside your work life – for example – working on open source projects, participating in community efforts, contributing in online discussions, but as I grow I am starting to realize that 8 hours a day (and 40 hours a week) of prime productive time, is considerable enough for you to start looking for ways to change your organization (or change your organization); particularly if your work isn’t providing you sufficient excitement, challenge, flow and meaning.

Of course, till the time you can change (or change) your organization meaningful work outside your paid job can provide the much needed boost to keep your creative sprits alive.

Either ways, if you feel you are overworked, constantly tired and don’t like the idea of waking up in the morning to go to work, it’s time to stop blaming yourself and take a long hard look at the work you are doing and ask yourself one basic question – are you enjoying yourself? And if the answer is no, what are you actively doing to change that?