To Work Better, Work Less

Toiling away for more hours diminishes productivity. Why do so many do it anyway?
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.

In his 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness,” the British philosopher Bertrand Russell corrects this idea, writing, “A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work.” Rather, “the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”

That is to say happiness is ultimately not found in late nights spent at work, but in finding a way to work less, even if that means buying fewer things or recalibrating your perspective such that having free time no longer suggests moral shortcomings.

Economists have, for quite a long time, been writing about how simple it would be for us to scale back our workdays as our technologies become more efficient. Adam Smith’s “pin theory” says that if it usually takes workers eight hours a day to make a set number of pins, then an invention that doubles or triples the speed of pin production should proportionally decrease the amount of time workers spend on the job. By that theory, we should, as the great British economist John Maynard Keynes hypothesized in his "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren," be working less. Maybe we can't achieve the the 15-hour workweeks that he proposed, but fewer hours would be welcome nonetheless. 

In certain trades, such as law, it makes sense to work more than necessary, because fees are assessed hourly rather than as lump sums. This, of course, hurts the client, who ends up paying for non-productive work, but in the short-term it is a coup for the law firm. Also, although overwork leads to sharply decreased work efficiency (which costs American companies between $450 and $550 billion annually in lost productivity) and heightened stress and sickness, it is still cheaper to hire one employee to work 80 hours per week than it is to hire two employees to work 40 hours per week.

Some companies have begun to diverge from this thinking, though, taking after the “work less, work better” philosophy. The Michigan-based software company Menlo Innovations looks down on employees who clock in more than 40 hours per week, seeing overwork not as a sign of dedication but as a marker of inefficiency. Working overtime has even led to a few layoffs at the company, according to Brigid Schulte, the author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.Finally, there is also the simple reason for perpetuating overwork: cultural inertia. Americans have worked long hours in the past, so regardless of new technologies or jumps in efficiencies, we continue working the same number of hours, even if doing so has no discernible effect, or even a negative effect, on productivity. On top of that, everyone else is already stuck in their ways: being the first person in the office who starts cutting back on work time "for the sake of productivity" without fearing repercussion would require courage and a bit of naiveté.

Many people are still stuck on the fundamental importance of work compared to free time: the structure it gives, the purpose it affords, the morality it signifies. But what if we viewed leisure time not as goofing off, but as necessary time for reflecting, for inspiring creativity, and for saving up brainpower and energy for future work?

Although it has its share of economic problems, France has less than nine percent of its employees working “very long hours.” (By contrast, 11 percent of Americans work “very long hours,” and Turkey has the largest proportion: 43 percent of its workers do so.) France also has one of the world’s best work-life balances. Working too much is at best, pointless, and at worst, actively harmful. Overwork dictates our physical health, psychological health, and our time with family, and often it is rooted in our own desire to ennoble the act of working, to feel productive (even if we’re not being productive), and to be able to tell other people, “I’m busy,” as a means of social prestige.

It took serious work for modern Paris to be created. Baron Haussmann was hated by a great number of Parisians for his vision of a more efficient Paris, and there was serious backlash throughout his 17-year project, as recounted in Patrice de Moncan’s Le Paris d’Haussmann. He did not, however, take any extended breaks during the whole project, as Napoleon III continued to push him to finish as quickly as possible. In early 1870, he finished the Place de l’Opéra and was in the process of starting construction on the national opera building itself.

But after Napoleon III appointed Émile Ollivier, a fierce critic of Haussmann, as prime minister, the emperor became swayed by Haussmann’s opponents and relieved him of his duties. Haussmann floundered about, spending time abroad and staying out of the public spotlight until the late 1870s, when he came back to Paris to re-enter politics. A year before his return, the opera had been finished.

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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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