Technically, Americans fall in the middle of the pack in terms of weekly working hours – at least among developed nations.
But four in ten of us don’t use all the vacation time we’re offered, and that is far less than our international colleagues. What’s more is that Americans work longer daily hours anyway –– especially those of us who also have a side gig.
We are literally trading sleep for work.
In fact, working long hours can be a badge of honor. To some, even a requirement to success.
Elon Musk and The Endless Workday
Elon Musk recently reported that he works 80-hour weeks. That’s a “sustainable” pull back from some of his 120-hour work weeks during which he claims to sleep on his factory floor.
“There are way easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week,” he tweeted.
There are way easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 26, 2018
The biggest risk here is that working long hours and not sleeping can hamper anyone’s ability to focus and think creatively – even Musk.
"Sleep deprivation causes cognitive impairment that can lead to dangerous and costly mistakes and accidents on the job," says Janet Kennedy, a clinical psychologist and founder of NYC Sleep Doctor. "It also makes us more prone to illness, depression and anxiety — all of which compromise productivity."
Musk isn’t alone in pursuing work hours greater than 80 per week. Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer reported working more than 100 hours a week at Google while building her career –– helping to show that both male and female workers feel the need to work longer hours.
"Could you work 130 hours in a week?" Mayer said, referring to the value hard work played in Google's success. "The answer is yes, if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom."
However, research shows that there is no benefit to working more than 50 hours a week.
- After about 50 hours a week, productivity begins to decrease.
- After 55 hours, productivity levels plummet, leaving no detectable difference between those who work 56 hours and those who work 70 –– or 130.
Worse, working long hours in exchange for a lack of sleep is killing us all.
"Every disease that is killing us in developed nations has causal and significant links to a lack of sleep," sleep scientist Matthew Walker says. "So that classic maxim that you may [have] heard that you can sleep when you're dead, it's actually mortally unwise advice from a very serious standpoint."
Advocates for Sleepathons over Hackathons
Some founders and executives have begun to take note, and actively call for a stop to this madness.
Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian told audiences at a European tech conference in 2018 that:
“Constant hustling, without time for family or rest, has deleterious effects not just on your business but on your well being.”
Jason Fried, founder and CEO of BaseCamp, is an outspoken sleep advocator.
Instead of a hackathon, try a sleepathon. You’ll be better off.
— Jason Fried (@jasonfried) August 4, 2018
In fact he and the creator and founder of Ruby on Rails, David Heinemeier Hansson, have written a book about forgoing bad work habits, especially in exchange for more sleep.
Not just because it doesn't work, or because it doesn't actually save money, or because it isn't needed to succeed, but because it's a fucking travesty that the most prosperous industry in the world is saddled with such retrograde, bad-science ideas about sleep and office design.
— DHH (@dhh) July 12, 2018
Tim Ferriss has made millions off of his “4 Hour Workweek” book and advice.
“Ours is a culture where we wear our ability to get by on very little sleep as a kind of badge of honor that symbolizes work ethic, or toughness, or some other virtue—but really, it’s a total profound failure of priorities and of self-respect,” said Ferris, in one of his works, Tools of Titans.
And the health insurance company Aetna instituted an up to $500 annual payout to employees who could prove they earned more than 7 hours of sleep for more than 20 consecutive days. Tracking was measured by a fitness device.
“It’s critical to invest in the human machine in trying to eliminate stressors to build resiliency,” says Mark Bertolini, former CEO of Aetna (before their CVS acquisition). “In our world, the only thing that’s going to happen with change is that it’s going to get faster and the organizations that have capable people need to have them be resilient in order to be able to make it and change, adapt and move forward. Part of creating change in an organization is creating this resiliency.”
But what does it look like to give up long work hours (workaholism, some may say) at a company you love to refocus and reset your sleep and self-care routine?
That’s what I met up with Ben Stein, former Strategic Project Manager, Digital Operations at Jet.com to find out.
Three and a half years in to his role at Jet.com, Stein decided to give in to take a step back and embrace sleep, healthy eating, working out, and gaining control over his time once again.
The goal was simple: take a three month sabbatical and focus on his health by building a self-care routine and learning better time management skills before finding the next big retail project to tackle.
Here are his takeaways.
The Working Long Hours Tipping Point
I was at Jet.com for quite a while –– three and a half year. When you're at a startup working hard, long, fast hours every day, you lose track of anything outside of that. I definitely wasn't eating well nor taking care of my mental and physical health.
Without an oversimplification, working at Jet.com was just really fun, but around the end of 2018, it became clearer to me that it was time to start a new chapter.
I left the company in early December 2018 to pursue something new. First, to take time to focus on myself and then and to figure out what I wanted to do next. I think it's unfair to do both at the same time, nor did I have enough time to do both.
Letting Go Of “Being Busy”
I was able to go back to my hometown, Tampa, to relax and get some sunshine which was so nice. I think there's something to be said about getting as much sunshine as you can every day. I'm watching it outside my New York City apartment window right now. Gosh –– I need to get out there!
I’ve also gotten back in to a better daily routine – beginning with eating well. I try to eat fruits, vegetables and nuts and definitely stay away from processed foods and sugars as much as possible, which is often tough these days. I think that helps to get my body and mindset synced, and fuel me up for working out or going to the gym every day, which is another habit I’ve been building.
To be honest, I was really intimidated to walk into the gym for the first time, or to walk into the yoga studio for the first time, or to go grocery shopping in the middle of the day. I had this sense of overwhelming anxiety and stress: "Oh my gosh, everyone's going to see me. They're going think this kid's just walking around aimlessly, nothing to do."
I know that sounds like the silliest thing, but for me it was real. It was something I had to overcome by just going there and doing it every single day.
Tools & Apps to Build Better Self-Care Routines and Habits
For eating well, I found a website called defineddish.com. It's run by a woman out of Dallas and it's fantastic. She really focuses on whole foods, and the Keto, paleo, and Whole 30 diet.
All the healthy eating trends happening right now are so great. It’s good to reset your body and your tastebuds back to foods that are so much better for you.
Anyway, she has fantastic recipes and I try to cook a few of those a week.
I use Headspace every now and then for meditation. It's a fantastic app to find quiet time and eliminate distractions.
My favorite fitness app is really a fitness guide that one of my buddies wrote for me years and years ago. I’m finally getting around to using it!
Uncommon Motivators for 30 Minutes on the Bike of Treadmill
My favorite way to motivate myself on those harder days is to sit on the bicycle or hop on the treadmill and watch an episode of Friends. I had never seen all of it! I’d seen sporadic episodes here and there, but had never watched it all the way through. There's a hundred or so episodes and it's the best way to sit on the bike for 22 minutes and not realize the time passing by. I use the show as a motivator and it works.
I just discovered Crashing as well on HBO.
It's hilarious. It's a comedian, Pete Holmes, and he's trying to become a standup comic in the West Village in Manhattan. Watching the show, I get to point out all the bars and restaurants I've been to and the corners I've walked by. Again, it's a 30 minute show and I can watch the whole things while I’m on the treadmill.
Getting Used to Yoga, Quiet and Your Own Thoughts
I've been going to a hot yoga gym and doing an hour and a half every other day of hot bikram yoga. And for me it's great. I was never opposed to it, but it was always something that I didn't think was for me.
I actually got coerced into going. And it was great. I saw it initially as an excuse to sit in a steam room for an hour and a half and kind of stretch a little bit. But I wasn't really doing it fully or going into all the stretches, but it's been fantastic. For me it's a great time to let go of stress, let go of what's around me and focus on myself and my breathing. I always leave class rejuvenated and excited for the day. So I try to do that in the morning and I think it's something I will keep up, maybe not every other day, but definitely a few times a week.
Owning Your Time, and Relearning Better Time Management
Of course, you can’t let go of work entirely.
I've been freelancing, working on some small side projects. I'm a pretty disciplined person. It takes a certain kind of person to be able to set their own schedule and follow through with that. Especially when there's a million distractions around.
I've been enjoying freelancing and the smaller projects –– which give me a few different challenges and projects to work on throughout the day.
It's very tough in a start-up culture to not get caught up in the day-to-day grind of I have to wake up at 7:30, I have to catch the train by 8:02, I'm at the office by 8:45. If I want to read the newspaper in the morning I have to get there a little bit earlier so I can catch up on current events.
And there's a lot of pressures in an office to not wear headphones, or to attend every single meeting, or really not make your time as efficient as possible.
I've found that working on a few different projects and with a few different friends frankly, that I'm able to dedicate certain blocks of time to working with them, focusing on them, and then dedicate time to myself too, whether that be the errand that I have to run or going to the grocery store, going to take two hours in the middle of the day to work out and get some physical exercise.
Then, I can come back after that and not really feel constrained by the limitations of an office. I'm definitely not a believer in bringing work home. I think home life and office should be separate, especially as, the term “out of office” has been replaced by the term “out of pocket.”
I think that's worst. We should all be able to be out of office –– truly out of office, not just out of reach of our phone.
How to Handle the FOMO
There's only so many hours in the day and I try to squeeze everything in. I don't like to say no to friends, I don't want to feel like I'm excluded. FOMO is definitely real. It's not fun to scroll through any social feed and see all your friends out somewhere and you're stuck at work, or so exhausted you have to say no.
I've found that I'm more productive when I'm up early, eating breakfast, working out, taking time for myself in the morning. Sitting down and reading the paper, reading up with current events and then able to do my work during the day. I think there is definitely something to be said about having a balance and making sure that you can commit yourself to your own needs and your own time as well.
You have to take time for yourself, otherwise it gets mundane, and what is mundane gets old –– really quickly –– no matter what you are doing or where you are working.
Learning to be Kind to Yourself First
I’m the kind of personal motivator who doesn’t mind doing only 10 minutes on a treadmill. To me, I’m like: "Well, that's 10 minutes more than I would have done if I did nothing." And while that may not be the best measure of success, I think it really works for me, and it's just building up every single day until you find a rhythm that works for you.
I've been able to find a workout routine that I like. I’ve found a gym that I'm comfortable going to, found classes that I like going to, found meals that I like to cook. For me, really just committing to something for 30 days, 40 days, or 45 days and setting little goals around small achievements is powerful. Recently, I gave up dairy for a whole month – and then rewarded myself with an ice cream sundae from Jetties ice cream. I'd never had it before. People say good things, and it was great!
For me, it's just setting goals and seeing that success and not being intimidated by it, by what's around me. It's easy to get down on yourself, but having good mental clarity and good eating habits and taking care of your body is a step in the right direction to finding longer term happiness.
Getting Back to Work After a Professional Sabbatical
Now that I’m about 2 and half months in to this personal break of sorts, I’m really focused on finding the next great opportunity in business strategy and operations.
That’s really what I like doing and what I've been working on. I've liked my startup experience, but I think that a great company with a great team and a great culture is just as good –– no matter the size or stage.
How to Quit Working Long Hours (Hint: Buy More Time)
Research coming out of Harvard has found that despite Americans have more leisure time than ever, we all feel fre stressed and busy. As mentioned earlier, busyness is a status symbol in the US.
In terms of happiness, however, the research has shown that the happiest people among us are those who use their money to buy more time. In fact, the Harvard research article called our feeling of lack of time a famine: “a collective cultural failure to effectively manage our most precious resource, time.”
And this famine has real, precious effects:
“Research shows that those who feel time-poor experience lower levels of happiness and higher levels of anxiety, depression, and stress,” wrote Ashley Whillans, author of the Harvard article. “They experience less joy. They laugh less. They exercise less and are less healthy. Their productivity at work is diminished. They are more likely to get divorced. And in our analysis of the Gallup survey data, my team and I even found that time stress had a stronger negative effect on happiness than being unemployed did.”
What’s the core of the problem here? That most of us spend time to get money because we believe money will make us happier. But the opposite is true: the happiest people who money to buy more time.
Why is this concept so hard to live out? Why are there whole articles, like this one!, about how to do it, how to let go, and what that looks like?
Why Not Working Long Hours is Hard
- Guilt: The constant hyperbole of needing to be busy in order to be productive, effective and a good member of society.
- Status Symbol: Being busy is a status symbol in our society.
- Future Time Slack: The belief that we’ll have more time in the future.
Where do you go from here?
It starts with a recognition that you aren’t getting the sleep, the food and the exercise you need. And it ends with you taking action to address those challenges. You don’t have to take a sabbatical. You do have to be honest with yourself about your levels of stress and risk, and the affect it is having on your health.
And remember, sleeping longer hours, exercising often and eating better puts you on the same foot as CEOs the world-over, even if it doesn’t with Elon Musk.
“My body has its own clock. If I’m caught up on sleep, I don’t set an alarm and sleep in darkness until I wake up — it’s exactly 8 hours 11 mins. That’s what I need, but I rarely get it. I probably average 7h30m and wear down quickly when I go below 7 hours. In short, I shoot for 8 hours but generally fall a bit short of that,” says Brent Bellm, CEO of BigCommerce.
“Three things help me sleep my best: exercise every morning, eating healthy food during the day, and an empty inbox by bedtime. In terms of physical activity, I’m a competitive cyclist with a workweek routine of an hour every morning and 5-7 hours on the weekend. In terms of eating, my sleep improved markedly when I switched to a lower-carb diet that emphasises low-glycemic fruits and veggies, healthy fats and meats.”
Oh –– and good products help!
“My wife and I invested in a great mattress as the first furniture purchase in our first house,” continued Bellm. “For many years, we didn’t have the money to furnish the rooms in the house, but we had that bed. I still sleep far better in it than any other.”
7 Sleep Quotes from Some of the World’s Most Successful People
And if you need one final kick in the butt in order to really start focusing on your sleep and self-care routines (and kick guilt to the curb), here are quotes from some of the most successful people in the world on the importance of sleep to their success.
Heidi Zak, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, ThirdLove
“People are surprised to hear it, but I can’t run on fumes. That’s why I’m usually in bed at 10:00 pm and am up at 6:00 am.
It’s pretty simple—sleep makes me more efficient. If I don’t get eight hours in, I’m slower. I’m less patient. It’s harder for me to make big decisions.
And honestly, every founder is limited by time. Nobody’s figured out how to get 25 hours in a day, which means efficiency—not overwork—is actually your best weapon.
Getting enough sleep, spending time doing things you enjoy, or recharging with your family all contribute to making you a better leader. Those things give you energy, which you can take into your work week and use to help your company thrive.”
Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook
"We have to acknowledge that not everyone can get the sleep they need. So many people out there, so many single mothers and others, work multiple jobs, and we don't have the safety net we need for people to make sure that they can take care of their own health, and that we help take care of them.
It's incumbent upon all of us who run companies, and all of us, to make sure that people can make ends meet and have the ability to get a good night's sleep.”
Jason Fried, Co-Founder & CEO, Basecamp
“Neglecting sleep is a terrible mistake. It’s the one debt you can never pay off, and it affects everyone around you, too.
I go to sleep around 10ish, and get up around 6ish—either to the sun or to my son. I used to go to bed a bit later and sleep until 7:30 or so, but since having a kid (he’s 2ish now), he’s the alarm clock.
Since he’s getting up around 6ish these days, I make sure I’m in bed about 8 hours earlier. As far as an actual alarm clock—I haven’t used one in 10 years.
I never schedule anything that would require me to be up before my natural wake-up time, so I just get up naturally. Forcing yourself awake at an arbitrary time is a good way to have a shitty morning.”
Arianna Huffington, Former Co-Founded, The Huffington Post, Co-Founder & CEO, Thrive Global
“Our phones are repositories of everything we need to put away in order to sleep: our to-do lists, our inboxes, the demands of the world.
Charging your phone away from your bed makes you more likely to wake up as fully charged as your phone."
Jeff Bezos, CEO, Amazon
"Eight hours of sleep makes a big difference for me, and I try hard to make that a priority. For me, that's the needed amount to feel energized and excited.
If you shortchange your sleep, you might get a couple of extra 'productive' hours, but that productivity might be an illusion. When you're talking about decisions and interactions, quality is usually more important than quantity."
Eric Schmidt, Former Executive Chairman, Google & Alphabet
“I have read stories about how the most successful people sleep less. The real secret is the most successful people have awareness of what their body needs and sleep whenever necessary.
Studies show, sleep deprived or jet lagged pilots perform much worse on tasks similar to landing a plane. While not every decision is as crucial as landing an Airbus A380 with hundreds of passengers, the most important business decisions in life, politics, and business are complicated, having secondary considerations requiring a clear thought process.
When one is exhausted, short term determinations are the easiest to make. However, if one is too tired to consider butterfly effect of their actions, they could set themselves up for quantum chaos. We all know that feeling when we are awake, productive, full of energy and happy to be alive.
Those are the days when the fabric of life twists and turns in our favor, being productive is easy, and nothing can stop you. Studies have shown people with interrupted sleeping patterns are prone to depression, are more likely to be compulsive eaters, and complain much more than those who sleep well.
Good sleep can only enhance your physical and mental ability to do almost everything. Just remember, healthy sleeping habits make an absolute difference in your overall quality of life. Most likely, you are not sleeping enough.”
Tim Ferriss, Best-Selling Author, Investor
“Ours is a culture where we wear our ability to get by on very little sleep as a kind of badge of honor that symbolizes work ethic, or toughness, or some other virtue—but really, it’s a total profound failure of priorities and of self-respect.”