My friend Adam Rifkin, LinkedIn “Influencer” and I co-authored this article for LinkedIn.
Why We Overwork
Our business culture has come to value compulsive overwork as the only path to success. Read any business magazine or blog, and you’ll see nothing but “successful” people — startup founders, university students, scientific researchers, corporate executives, and even non-profiteers with the primary goal of doing good — being praised and exemplified for their lifelong devotion to working long hours, their obsessive drive toward crisply-defined goals, their competitive fire, and their seeming lack of need for sleep or downtime (although psychologists might actually describe these tendencies as examples of “hypomania”).
And yet… despite this barrage of propaganda, many of us secretly wonder if compulsive overwork is really going to carry us to our highest business aspirations, much less fulfill the bigger-picture human goals atop Maslow’s Pyramid. Anyone who’s been in the meat grinder of a high-powered job cannot deny that there are physical, mental, and social consequences to obsessive work over long periods of time.
But beyond that, most of us are tantalized by our own interactions with our favorite mentors and role models — the best professor we ever had, the best manager, the best salesman, the best doctor. They are often kind, generous, fun-loving individuals with rich family lives and many friends. If the only key to success is keeping the nose to the grindstone and the posterior in the office chair… then why do we so often find that the individuals we actually admire the most in real life do not fit this mold?
Recent scientific research resolves this apparent conundrum, and suggests that it is in our best interest (both professionally and personally) to become more like the truly successful people we most admire.
The Science of How Overwork Fails
Although overwork can appear to be the most productive route, it actually fails us in two major ways that are critical to our success: creativity and problem solving skills, on the one hand, and social connections, on the other. Without access to these skills, hours in the cubicle may only amount to underappreciated gruntwork for which other people will reap most of the benefits. Diligence, creativity, and a human network are crucial for taking your work or product “to the next level”.
Here’s how overworking fails our problem-solving skills and creativity: research by former Harvard Psychology professor Dan Wegner suggests that too much concentration on set goals can lead to the exact opposite of the desired goal. He coined the term ironic processes to describe the failure of positive mental processes when performed under conditions of stress. For instance, the more you obsess about having to hit a perfect golf tee shot, the more likely you are to choke; or the more you try to maintain a strict diet, the more likely you are to eventually binge.
Similarly, the more pressure you put on yourself to come up with the perfect solution to a challenging problem in your work, the less likely you are to see it — especially if you are already tired, stressed, or anxious. According to a line of research by Jennifer Wiley, too much focus can actually hurt our creative problem-solving skills. Anyone who has ever had a technical job interview knows that being motivated to succeed and well-prepared are no defense against the dreaded “mind is a blank” syndrome – often a result of compulsive overwork – which overworkers will often try to remedy by even more work, at their own detriment.
Even if you do manage to overcome ironic processes with that Type A iron discipline you apply to completing deadlines and triathlons or iron men competitions, there is still the question of proper social connection and recognition by others. Who cares how hard you work in your cubicle if you do not fully reap the fruits of those long hours? And if the only people in your professional network are those who stand to benefit from your hard work AND lack of other network — your boss and coworkers — then it is far too easy to become stuck in a situation where your light can’t shine.
Research by Wharton’s most popular professor Adam Grant has shown (in his book Give and Take) that connection is at the heart of productivity and enhanced chances for professional success. Other people can help you find information faster, give you advice to solve problems beyond your current scope, send you opportunities that never come through formal job postings, and introduce you to others who can help you.
The Solution to Overworking
So how can a hard worker learn to access the benefits of better problem solving and external recognition? By trading some hours of work for moments of unfocused attention (preferably with positive emotional content) and by cultivating a valuable professional network.
In non-scientific parlance, this strategy is also known as “goofing off for fun and profit”, which can be described in three easy pieces: Do Nothing, Be Social, and Serve Others.
TIP #1: Do Nothing. Rest, Dream, Hike…
When do we get moments of insight or creativity? It is very frequently in the shower, on a hike, or even while drinking a glass of wine. Things seem to fall into place and just “click” – we have an “AHA!” moment.
The trick to self-mastery actually lies in the opposite of control: effortlessness, relaxation and unfocused attention. Control is fatiguing, while brain-imaging research shows that relaxation is not only restorative but actually leads to enhanced memory and facilitated intellectual understanding. Another brain imaging study found that “AHA” moments of “sudden insight” (e.g. finding the solution to a complex program) were often preceded by enhanced alpha waves in the brain – a sign of relaxation.
UC Santa Barbara researcher Jonathan Schooler found that daydreaming may lead to greater creativity and enhanced problem-solving. Another fascinating study by Marieke showed that we are at our most creative when we are sleepy and therefore unfocused (in the evening for morning people and in the morning for night owls!).
Recent research by Norman Farb of the University of Toronto has determined that our brain has specific pathways dedicated to internally directed attention – they help us become more calm, slow our racing thoughts and ultimately have greater insight into ourselves. Spending time reading, meditating, and writing for ourselves can tap into that inner calm and insight.
Very preliminary research suggests that multi-day camping trips have the benefit of “re-setting” our overworked focusing abilities, while even looking at plants can lead to quick increases in creativity. There is even research showing that “lucky” people are characterized by greater relaxation, which leads to much quicker ability to see opportunities that might arise.
TIP #2: Socialize More.
One of my favorite stories about the power of socializing is the tale of Bob C. My PandaWhale co-founder Joyce Park and I met Bob on a barstool in a dive bar in Palo Alto, shortly after we had closed down our last startup. He told us that he’d been unemployed for almost exactly a year, at which point he vowed he would move himself and his wife and his two teenage sons back to his parents’ home across the country until he found work. Joyce had just been offered a job that wasn’t right for her, but she offered to send Bob’s resume in. He signed the job offer letter with one day left on his self-imposed deadline, then proceeded to make the most of that opportunity and subsequent opportunities that opened up for him.
Bob is a great engineer and a very hard-working, conscientious individual — but if he had spent that fateful afternoon mailing out resumes in his apartment, his course would have been different. He opened himself up to good fortune by going out and meeting new people who happened to recognize his abilities — not the least of which is the communication skill necessary to chat comfortably with strangers in a bar!
The problem is that the people who could benefit from strong human networks the most — the young, the introverted, those with weaker communication skills — are the least likely to know how to cultivate them. But there is an easy answer: if you want others to help you, you can always start by helping others.
TIP #3: Do something helpful for someone else.
Share, care, volunteer, listen, extend a helping hand. Not only does research show that you will you be happier, healthier (and may even live longer!) Adam Grant’s research shows that the most successful business people are those who proactively give to others without expecting anything in return… and yet, those “winner givers” are actually growing their own network of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who may be of benefit in the future.
Doing something for someone else does not have to take a long time. Kare Anderson and I explore this topic in depth in our Forbes article about Five Minute Favors.
In just five minutes you can:
- Introduce two people with a well-written email, citing a mutual interest.
- Read a summary and offer crisp, actionable feedback.
- Share, comment or retweet something on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.
- Serve as a relevant reference for a person, product, or service.
- Write a short, specific and laudatory note to recognize or recommend someone on LinkedIn or other social place.
Five-minute favors, once a habit, serve not just as a good mind-clearing break from work, they also naturally connect us with our values (such as kindness), help us make a real difference in people’s lives, and broaden our own perspective to include that of others.
Five-minute favors also happen to form the foundation for a successful professional life by improving the lives of others we are connected to. Openness with others leads to more opportunities, which leads to more luck.
Goofing off makes us more successful.
Bertrand Russell said it best, writing In Praise of Idleness:
“There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern [person] thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.”
Overworking comes at a cost and fails to provide us with essential skills for professional success. Taking breaks from work makes a person happier, healthier, and more successful.
Specifically, make time to:
- Do nothing. Resting, dreaming, hiking, and other similar “get your mind out of work” activities clear space in the brain for new thoughts and insights.
- Be social. Socializing deepens relationships and strengthens bonds in our professional network.
- Serve others. Exercising empathy and compassion for others increases our well-being (and that of others!), our opportunities, and our luck.
Most of all, enjoy your time. Remember the words of Bertrand Russell in praise of idleness: “the time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”