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In the first half of 2021, when crypto markets were going crazy — I frequently felt I was in quicksand at work.
No matter how hard I struggled, I only fell in deeper, closer to drowning.
I've always prided myself on being a stamina employee, able to go longer and endure more than most. But even I had to admit burnout.
Things have been quieter over the past few weeks. It's given me time to think and leave work on time more.
There's always this guilt of leaving on time though.
Irrational, I know.
Nobody asks me to do it, and nobody monitors my hours. And yes, I regularly preach to my team to maintain a work-life balance. Meanwhile, the company I work for has been world-class in employee benefits. Every worker got two Fridays off recently because everyone had been feeling overworked.
The problem is me because I still can't help feeling the guilt.
Is there more I could have done today? Maybe I should refresh my work phone to see if there are any final messages to deal with?
Before you know it, it's 7:30PM and I've gone overtime again.
The guilt is gone, but so is my personal time.
If you're a workaholic like me, trying to get better, hopefully, my reflections will help.
Life's seasons and cycles
Why do we work eight hours a day, five days a week?
It turns out our working week is a relatively modern creation. Henry Ford is often credited with this, implementing the 40-hour workweek in 1926 for all Ford Motor employees. The practice spread all over the world, particularly in the 1940s-1960s.
You have to admit, it has a nice rhythm about it. Ideally on a workday: eight hours of work, eight hours of leisure, eight hours of sleep. Five days of this, then two days off. A mathematically pleasing cycle of work and rest.
But of course, cycles of work and rest existed long before Henry Ford. Even ancient religious texts mention them, for example, The Bible, Leviticus 23:3: "There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work."
I feel most comfortable quoting the Bible, but a day of rest is also found in other religions like Judaism. In Islam, Friday is the most special day — not so much for rest, but for gathering and prayer.
A good reminder for us workaholics.
Life is about cycles. Days and weeks eventually become months, quarters and years. All of nature works this way. Heck, even machines need to go through regular maintenance.
What more our precious — but often fragile — bodies?
Work hours is an imperfect metric
When Henry Ford implemented the 40-hour workweek, it was initially for factory workers.
Ford also introduced the assembly line — workers were specialised and worked on one thing for their entire shift. It increased efficiency, but I imagine it was pretty boring.
Thankfully, many of us today work in knowledge-based jobs. It's not so much about grinding hours on the same thing but achieving objectives efficiently. As Warren Buffett once said, "You can't produce a baby in one month, by getting nine women pregnant."
What I'm getting at: due to the nature of work today, we shouldn’t tie work satisfaction to just the number of hours worked.
It's one measure. I’m not so extreme to suggest people will succeed working four hours a week. But I'm also tired of feeling you constantly need to "overachieve" in a number of hours. Feeling busy and overwhelmed all the time is not a badge of honour. It's nonsensical.
Yes, I think eight hours as a guideline makes sense. And maybe companies aren't ready to write this black-and-white into employee contracts yet. But I 100% believe a reasonable boss shouldn't mind if you left early on Friday because you worked overtime on Thursday.
A guideline also helps protect you from overwork. If you're constantly putting in 10 hours a day when everyone around you does eight, maybe it’s time to cut down.
I didn't want this to be another productivity article. I wanted it to be a "get okay with downtime" article.
But of course, managing cycles also makes you more efficient at work.
One new way I'm structuring workdays is a set of sprints and rests. Instead of two four-hour marathons every day separated by lunch, I try to schedule a few one to two-hour sessions of deep work throughout the day.
I'm using the term "deep work" loosely here. My only knowledge of the concept comes from articles cause I haven't read Cal Newport‘s famous book yet. Forgive me if I didn’t get it 100% right.
When done right, I have enough time to get through the administrative and collaborative stuff (e.g. meetings, emails, chats), and still have enough time to invest in a few important things.
As long as I tune out distractions; focusing deeply during those "sprint sessions". And it works best when I take short breaks between sprints. To let my brain rest and my mind wander.
Reminder: the idea isn't to become hyper-efficient, only to fill up the extra time with more work. (That's actually pretty silly — though we do this to ourselves often don’t we?) It’s to get through challenging work without burning out, and then drawing the line: enough work today, time for self-care.
I like to take the sprint and rest analogy further. You can imagine every workweek to be a five-day sprint with two days of rest. Some projects take longer — maybe two-week sprints are better for your type of work. And you can also think of every quarter as a "long-run". It'd be nice to take a short break every three months.
A counterpoint — "if you're already working so hard, why don't you work on your own dream?" — that sometimes plays in my mind. Why am I such a dedicated employee? Wouldn't I be way more successful — richer and able to make a bigger impact — if I ran my own business?
It gets to me because I love immersing myself in hustle culture. I lap up motivational tweets and long-form articles about fast-growing startups like a teenager in McDonald's.
And in the midst of my admiration for business owners and the entrepreneurial spirit, I sometimes feel that familiar tingling of shame. Here's another young guy trying to change the world with just guts and coding skills. Meanwhile, I'm still struggling to get my team to fill in last week's employee survey.
Will I be "just" a salaried person for my entire career? At the rate it's going, I think so. I have a suspicion I wouldn't be able to handle the sacrifices every entrepreneur must go through. I don't think I'll enjoy 60-hour workweeks. I'm worried about failing too — and what it'd mean for my family.
Maybe I'll never be able to put those feelings away, that I'm somehow underutilising my potential. But what helps is reminding myself there's no fixed path to success in life. Success is not only about being "the man", hustling to make millions, or launching more ambitious ventures.
Maybe the path I'm on today, the impact I'm making, is enough?
Great things can still happen when people work on a shared dream together. If you're like me, happy to work reasonable hours for a reasonable boss, I want you to know that's okay.
Gretchen Rubin once wrote that "the days are long but the years are short".
She was talking about parenthood, but maybe it has lessons for our careers too.
Endure the challenging times and savour the good times that eventually come. Be happy for others — no matter what path they're on, or what season of life they're in.
Work at your own pace. Operating at optimum speed doesn't mean going full speed all the time.
If you're going to have a 40-year career that you enjoy, what's the rush?