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Stop Lying about How Much You Work

Last Updated Dec 9, 2010 8:55 AM EST

It seems harmless enough. You start with a little lunchtime banter about your 70-hour workweeks. Then you tell your spouse you can't help with the holiday cards because these 80-hour workweeks are killing you. Next thing you know, at a cocktail party, you're one-upping the guy complaining about his 80-hour weeks by moaning about the 90 hours you put in.
Yes, it's the scourge of workweek inflation, ubiquitous among the professional set. Years ago, I used to take such numbers seriously. I would write articles about the injustice of white-collar sweatshops foisting such punishing schedules on their employees. Then, at some point, I went to a party where a young man told me, straight-faced, about his 190-hour workweeks.

A week, incidentally, has 168 hours.

People Work Far Less than They Think
And so, standing there with my glass of wine, I had an epiphany. We love to complain about how much we work in a way that has little relationship to reality. Even if you're working a lot, chances are, you're working less than you think. That sounds like it would be a good thing -- but rampant workweek inflation has real downsides that make us less efficient.

I'm not the only one who's discovered this inflation. Over the years, University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson has conducted several studies comparing people's estimated workweeks to time logs. It turns out that the average person claiming to work 70, 80, or more hours per week is actually working less than 60. After I wrote about that finding in my book, 168 Hours, I heard from one consultant who'd analyzed security records from a bank. The employees routinely claimed they were working 15-20 hours more per week than their badges showed they were there. Sure, some did work from home on weekends. But not 20 hours worth.

Inflating Hours Leads to Wasting Time at Work
Partly, the issue is that we're clueless. Most of us don't even know that a week has 168 hours, so we're bad about estimating what proportion we spend working, sleeping, doing housework or any other task. But let's not discount lying either. We live in a competitive world. If a co-worker is claiming to work 70 hours a week, what incentive do you have to claim less? I'm not saying that no one works 80 hour weeks. But I will say that after looking at hundreds of time logs, I've only seen one that topped that amount.

The problem is that all this lying isn't harmless. If you believe your workplace requires 80-hour weeks, your tendency will be to stick around in the evening past the point of diminishing returns (even if all that sticking around still only adds up to 60 hours). You'll order take-out and meander from office to office, not doing any work, but not going home either, because the culture says success means staying late. Not only is this pointless, it's actually a problem for productivity, because as any knowledge worker knows, you get your best ideas when you remove yourself from a situation and let your resting brain do its work. In other words, you'd be better off taking a break.

People Won't Want to Work For You
And here's the second big problem. If you're a manager, you want good people working for you. Inaccurate complaints about 80-hour workweeks scare off people who might be quite willing to work an honest 60-hour week. If you work 60 hours a week and sleep 8 hours a night (56 per week) that still leaves 52 hours for other things -- enough time to see your family, exercise and so forth. Knocking these hard workers out of the running won't do your organization any favors.

Kicking workweek inflation is as tough as kicking monetary inflation (the US went through a huge recession in the 1980s to keep the consumer price index in check). But if you're managing a team, you owe it to yourself to strike a blow for the truth. Log your time for a few weeks. See what you average. Then make it clear that hanging around to order take-out every night does little except drive up your food bill -- and make your organization a less attractive place to work.

Laura Vanderkam, a New York City-based journalist, is the author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). Her previous book, Grindhopping: Build a Rewarding Career without Paying Your Dues, was selected by the New York Post as one of four notable career books of 2007. She is a member of USA Today's Board of Contributors.
Image courtesy of Flickr contributor, Robbert van der Steeg