Recently a client asked me to help her figure out how to work less. She is frustrated by long hours, working weekends, and so on. She figures at this stage of her career she should be able to have a better balance.
As we worked together, it became clear to me that the number of hours worked in a week might be the wrong measure of the problem. If this is true, then the number of hours worked in a week might also be the wrong measure of the change.
The first step in fixing a problem is to correctly identify what the problem is. Based on my work with this client and others, here are some things to think about if you think you have the same problem.
Do all long weeks feel the same?
What you are doing in those hours makes a difference.
A 60-hour work week that includes 3 hours of research feels a lot different than a 60-hour work week that includes 10 hours of research. Similarly, a 60-hour work week that involves 10-20 hours of meetings, dinners with job candidates, etc feels different than a 60-hour work week involving only 5 hours of meetings.
Work you find meaningless feels like it takes up a disproportionate amount of your time. Similarly, work you find meaningful needs to have a regular place in your week even if it is only a small place.
The folks over at Careers in Theory wrote a very useful post outlining 4 elements of meaninglessness
Elements of meaninglessness
- Worthlessness — the activity lacks intrinsic merit. Is the activity worth doing for its own sake, even if it doesn’t lead to anything? Does it provide a reward merely from the doing? Does the performance of the activity satisfy some internal physiological, psychological or emotional need?
- Pointlessness — the activity does not serve towards the fulfilment of a particular purpose. Does the activity result in the achievement of a goal? Even if it is drudgery, does it serve a purpose beyond personal satisfaction?
- Triviality — the end doesn’t justify the means. Is the goal worth the effort? Are the losses incurred in conducting the activity more than the gains accrued from achieving the end result?
- Futility — the ends are unachievable. Is what you want to achieve actually possible? Is success or failure out of your control or independent of your efforts?
I suspect there is a high correlation between the perceived meaninglessness of the activities that are filling up your workweek and the level of frustration you are feeling with your working hours.
Make time for meaningful work
I also suspect that your frustration may be due to the fact that the parts of your work that you find particularly meaningful are not getting enough time. In other words, you feel like you aren’t working enough at the same time that you feel like you are working too many hours.
If you can identify the work that isn’t getting the attention it deserves, you can start to fix that problem. Instead of letting this task be the one that drops off or gets your low-quality time, give it priority and let something else (something less meaningful) slide.
Watch for gremlins
I suspect you also have gremlins telling you that you can’t give something lower priority because someone else will punish you for it somehow. That what you find meaningful isn’t really important to anyone else. Or, that if you were a Real Academic™ you would be able to do all this without making any compromises.
This is hard. All change is difficult. And slow.
Edited May 27, 2016.