You get to work at 8:30 am, half an hour before your boss arrives. You eat your lunch at your desk in just ten minutes, hardly leave your desk all afternoon (what coffee break?), and get off at 6:30 pm. By 6:50 you are at your gym for your 7 pm spin class, then an hour later you stop by the store for some groceries. It’s 9 by the time you start eating dinner (finally!) but instead of relaxing with your family, you load the dishwasher, sit back at your desk, and check your inbox for emails from Asia–or in my case, read or write for work. At one or two in the morning, you finally fall asleep–and the first thing you do, when your eyes open at 7 am, is check your Blackberry. Sometimes, you have stressed-induced heart palpitations and headaches–not just at the office, but at home, too. On weekends you decline social activities so you can put in more hours glued to your computer. Sound familiar? (Good, I’m not the only one.)
Whether work addiction is self-induced or culturally-imposed is up for debate–but what seems certain is that Americans are working longer and harder than ever before. A 2012 study by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed that on average, Americans are putting in 20% more hours of work than they did in 1970. In the meantime, the number of hours worked in all the other industrialized countries, except for Canada, decreased. Studies have also shown that 80% of Americans work between 40-79 hours a week, and that around a third of Americans don’t take all their vacation days. But hey, at least we’re not like those South Koreans, who work the longest hours in the world–2,190 hours a year, and that’s more than 100 hours longer than No. 2 Chile. (The U.S. was 19th place at 1,695 hours.) At this rate, it seems quaint to recall that in 1933, the Senate passed a bill for official 30-hour work week (vetoed by President Roosevelt), and that in 1965, U.S. Senate sub-committee predicted a breezy 14-hour work week by year…2000. (Not. Even. Close).
The predictions from the past seem as groan-worthy as Y2K, but it seems worth noting the paradigm shift here: For the majority of the 20th century, there was an expectation that increased efficiency and economic abundance will grant increased leisure time and consequently, life satisfaction. But well into the 21st century, it seems that the more efficient we become, the more we are driven to work. Psychology Today noted that work addiction stems largely from the prevailing belief that hard work is the basis of wealth. But given the state of income distribution in the U.S., such a notion might not be realistic: “Notions of hard work are predominantly held by the middle class and poor people and originate from the industrial revolution and Protestant religious tenants, which viewed hard work both as a virtue and magic formula for success. Hard work has never been a belief embraced by the upper class and wealthy.” The Korean immigrant in me recoils at this on every level, but it holds water from both sociological and economic points of view.
So does this mean we, the poor, delusional, work-addicted middle and working class folk, should thumb our noses at our bosses and scoot out of work as soon as the clock strikes 5, our chairs swiveling behind us cartoon-style? I think the answer here is more complicated than that. While it might be true that hard work may not be the key to upward mobility, it will always be a factor in your individual progress. For instance, my hard work will always have a net positive effect on my career, regardless of the competitive advantage measured against other people. At the same time, working round-the-clock won’t have additional benefits to yourself or to your employer: believe it or not, the old 9-to-5, 8-hour work day model was found to be optimal for productivity in the (hardly utopian) 1890s, and since proven repeatedly to be the gold standard. So instead of focusing on the quantity of work, turn your attention to the quality of your output. Make a list at the start of your day and don’t let yourself be distracted. Don’t feel pressured to answer all the emails right away, and put away your smartphone at night. And take 5 minutes each day to make sure that your work isn’t just a daily completion of tasks, but a step toward your long-term professional goal–so you can derive the most satisfaction and happiness from all your efforts. Working smart is the new working hard.