Operating at Optimum Speed

In the first half of 2021, when crypto markets were going crazy — I frequently felt I was in quicksand at work. No matter how hard I struggled, I only fell in deeper, closer to drowning. I’ve always prided myself on being a stamina employee, able to go longer and endure more than most. But even I had to admit burnout.

Things have been quieter over the past few weeks. It’s given me time to think, and leave work on time more.

There’s always this guilt of leaving on time though. Irrational, I know. Nobody asks me to do it, and nobody monitors my hours. And yes, I regularly preach to my team to maintain work-life balance. Meanwhile, the company I work for has been world class in employee benefits. Every worker got two Fridays off recently, because everyone had been feeling overworked.

The problem is me, because I still can’t help feeling the guilt. “Is there more I could have done today? Maybe I should refresh my work phone to see if there’s any final messages to deal with?” Before you know it, it’s 7:30 p.m. and I’ve gone overtime again. The guilt is gone, but so is my personal time.

If you’re a workaholic like me, trying to get better, hopefully my reflections will help.

Life’s Seasons and Cycles

Why do we work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week?

It turns out our working week is a relatively modern creation. Henry Ford is often credited with this, implementing the 40-hour work week in 1926 for all Ford Motor employees. The practice spread all over the world, particularly in the 1940s-1960s.

You have to admit, it has a nice rhythm about it. Ideally on a workday: 8 hours of work, 8 hours of leisure, 8 hours of sleep. 5 days of this, then 2 days off. A mathematically-pleasing cycle of work and rest.

But of course, cycles of work and rest existed long before Henry Ford. Even ancient religious texts mention them:

There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work.

– The Bible, Leviticus 23:3 –

(I feel most comfortable quoting the Bible, but a day of rest is also found in other religions like Judaism. In Islam, Friday is the most special day — not so much for rest, but for gathering and prayer.)

A good reminder for us workaholics. Life is about cycles. Days and weeks that eventually become months, quarters and years. All of nature works this way. Heck, even machines need to go through regular maintenance.

What more our precious — but often fragile — bodies?

Work Hours Is an Imperfect Metric

When Henry Ford implemented the 40-hour work week, it was initially for factory workers. Ford also introduced the assembly line — workers were specialized and worked on one thing for their entire shift. It increased efficiency, but I imagine it was pretty boring.

Thankfully, many of us today work in knowledge-based jobs. It’s not so much about grinding hours on the same thing, but achieving objectives efficiently. As Warren Buffett once said, “You can’t produce a baby in one month, by getting nine women pregnant.”

What I’m getting at: due to the nature of work today, we shouldn’t tie work satisfaction to just the number of hours worked.

It’s one measure. I’m not so extreme to suggest people will succeed working four hours a week. But I’m also tired of feeling you constantly need to “overachieve” in number of hours. Feeling busy and overwhelmed all the time is not a badge of honor. It’s bullshit.

Yes, I think eight hours as a guideline1 makes sense. And maybe companies aren’t ready to write this black-and-white into employee contracts yet. But I 100% believe a reasonable boss shouldn’t mind if you left early on Friday, because you worked OT on Thursday.

Sprinting and Resting at Work

I didn’t want this to be another productivity article. I wanted it to be a “get okay with down time” article.

But of course, managing cycles also makes you more efficient at work.

One new way I’m structuring work days is a set of sprints and rests. Instead of two 4-hour marathons every day separated by lunch, I try to schedule a few 1 to 2-hour sessions of deep work2 throughout the day.

It kinda looks like this:

When done right, I have enough time to get through the administrative and collaborative stuff (e.g. meetings, emails, chats), and still invest time on a few important things. As long as I tune out distractions; focusing deeply during those “sprint sessions.” And it works best when I take short breaks between sprints. To let my brain rest and my mind wander.

Reminder: the idea isn’t to become hyper-efficient, only to fill up the extra time with more work. (That’s actually pretty silly — though we do this to ourselves often don’t we? 🙄) It’s to get through challenging work without burning out, and then drawing the line: enough work today, time for self-care.

I like to take the sprint and rest analogy further. You can imagine every work week to be a 5-day sprint with 2 days of rest. Some projects take longer — maybe 2-week sprints3 are better for your type of work. And you can also think of every quarter as a “long run.” It’d be nice to take a short break every three months.

The Effects of FOMO and Hustle Porn

“If you’re already working so hard, why don’t you work on your own dream?” A counterpoint that sometimes plays in my mind. Why am I such a dedicated employee? Wouldn’t I be way more successful — richer and able to make a bigger impact — if I ran my own business?

It gets to me because I love immersing myself in hustle culture. I lap up motivational tweets and longform articles about fast-growing startups like a teenager in McDonalds. Quotes like:

“Why get addicted to one monthly paycheck when you can earn 10 sources of income?”

And in the midst of my admiration for business owners and the entrepreneurial spirit, I sometimes feel that familiar tingling of shame. Here’s another young guy tryna change the world with just guts and coding skills. Meanwhile, I’m still struggling to get my team to fill in last week’s employee survey.

Will I be “just” a salaried person for my entire career? At the rate it’s going, I think so. I have a suspicion I wouldn’t be able to handle the sacrifices every entrepreneur must go through. I don’t think I’ll enjoy 60-hour work weeks. I’m worried about failing too — and what it’d mean for my family.

Maybe I’ll never be able to put those feelings away, that I’m somehow underutilizing my potential. But what helps is reminding myself there’s no fixed path to success in life. Success is not only about being “the man,” hustling to make millions, or launching more ambitious ventures. Maybe the path I’m on today, the impact I’m making, is enough?

Great things can still happen when people work on a shared dream together.

If you’re like me, happy to work reasonable hours for a reasonable boss, I want you to know that’s okay.

– – –

“The days are long but the years are short,” Gretchen Rubin once wrote. She was talking about parenthood, but maybe it has lessons for our careers too.

Endure the challenging times and savor the good times that eventually come. Be happy for others — no matter what path they’re on, or what season of life they’re in.

Work at your own pace. Operating at optimum speed doesn’t mean going full speed all the time.

If you’re going to have a 40-year career that you enjoy, what’s the rush?

– – –

Footnotes:

  1. A guideline also helps protect you from overwork. If you’re constantly putting in 10 hours a day when everyone around you does 8, maybe it’s time to cut down.
  2. Using the term “deep work” loosely here. My only knowledge of the concept comes from articles cause I haven’t read Cal Newport‘s famous book yet. Forgive me if I didn’t get it 100% right.
  3. You might recognize some of these terms from Agile Methodology and Scrum. Again, I’m using the terms very loosely. Some other productivity ideas that have influenced me: Mind Maps, the Do Something Principle (to defeat procrastination), Managing Energy (Not Time) and Atomic Habits.

– – –

Pic from Pixabay


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8 comments

  • Omg I so agree that hours are a terrible measure of productivity, and that the 9–5 was designed as a cookie-cutter template, but a lot of us actually don’t fit into that mould. But in the end, it’s all about discovering our different journeys in life, so it doesn’t matter if we prefer the 9–5 or the hustle lifestyle. Anyway, thanks for this post!

  • Interesting post. But I keeping thinking – age (time) and life are the great equalizers. I’ve spent most of my adult (working) life trying to find my “calling.” I read “What Color Is Your Parachute” decades ago, along with all the popular self-help books. I even went back to school when I turned 50 and then started what I thought would be my “dream career.” Things did not turn out as I had planned/hoped. And then reality and age really hit. Family illnesses, deaths, job losses, job changes. I finally threw in the towel and said to myself I will just do the best I can at whatever comes along and hang on until retirement. I am now on the cusp of retirement. I would love to work until 70 but time and life will determine that. Not me. It is no longer about work/life balance. It is about balance period. If these past several years have shown me anything it is that I am not the center of the universe and I am responsible not only for myself, but for others (people and planet).

    • Hi Susie,

      Thanks for dropping by and sharing your experiences. Lovely thoughts and wisdom here — feels like we need more people like you on earth.

      Please take care and all my best wishes.

  • I feel part of your thoughts too. But maybe because I’m freelancing, relax means zero income, so I have to push myself very hard to meet end needs, especially during this unfortunate time. That matter aside, I’m glad I’m not the only one who feel like chasing time… And I really love to read your blog. Thank you.

  • My Wife asked me the same question also recently, ” Why are you so relaxed while I’m so stressed? Don’t you feel like you have a million things to do?”
    I asked her back, ” Does feeling stressed and having a million things on your plate make you an EFFECTIVE person?”
    My Wife shot back, “Ah, the hell with this, I’m watching anime on Netflix…”

    Luckily I didn’t get the couch 😛

    Most people know as well as you and me that they feel like a mice trapped in a rat race. Maybe they derive a sense of identity and accomplishment by having many plates constantly spinning all at once. Or maybe it is a social pressure to fit in by ‘doing something’ and being a ‘contributive’ member of society.

    There’s a new fad called ‘lying flat’ in China because people are fed up of their own 9-9-6 culture. (9am to 9pm 6 days work week) Some commentators are calling it a ‘monk-ish’ counter-culture. The fact is societal conditioning has been brutal to so called people who balance work-life. In fact they have absolutely blamed social ills and deviants from pursuing a contemplative lifestyle. It’s like they are cancelling you for daring to lay flat when there are so many people suffering and social injustice going on everywhere.

    Which is part of reason why people don’t dare to stop. Cause society will ask, why are you relaxing? If you’re so free, why don’t you… bosses, spouses, family, relatives will want to make you feel guilty and pile their troubles on you, who seem so care free and have ‘finished’ his work and being ‘selfish’ for not caring about others.

    Hence work has become a shield, to avoid more troubles, more work. The irony is that we all want peace and we thought work is an excuse to avoid work.

    hahaha, of course i’m hyperboling here and there, but hope you get the gist.

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