These days, few of us work strictly 40-hour weeks . Surveys show we check our work emails at night while watching TV, in the morning while still in bed and at the table while eating dinner with friends. Most of us skip our vacation days, a habit that researchers have found could actually shorten our lifespans .
We hate overworking -- but could we stop if we tried? The answer is we could – if we rethought the logic behind why we're putting in these hours and worked to change the hard-driving routines we've created for ourselves.
How we got here
There are any number of reasons why we work more than we should: to get more done, to impress our bosses and to think well of ourselves. Unfortunately, scientific studies don't support the idea that 'more hours' alone is a ticket to respect or productivity.
For instance, research finds that working more hours doesn't lead to more output. In practice, mental and physical exhaustion leads to fuzzy thinking and mistakes that need to be corrected.
More than a century ago , the 10 to 16 hour days were the norm. When factory owners limited the workday to 8 hours, output increased and accidents decreased, leading to the 40-hour standard.
This idea was tested again by Harvard Business School , and results were supportive of the same pattern. Required time off for evenings and weekends resulted in more productive workers. Still, many professionals choose to work longer hours despite the diminishing returns.
Those who work long hours to impress their bosses might also rethink that strategy. In one study, managers couldn't tell the difference between people who worked 80-hour weeks and those who didn't.
Long hours aren't just the fault of competitive industries and hard-driving bosses. Often, we work longer because we have our own inner drivers like duty, pride, enjoyment and ambition. In fact, some researchers say being 'so busy' has become status symbol all its own.
Luckily there's a way to take back your time. It just takes a mindset shift and the patience to build new habits.
How to stop
Say 'No.' Steve Jobs famously said 'no' was a strategy for sharpen focus. Being scattered across projects, even when those individual projects are valuable and interesting, can weaken your overall contributions. In these situations, Jobs said , the total is less than the sum of its parts.
Using the word 'no' can re-commit you to your priorities and remind you what is really important. This won't be easy to do, but it's necessary if you want to take control of your day and maximize the impact of your work.
Clear out the time clutter. Are there projects you do because you've always done them? Take stock of your responsibilities. Your role has probably evolved and there are likely meetings you don't need to attend, email chains you can be taken off of and tasks that can be transitioned to someone else.
Don't overthink your schedule . Try not to stress too much over how others perceive your work ethic. Know that other people's impressions of you is shaped most by what they see during work hours. The work you do on off hours is likely invisible to your co-workers and even your boss.
Ask for help. Your schedule might be truly overwhelming. If you've been handling this silently and stoically, your boss likely doesn't know and can't help. Give your workplace a chance to give you support and find solutions for you. Not asking for help was even listed as a key workplace regret in a recent LinkedIn survey .
Rethink your 'why.' Since our busy 24/7 values busyness, being busy can make us feel important and valued. We're more likely to think more highly of people people who skip leisure and put more hours in. Consider what you're getting out of the hours you're putting in and if your contribution would be just as valuable if you worked just a few hours less.
Set clear boundaries . When you leave work, really leave work. Put your phone away and stop monitoring emails and projects after-hours. You can check them tomorrow – they'll still be there.
Some of the most successful leaders, such as LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, control their time by refusing to check email at certain times of the day, a habit that sets expectations for the people they work with. If you want a top job handling more responsibilities, you'll need to start borrowing these sorts of strategies.
By learning how to make a hard stop, you won't carry your stress back home. In fact, research shows that bringing work home adds spill-over stress to family members and partners. Your home and bedroom should be a resting place for peace and de-stressing until the next day. Learning to step away will take adjustment but will give you and your loved ones great relief.
Know your priorities . Take stock of what's most important to you – and write it down. Maybe it's your partner or your children, but understand what those priorities are. Use this list as a check on your decision making so you can spend more time where it matters.
Neglecting your top priorities can also hurt your success. Don't let yourself wake up alone years from now, wondering where everything that was important to you went while you were stuck at work.
You will only receive diminishing returns from overworking yourself. Learning to unplug from work can feel impossible but by making healthier decisions, you'll do better at work, at home, and in all other areas of your life. There's more than one path to success.
Elle Kaplan is the founder and CEO of LexION Capital , a fiduciary wealth management firm in New York City, serving high-net-worth individuals. She is also the chief investment officer and founder of LexION Alpha .
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