So you think you work hard?

This is almost the title of Lucy Kellaway’s column in today’s FT about working hours. It makes interesting reading.\r\n\r\nA summary is that most of us overestimate the amount of TIME we say we work in a week. We simply don’t do the number of hours productive work we say we do.\r\n\r\nApparently the amount we overestimate is related to two main factors. The first is our seniority – the more senior we are the more we exaggerate. For example a doctor overestimates more than a nurse, a lawyer more than a paralegal. This has been proved by research undertaken by professors in Oxford and Maryland.\r\n\r\nThe second factor is, ironically, the number of hours we work: the longer we work in a week the more we exaggerate the number of hours we think we have worked. For example, if we have worked 37 hours we are likely to overestimate an additional 3 hours and say we’ve worked 40 hours. But if we work 50 hours we can easily claim we work 75 hours, not because we are intentionally lying, but simply because we misconceive our working week due probably to overwork.\r\n\r\nThe professors suggest two reasons for this exaggeration: if we perceive our work as important we then overestimate our involvement in it; and if we see work as a badge of honour we tend to overestimate the time we have put into it.\r\n\r\nI read Ms Kellaway’s article this morning after a gentle workout in the gym. Later in the day I read Abbot Jamison’s chapter on Pride where surprisingly he also adds a slant on working hours. Imagine if, when someone says they are busy, we say to them ‘Oh I’m sorry to hear that”. They would think we had misunderstood, because “being busy being important” is one manifestation of success in the busy culture we find ourselves living in.\r\n\r\nAbbot Jamison points out that hard work is not wrong, but excessive work which excludes other dimensions of life should be criticised. He goes further to say that it is possible that people who appear to be working hard are not doing so at all. Rather ‘their self-designation as busy is a self-important way of covering up their laziness and keeping the rest of life at bay.’ Bill Hybels makes a similar point when he says that extreme busyness can in fact be the dark side of ‘sloth’, a way of avoiding responsibilities that should be fulfilled but are instead slothfully neglected.\r\n\r\nOf course, whatever the reasons behind our exaggeration of the time we work, or even the excessive work we do, the fact is that the number of hours worked is not usually the correct measure of value. Even though I know this to be true I still frequently find it disconcerting when I reflect on my week and the low actual output achieved. I’m obsessive about measuring time, to the great bemusement of my (more casual) friends, and for as long as I can remember I have recorded my use of time on a daily basis. I know that almost without exception the time I spend on productive output or learning is far less than I imagined or hoped for.\r\n\r\nMs Kellaway finishes her article by noting that a successful writer friend, who never looks busy, when pressed said he worked about five hours a week. That sounds about right.

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