Overwork in the Age of Multi-tasking

The weekend’s WSJ had an interesting article about work hours — the hours that people think they work, and the hours they actually do.

Over the past two decades of rapid technological deployment and globalization, it has become an article of faith among the professional set that we work sweatshop hours. Sociologist Juliet Schor started the rumor with her 1992 book, “The Overworked American,” which featured horror stories of people checking their watches to know what day it was.

Then God created the BlackBerry and things got worse. In late 2005, Fortune’s Jody Miller claimed that “the 60-hour weeks once thought to be the path to glory are now practically considered part-time.” In late 2006, the Harvard Business Review followed up with an article on “the dangerous allure of the 70-hour workweek,” calling jobs that required such labor the new standard for professionals. The authors featured one “Sudhir,” a financial analyst who claimed to work 90-hour weeks during summertime, his “light” season. He’s got nothing on a young man I met at a party recently who told me he was working 190 hours a week to launch his new company.

It was a curious declaration; I would certainly invest in a start-up that had invented a way to augment the 168 hours that a week actually contains.

The young man turned out to be kidding. But he felt overworked, and so he indulged in some workweek inflation. Research shows that this is a common affliction among anyone claiming to work more than 50 hours a week. Indeed, almost no one claiming to work 70-, 80- or 190-hour weeks is actually doing so. This doesn’t make Summer Fridays any less sweet. But it does raise the question of why our perceptions of work are so different from the reality.

Sociologists have been studying how Americans spend their time for decades. One camp favors a simple approach: if you want to know how many hours someone works, sleeps or vacuums, you ask him. Another camp sees a flaw in this method: People lie. We may not do so maliciously, but it’s tough to remember our exact workweek or average time spent dishwashing, and in the absence of concrete memories, we’re prone to lie in ways that don’t disappear into the randomness of thousands of answers. They actually skew results.

That’s the theory behind the American Time Use Survey, conducted annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The ATUS, like a handful of previous academic surveys, is a “time diary” study. For these studies, researchers either walk respondents through the previous day, asking them what they did next and reminding them of the realities of time and physics, or in some cases giving them a diary to record the next day or week.

…Back in the 1990s, using 1985 data, researchers John Robinson and his colleagues compared people’s estimated workweeks with time-diary hours. They found that, on average, people claiming to work 40 to 44 hours per week were working 36.2 hours — not far off. But then, as estimated work hours rose, reality and perception diverged more sharply. You can guess in which direction. Those claiming to work 60- to 64-hour weeks actually averaged 44.2 hours. Those claiming 65- to 74-hour workweeks logged 52.8 hours, and those claiming workweeks of 75 hours or more worked, on average, 54.9 hours. I contacted Prof. Robinson recently to ask for an update. His 2006-07 comparisons were tighter — but, still, people claiming to work 60 to 69 hours per week clocked, on average, 52.6 hours, while those claiming 70-, 80-hour or greater weeks logged 58.8. As Mr. Robinson and co-author Geoffrey Godbey wrote in their 1997 book “Time for Life,” “only rare individuals put in more than a 55-60 hour workweek.”

There are many reasons for such discrepancies. The first is the gray definition of much white-collar labor. If you’re watching “Talladega Nights” on a flight to a conference, are you working? Is reading the Taste page of The Wall Street Journal in your office work? Anyone claiming an 80-hour workweek is definitely putting both in the “yes” category — though this mode of calculation is going to result in more generous estimates than an observer might tally.

The second reason people overestimate is that they discount exceptions that don’t fit the mental pictures they create of themselves. If you work four 14-hour days, then quit after 8 hours on Fridays, you’d think a “usual” day was 14 hours, meaning that you work 70-hour weeks. But you don’t. You work 64 — maybe. … You might have worked on weekends. But here we tend to overestimate time devoted to small, repetitive tasks. People think they spend far more time washing dishes than they do. Likewise, if you pulled out your BlackBerry 10 times over the weekend, you might give yourself credit for several hours of work, even though each incidence took five minutes. Total time? Less than one hour, even though you feel as if you’re in work mode 24/7.

I think it’s particularly appropriate that I’m posting these excerpts between meetings at work. An element of this overestimation which the author touches on above with the reverence to reading the taste page at work is that the modern professional work environment often makes it much easier to intersperse work and leisure in a nearly seamless fashion.

The same technology which makes it easy for me to answer questions from fellow employees in India at 11PM also makes it easy for me to pop up a web browser when my computer is taking to long to run a complex query and read an article from First Things, or to type out a blog post in the fifteen minute chunk of time I have before going to a meeting. As well as making our work more efficient, computers also give us more chances to recreate while we’re working. So even in a week when I may spend 60 hours in the office building (something which is blessedly rare these days) I may well have spent five or even ten of those hours reading, going to lunch, talking to MrsDarwin on the phone and so on. “Flex time” gives us much craved freedom, while at the same time putting larger swaths of time overall in the “work” bucket.

Whether this is good or bad is probably mainly a matter of temperment. I’m probably happier with this kind of mix than I would be doing concentrated work on a factory line for seven hours a day with two half hour breaks. Others, I’m sure, would rather work intensively from 6AM to 2PM and be done.

3 Responses to Overwork in the Age of Multi-tasking

  • My guess is that in addition to the factors mentioned in this article, part of the discrepancy is due to the fact that each additional hour of work is probably more taxing than the previous hour. If you are running ten miles, the tenth mile is likely to be significantly harder (and perhaps feel longer) than the first. The same goes, I suspect, for hours worked in a day or week.

  • Once, when I was working as a paralegal, I had to get something out of the office of a young attorney who put in excessively long hours even by DC law firm standards. His office door was partly open and I tapped on it before sticking my head inside. He looked the very picture of lawyerly diligence, hunched over his desk, head resting on his hand. He appeared to be so focused on whatever he was reading that I hestitated to say anything – and then I heard a loud snore,…,hope he didn’t include the naps in his billable hours;-)

    I think that if it were possible to gauge the number of hours Americans actually spend working vs. the time spent at work, you’d see quite a discrepancy. How many goofy or inspirational emails and video clips do you get forwarded to you in the course of a day at work? Personal emails, personal calls, chit-chat with co-workers, etc. Some of that is what makes the day bearable, of course – we are not robots. But we all know people who, er, spend a wee bit more time on personal stuff and entertainment than they should(like a former boss of mine who was excellent at farming her work out and spent the better part of Friday morning doing the WSJ crossword puzzle.)

    Of course, I’m an exception, nose to the grindstone every second of the day;-).

  • This reminds me of the time when virus attacks were more frequent. Then the newspapers carried banner headlines on the billions and billions lost due to lost “productivity”, thankfully these billions of dollars were apparently made up for without much fuss in the succeeding days. I knew a Frenchman who insisted that one should not work extra hours. He claimed that work should be done in the alloted time. Anything further showed a lack of competence. incomete

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