To Work Better, Work Less

Toiling away for more hours diminishes productivity. Why do so many do it anyway?
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Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Between 1853 and 1870, Baron Haussmann ordered much of Paris to be destroyed. Slums were razed and converted to bourgeois neighborhoods, and the formerly labyrinthine city became a place of order, full of wide boulevards (think Saint-Germain) and angular avenues (the Champs-Élysées). Poor Parisians tried to put up a fight but were eventually forced to flee, their homes knocked down with minimal notice and little or no recompense. The city underwent a full transformation—from working class and medieval to bourgeois and modern—in less than two decades' time.

Every August, Paris now sees another rapid transformation. Tourists rule the picturesque streets. Shops are shuttered. The singsong sounds of English, Italian, and Spanish float down the street in place of the usual French monotone. As French workers are required to take at least 31 days off each year, nearly all of them have chosen this month to flit down to Cannes or over to Italy, Spain, or Greece, where the Mediterranean beckons and life hasn’t stopped like it has here.

Some might call it laziness, but what French people are really doing by vacationing for the entirety of August is avoiding the tipping point of overwork. Just as the city transforms overnight, so do French work habits—and this vacation time pays dividends. That’s because, even though the amount of time you work tends to match how productive you are as if on a sliding scale, length of work and quality of work at a certain point become inversely related. At some point, in other words, the more you work, the less productive you become. 

For example, working long hours often leads to productivity-killing distractions. Such is an instance of the saying known as Parkinson’s law, which states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Work less, and you’ll tend to work better.

So too with practicing a skill. K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, conducted a study in Berlin and found that the amount of time successful musicians spent practicing each day was surprisingly low—a mere 90 minutes per day. In fact, the most successful musicians not only practiced less, but also took more naps throughout the day and indulged in breaks during practice when they grew tired or stressed.

It has long been known that working too much leads to life-shortening stress. It also leads to disengagement at work, as focus simply cannot be sustained for much more than 50 hours a week. Even Henry Ford knew the problem with overwork when he cut his employees’ schedules from 48-hour weeks to 40-hour weeks. He believed that working more than 40 hours a week had been causing his employees to make many errors, as he recounted in his autobiography, My Life and Work.

Of course, some low-income workers are forced to work long hours or multiple jobs just to make ends meet. But why do many other employees—including those who are incredibly well compensated—still overwork themselves even when they often don’t have to?

Alexandra Michel, a Goldman Sachs associate-turned-University of Pennsylvania adjunct professor, found that at two well-known investment banks (which she left unnamed) employees were working an average of 120-hour weeks (as in, 17 hours a day, every day). This led workers, as Michel writes, to not only “neglect family and health,” but also to work long hours even when their bosses did not force them to—and when they knew that working that 16th and 17th hour a day wouldn’t make them any more productive.

Michel concluded that hardworking individuals put in long hours not for “rewards, punishments, or obligation." Rather, they do so “because they cannot conceive otherwise even when it does not make sense to do so.”

It seems silly that many work long hours simply for the sake of having worked long hours. Perhaps the reason people overwork even when it is not for “reward, punishment, or obligation” is because it holds great social cachet. Busyness implies hard work, which implies good character, a strong education, and either present or future affluence. The phrase, “I can’t; I’m busy,” sends a signal that you’re not just an homme sérieux, but an important one at that.

There is also a belief in many countries, the United States especially, that work is an inherently noble pursuit. Many feel existentially lost without the driving structure of work in their life—even if that structure is neither proportionally profitable nor healthy in a physical or psychological sense.

Everyone would likely agree with Aristotle that “we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends.” The motivation for employees to work hard is the carrot of a relaxing retirement. Yet this cause-and-effect often gets flipped such that we fit our lives into our work, rather than fitting our work into our lives. The widespread belief that happiness and life satisfaction can be found exclusively through hard work is at a heart more a management myth meant to motivate workers than it is a philosophical truism.

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​Cody C. Delistraty

Cody C. Delistraty is a writer and historian based in Paris. He has worked for the Council on Foreign Relations, UNESCO, and NBC News.

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