Have you ever felt like everyone around you is working 24/7?

For example, ask someone a simple question like, "How's it going?" and listen for the response...

"CRAZY busy!"

"I'm getting crushed."

"Work is insane right now."

Back when I was a management consultant, I used to work with someone just like this. She was literally the busiest person in the world. Or at least that's what she wanted people to think.

She would furiously bang away at her keyboard from morning to night, and rush around the office clutching her laptop and a stack of papers. I don't know where she was going, but it looked important.

I'd see her and think, "I wonder what important project she's on right now?" I even felt a little self-conscious because I wasn't as busy as she was.

And so I did what any competitive person would do -- I pretended to be busy.

In conversation I started exaggerating how much I was working. An 8-hour day always become a 10-hour day. A 60-hour week got pushed to 80. Before long, I was giving the stock answer of, "Crazy busy!" even if I had an easy day.

Why do we do this? Why do you do this?

The myth of the ideal worker

According to an HBR article titled, Why Some Men Pretend to Work 80-Hour Weeks, the answer lies in "the myth of the ideal worker."

"In many professional jobs, expectations that one be an "ideal worker"--fully devoted to and available for the job, with no personal responsibilities or interests that interfere with this commitment to work--are widespread."

Linked to this expectation is the belief that being an ideal worker leads to success.

"[...] people believed that success indeed required ideal-worker-like devotion. Many reported 60- to 80-hour weeks, with little control over when those hours were worked and whether they might have to travel. Work was expected to come ahead of other life responsibilities."

These two pressures -- the expectation to work long hours and the belief that it would lead to success -- caused employees to lie about the hours they worked.

"Our email program has a time client built into it. So you can actually see in your email box who's online and who's not. And there's an implicit culture [here] that if you don't see somebody on at the same time at a certain hour of the night, you're wondering what the heck they are doing."

I've worked at a company that used a similar system, and it led to ridiculous attempts to seem busy and important. For example, some analysts went as far as leaving their laptops awake over the weekend so that it looked like they were working more hours.

A solution for the cult of busyness

Remember the 'busiest woman alive' I was telling you about earlier?

Well, after two years of being insanely busy, she was let-go for poor performance. Apparently all that rushing around was caused by incompetence, not importance.

When I heard the news I'm embarrassed to admit that I actually felt better about myself. It meant I had a better shot of getting promoted.

At the heart of it, our competitiveness drives us to lie about how many hours we work. For most of our lives we're told that the world is a zero-sum game. In order for you to succeed, someone else has to fail.

But here's the kicker -- the world isn't a zero-sum game. We all know that working long hours doesn't make you successful. The HBR study confirmed this, saying:

"a critical implication of this research is that working long hours is not necessary for high quality work."

You know it's true, I know it's true, and yet we all play the game by pretending to be busy. A better approach?

The next time someone asks you, "How's it going?", fight the urge to give a snap answer of, "crazy busy." Instead, be honest, be vulnerable, and be okay with people not thinking you work 24/7.

I'm curious -- why do you think we lie about how many hours we work?

Leave a comment below.

Published on: Apr 20, 2017