I have a big deadline at work this week. We are doing a major system upgrade, and as part of that, we are migrating a large amount of data from an old database that none of us fully understands to a new one that I designed. I'm project manager for the whole project and responsible for producing (and testing) the scripts that will migrate the data. The upgrade starts Thursday at 7 p.m. My scripts are written and (mostly) tested. But the process is not smooth and requires far too much manual intervention. The rest of the project still needs some babysitting. I have a lot of work left to do.
So why am I blogging instead of working? Because I have reached my work limit.
I figured out back in graduate school that the number of hours I actually spend working is not exactly equivalent to the number of hours I spend in my office (or at my work computer at home). Furthermore, the amount of actual useful work I produce is not exactly equivalent to the number of hours I spend working. The relationships look something like this:
Not only does trying to spend more hours working lead me to start wasting time reading blogs and stupid news stories rather than actually working, but at some point, putting in more hours actually leads me to produce less actual work.
And I have reached that point. I spent far too long today trying to figure out how to write one particular test script. It was complicated, but not that complicated. Finally, someone else came and looked at the problem, and saw an elegant solution that I should have seen- and that I would have seen if my brain wasn't trying to work past capacity. I'm at my work limit. I know from past experience that if I keep pushing to get more work done, I'll start making stupid mistakes and my actual productivity will begin to plummet. So I walked out of the office without my laptop tonight, and decided to give myself the night off from work. I played catch with Petunia (she's surprisingly good!) and did yoga with Pumpkin (yoga done with a preschooler is funnier than yoga done alone, but not as relaxing). After I snuggled with Pumpkin for the requisite time (now up to two minutes post story- it is a good thing she hasn't figured out how to watch the clock!) and prepped things for tomorrow night's dinner, I came in to the office- but to write a blog post, not a data migration script.
I have been aware of my work limit since graduate school. In fact, I was starting to get an inkling that such a limit might exist in college- I never pulled an all-nighter in college, because it was always obvious to me that doing so would be less effective than going to bed and getting up fresh to tackle my work the next day. (I have, in fact, pulled two all-nighters in my life: one to print my PhD thesis and one to give birth to Pumpkin. Petunia's birth was faster, and I was asleep by 2 a.m. that night.) It was in graduate school, though, that I noticed that the more and more I tried to work, the fewer and fewer solid results I was gathering. Being a good scientist, I tried an experiment, and scaled back my work hours. To my surprise, my results increased. As a bonus, I was happier and healthier. I've never worked insane hours since.
I know that other people's work limits will be different than mine, and also that the relationship between hours in the office and hours worked will be different for different people. But I suspect that everyone has a work limit, and that no one can force themselves to be completely efficient and focused on work for extra long work weeks, particularly not week after week.
This leads me to question the dramatic statements I sometimes hear (and read!) from other people, about how many hours they are working. Are they really working those long hours? Or are they just putting in the time in the office? According to research quoted by Laura Vanderkam in 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, people of all professions tend to over-estimate the hours they work when asked to estimate the length of their work week. If they actually track their time, the result comes out to a lower number. That makes sense to me- I know that I became much more aware of how I was spending my time when I was a consultant who had to charge hours. I didn't have a charge code for "randomly reading articles on the internet" or "gossiping with my colleagues", so I had to keep those things down to below the chargeable time limit, or just not charge for blocks of time in my day. If you've never done a time-tracking exercise, I encourage you to try it. It can be very eye opening! (I posted about my most recent time-tracking exercise, if you're curious about how its done.)
And even if people are really working all of those hours, are they actually producing more work than they would produce in fewer hours? The knowledge that I start to lose efficiency helps me keep my actual hours in the office to 40-45 per week. This is on the low end for my industry- but no one has ever complained about my productivity. Quite the opposite, actually. Maybe learning about my work limit was one of the most useful things I did in graduate school.