Overwork is hurting us. The longer hours and later days are not increasing productivity. It’s hurting it. Building cultures where an email is sent on Sunday at 7am for a meeting on Monday at 7am is not only accepted but expected is toxic. Working 80 hours in a week is inhuman and ridiculous.

There need to be limits to work. Just because a device can receive email doesn’t mean the owner needs to check it 24 hours a day. Just because someone has your phone number, doesn’t mean you need to be available to that phone at their demand.

This week, I declined to give my personal phone number out to someone I was planning an event with, because I knew the culture of their group meant it would be abused. I already made that mistake once and I continue to pay for it.

I love to work hard when I am at work. But I need just as much time to regain my focus and energy when I’m not at work. I draw a line at where work stops and my life begins. And it’s a hard line to keep from being erased or moved when you’re not looking.

Work Hard, Live Well

Many people believe that weekends and the 40-hour workweek are some sort of great compromise between capitalism and hedonism, but that’s not historically accurate. They are actually the carefully considered outcome of profit-maximizing research by Henry Ford in the early part of the 20th century. He discovered that you could actually get more output out of people by having them work fewer days and fewer hours.

The best work perk I’ve ever had was a scheduled where I worked 9 hour days, but I got a day off every other pay period. This let me schedule appointments during the day, go to movies, sleep in and recharge during the week without having to use precious vacation days / sick leave.

Many times when I get in to work in the morning and open Outlook, I see email sent from all hours of the night and morning. I wonder to myself why these people felt it was important enough for them to send this to me at 11pm. Or 4am. Couldn’t it have waited until work started? I wasn’t going to see or act on it until the next day anyway. If these were from people who worked an alternate schedule I’d understand since email is perfect for its asynchronous nature. But they’re not. They’re at their desk just like I am.

I have a few rules that keep me sane at work and keep life balanced with work.

First, I never respond to email after hours. I may read it to make sure no one in our West Coast offices is having a real emergency. But I don’t respond, because that teaches people that I will respond after hours.

Second, I don’t give out my personal phone number at work. I made that mistake once and I continue to pay for it. When you give out your personal number to one person, assume it’s going to get passed around. Because it will. And then you’ll be receiving calls at all times and hours about work-related things.

Third, keep records in writing. I work almost exclusively in email. It not only buoys my own poor memory, but it allows me to have a record of conversations and agreements. I keep records so I can refute someone trying to lay blame on me for their lack of communication or action. It’s partly a move to cover myself. But it also allows me to keep people honest.

If you send someone an email asking for clarification, and you get a phone call in return. It can mean the person doesn’t want a paper trail of what they’re asking. For instance, I’m a government contractor. My contract has limits on the number of hours and locations where I can work (without prior approval). I am going to hit my hours for the week at noon on Friday so I have the rest of the day off.

You Really Don’t Need To Work So Much

With no limits, work becomes like a football game where the whistle is never blown.

This is a perfect description of work. It’s many starts and stops but there’s no end in sight. Hurry up and Wait may be the motto of the corporate workplace.

In similar situations in the past, I’ve been asked (verbally) to work more hours than I am getting paid for. Because the contract did not allow for overtime nor comp time. But the person asking would never ask in writing, it would always be a phone call. I would ask for clarification in writing and never get it. So I would not work over my time. They know they’re wrong for asking but also smart enough not to commit their request to paper.

The Research Is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies

In sum, the story of overwork is literally a story of diminishing returns: keep overworking, and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.

Keeping a balance between work and non-work can be challenging. But it’s always worth it in the end. Rarely has staying late and killing myself at work ever benefited me or the people I work with.