Working Long Hours Is Cheating

By courtesy StockSnap

The title of this post is a paraphrase of a quote I heard attributed to Jay Papasan, one of the co-authors of The ONE Thing. I think it’s spot on. Papasan says anyone can work long hours to achieve something. It takes focus to achieve while still balancing your life.

In fact, the evidence is that working long hours not only steals you away from other important areas of life, it’s a waste of time.

Research shows that working any more than 50 hours per week is bad for you and bad for your employer (or your business):

  • The difference in output between 50 hours per week worked and 55 hours is almost negligible. So, you can add five hours per week to the rest of your life without suffering any loss of achievement.
  • There is NO difference in output between someone working 55 hours per week and someone working 70 hours per week.

If you are spending more time working, but not getting anything more for it, you will suffer.

There are two areas of life that you cheat when you work more than 50 hours per week.


Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said that no one on their deathbed wishes they had spent more time at the office. Working too much is a recipe for regret. The time you miss with those close to you can’t be recovered. Unless you are an exceptional person, your relationship with God is also likely to suffer because you will be too tired to engage in any daily spiritual practices.


Working long hours will exhaust your willpower and make it harder to make the choices that keep you healthy. Number one on the list will be sleep. If you’re like me, when you have a long day you sleep less because you feel the need to wind down, as well as take care of personal tasks before going to bed. Less sleep and longer hours also make it less likely that you will exercise and more likely that you will binge eat on junk food. Just sayin’…

You might be able to work long hours without cheating yourself in one of the two areas above. You might be able to keep healthy, but not have time for relationships. Or vice versa. But is it worth it?

The way out is to be able to set boundaries and the way to do this is through self-differentiation.

Self-differentiation is the ability to stay focused on one’s own goals and values in the midst of surrounding togetherness pressures. Work pressures are definitely surrounding togetherness pressure, whether in the corporate world, non-profits or the church. And yes, there can be real demands to produce and perform. But if those demands require more than 55 hours per week of work, they are unsustainable.

And the big question is: How much of the pressure is coming from you because you’re worried about what people will think?

When you are self-differentiated, you are willing to set boundaries because you know what’s really important.

I recall as a pastor, I decided to coach my children in sports. I coached baseball, softball, football and basketball. This meant that I would often miss evening meetings at the church. Yes, I initially felt pressure because I felt like I should be at all the meetings. But, then I realized that if I needed to be at all the meetings, the church was too dependent on me. The interesting thing was that nobody complained to me. I think they respected the fact that I would choose family over church because they would do the same.

I realize this might be harder in some situations, especially at work. But you can’t do it all. And life is about choices.

I can recall a person who worked in a corporate setting where “face time” was everything. It didn’t matter whether you were actually productive. It was more about being in the office for long hours. As this Harvard Business Review article shows, this is foolish because managers in one study couldn’t tell the difference between those who actually worked for 80 hours per week and those who were faking it. Anyway, I remember this person telling me that he didn’t buy into the face time thing. He left the office every day at 5pm. Did his career suffer for it? Probably. Was he better off for it? Definitely. At least that was his opinion.

So yes, if you work long hours, you are cheating yourself, those you care about and you aren’t any more effective. You have more choice than you think to change the situation.

When It Comes to Work and Life, Balance Is a Verb, Not a Noun

Photo by Roslyn Walker CC BY 3.0
Photo by Roslyn Walker CC BY 3.0

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…”
Ecclesiastes 3:1

I have written about how I have grown to love daily routines. They provide a rhythm of important habits that help me as a person and as a leader. These include prayer, meditation, exercise, journaling, writing and yes, even flossing. Most of these happen in the morning and require that I get a good night’s sleep.

I had a week recently that got wrecked. In fact, I had just been bragging to myself in my journal how I had not missed a day of journaling in several months. I should have known better. It’s like on the TV show Survivor when they show someone bragging that they are in control of the game, you know they’re getting voted off the island next.

It started on Monday. I was supposed to pick up my mom at the airport at 5:05pm. Storms caused flight delays and by the time I got her home, I didn’t get to sleep until nearly 1:00am, more than three hours past my bedtime.

No worries. On Tuesday morning I cut short my journaling. I use a practice called Morning Pages, which calls for three longhand pages of stream of consciousness writing. I hadn’t had much sleep and didn’t have much time, so I knew I needed to be flexible. So instead of three pages I did one.

I knew that I could grind through the day, go to bed early, get a good night’s sleep and get back on track. Wrong.

Tuesday evening we had to take my father-in-law to the emergency room. Nothing life threatening, but medical attention was required. He got great care and we got to bed a little before 2:00am.

No big deal. I would get back on track Wednesday morning by sleeping in until 8:00 am, and do my routine, except for exercising. Wrong.

I was in the middle of morning prayer when I found out my brother-in-law (and next door neighbor) had badly rolled his ankle and it was likely broken (it was). So, back to the same emergency room for x-rays and treatment.

Here’s the good news. Everyone is OK, even if there is some inconvenience and some pain, we are all alive and living life.

But this got my thinking about work-life balance.

Most people I know feel overwhelmed about something. Whether it’s work, family, volunteer commitments or social obligations, there doesn’t seem to be enough time.

Here is what I learned.

Work-life balance is not a noun.

It’s not something to be achieved. It’s not a goal. You can’t ever achieve balance because life is fluid, dynamic, ever-changing.

Instead of balance, think of balancing. The image I like is a unicycle rider. There is constant motion. Back and forth. The rider may occasionally achieve a state of equilibrium, but it doesn’t last long.

Balancing is something you do, not something you achieve.

I learned this concept from the book, The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. They write, “Seen as something we ultimately attain, balance is actually something we constantly do. A ‘balanced life’ is a myth — a misleading concept most accept as a worthy and attainable goal without ever stopping to truly consider it.”

The authors use the term “counter-balancing” to describe balancing as a verb. They write in a blog post, “Counter-balance is the process of focusing exclusively on the important task at hand, whether it’s work, teaching our kids something or working out. We have to choose what’s critical and give it as much time as it needs before switching to the next most important thing.“

There are times when your family needs you. Don’t ignore it. There are times when work is intense. That’s OK, but it can’t last forever. If it does, something has to give. Your spiritual life, physical health or important relationships will eventually suffer if you don’t balance things out.

When you focus on counter-balancing, instead of achieving a balanced life, you can give yourself completely to the moment, knowing that you will be balancing things out. The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that everything has a season. When we remember this we can live more fully.

So, when my sleep schedule, morning routines and work days got wrecked because my family needed me, there was no need to stress about it. It was a part of life. And the balancing act continues.