This is what the professional culture in the US looks like today:
- 50% of Americans are clocked in for over 40 hours each week.
- Half of Americans feel that stress negatively impacts their personal and professional lives.
- A typical American takes only half his or her paid vacation in a year.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I pride myself in my work ethic. I pack my to-do list liberally and optimistically; “yes” is my automatic response to more responsibility in the office; and, if I’m being honest, nothing makes me feel more productive than getting ahead on tasks when I’m off the clock. If this all sounds familiar to you, then those stats might not be so surprising after all.
If you consider yourself a hard working professional, there’s a good chance you’re under a lot of stress because of your career. I spoke on the phone with Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodard, PhD, a workplace psychologist and career expert, to get his advice on how to best manage motivation and productivity habits.
“We’re one of the hardest working countries in the world,” he tells me, “and we’re also one of the most work-obsessed.”
When you’re in the zone during your 9-to-5 role each day, and getting tasks done genuinely makes you feel good, it’s easy to fall into a rhythm. But why are you really doing all this? Here are six questions to ask yourself in order to actively challenge and understand your habits. After all, if you could be doing less work (and spending more time relaxing), you should be.
1. Are You Defining Productivity the Right Way?
Consider how you measure success and accomplishment in the day-to-day of your job, but also in the big picture. Dr. Woody makes one careful distinction: “Don’t confuse activity with productivity.” Do you feel fulfilled if you have a long list of tasks checked-off by the end of the day, or are you most satisfied knowing you put hours and hours of your time into a big project?
He says, “People fall into the trap of ‘If I’m in motion, I’m being productive.’ Work activities aren’t necessary all productive: A lot of the things we do, whether it’s on the job or off hours, probably add little bearing on actually producing quality work. Checking emails, reading spam, searching stuff, getting distracted—all of those are activities, not necessarily productive activities.”
When it comes to thinking about what efficiency means to you, try to understand that your understanding of it might be different from your boss, or Lisa in HR. Figuring out how to negotiate and reconcile those differences can help you hone in on the type of expectations that will be meaningful in your position.
2. Are You Working Hard or Working Smart?
You’ve heard quality over quantity time and time again because it makes sense. Put yourself in your manager’s shoes for a moment: Would you rather have your employee take on less but more focused hours, or longer hours that don’t really have to do with producing better outcomes?
You didn’t get that promotion because you poured in weeks of effort—you got it for producing the results expected of you. It’s not always about how many hours you spend on a project, but how well you do it. Otherwise, according to Dr. Woody, “you’re going to put yourself past burning out.”
3. Are You Spending Your Time the Way You Want?
If you’re not, then you’re just going through life making the motions, and that’s fine—you’ll survive, you’ll be content, but you won’t feel fulfilled.
Dr. Woody says to reevaluate your average week, and actively compare that to the lifestyle you hope to lead, “Look at yourself and go: These things, I’m spending a lot of time doing, and they have basically minimal impact on my job, my career, my boss doesn’t care about them. But I’m engaged in them: Why?”
Staying punched in late after the workday ends—even if mentally—can be tricky because it takes away from so many other things you enjoy, like traveling, fitness, or art. It can also be easy because it’s predictable, and you get used to it. If it’s gone well for you in the past, and produced good results as it likely has up until now, why would you try to change that?
“People do it because they feel comfortable with it or they come easy to them, not because they are productive things,” Dr. Woody continues. “Contentment can be the enemy of success.” Don’t set hard rules for yourself about how you spend your free moments; use trial-and-error to figure out what fits best into your lifestyle and your goals.
4. Are You Unplugging From Work in an Intentional Way?
When it comes to important emails or meeting prep, do you feel like even when you’re clocked out, you’re still kind of clocked in? To me, it seemed like the best way to be conscientious about unwinding is to unplug from your responsibilities entirely. After all, doing that would ensure that you find some other way to occupy yourself.
Dr. Woody explained why that’s actually not an ideal fix: “Sometimes you feel most creative and free during those times where you don’t feel obligated to work. So it’s not about not working during times when you get the most creativity: Don’t shut the door on that.”
There are good and bad time to be stuck in focus mode, and it requires practice and patience to figure out what sort of schedule will work best for you. Instead of making rules, set boundaries for yourself, based on your hobbies, your family, your spouse, your family, your pets, or other factors that make up your life.
For him, it all starts with a conversation with those people who are most important to you: “Understand what works for them, too. Ask: If I take on X hours instead of Y, what works? Otherwise you become a slave to your device.”
5. Are You “Addicted” to Your Idea of Productivity?
But—and I pushed back on this in our conversation—being productive just makes me feel good. I genuinely feel satisfied and accomplished, dare I even say good, when I finish an article way ahead of the deadline, or find free moments to do a little extra around the office.
Dr. Woody says that this enjoyment isn’t exactly black and white: “Being a workaholic is different than checking things off a list. Get back down to asking yourself why you’re doing it: If you find yourself a friend who starts to speak and act like a work martyr, you know you have problems.”
Try to recognize what it is about over-extending yourself with tasks that makes you feel so good. Do you like helping your colleagues out around the office? Are you so committed to your company’s mission that you do as much as you can for it? Or, could there be some other reason?
“Someone who immerses themselves so completely could be trying to distract themes from other realities going on around them,” says Dr. Woody. “They could be really ambitious and trying to climb ahead, but that not be the best route. If you can’t stop in the mirror and ask yourself the why of what you’re doing, then what are you doing?”
6. Are You Working Too Much?
So, I wanted to know: What does working too much look like, and how do you know if you’re going overboard? According to him, “Working too much is a relative term. Some people love what they do and some people strike up a healthy blend.”
Burnout is scary for most people, but it’s not always easy to recognize the signs. Sometimes the best way to figure out how your job’s impacting your life is to slow down and listen to how those other pieces of yourself are doing—and figure out how all of those pieces can coexist.
“I don’t believe in work-life balance, I believe in work-life blend: Blend your work with your personal life and passions,” says Dr. Woody. “If you find ways to mix them together in a healthy way, I think you can do well. If you’re going to a trip and all you’re thinking is the work side of it, of course you’re going to burn out.”
If you answered yes to all these questions, here’s what you could be putting at stake: quality time with people you love, your personal health and happiness, and all the other adventures that come with living life outside the office. There’s nothing wrong with being a motivated employee, but don’t let that be all you are.
“Make sure your passion isn’t causing damage to those around you,” Dr. Woody warns. “If you can’t step back and evaluate, look at how you work, take that thinking time, then you’re on the treadmill. You’re running at someone else’s pace and then it’s difficult to have success.”
I’m not saying you should quit your job tomorrow, but find ways to keep moving forward on your own terms. In our already over-worked society, you have to be competitive—but not in a way that will backfire on you. Turning into a stressed, unhappy, or burnt out worker doesn’t help anyone, especially not your boss.
So, are you working against or for yourself?