"You can work long, hard or smart, but at Amazon.com, you can't choose two out of three," asserted Jeff Bezos in his 1997 letter to shareholders. Journalist Katrina Onstad strenuously disagrees: "Actually, you should choose: the last two. The first one is bullshit."

Onstad makes that case in her new book, The Weekend Effect: The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork (HarperOne, May 2017). In it, she cites studies stretching back to the early 1900s that prove that our productivity and effectiveness decline when we consistently exceed 40-hour work weeks. This should give pause to entrepreneurs who think they--and their employees--have to work long hours to succeed.

In fact, Onstad calls out some highly successful founders whose work ethic might give Jeff Bezos pause--like TV producer and showrunner Shonda Rhimes. Rhimes gets as many as 2,500 emails daily, but she won't read or respond to them after 7:00 pm on weeknights or on weekends. "Work will happen twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year if you let it," Rhimes told NPR. "It suddenly occurred to me that unless I just say, 'That's not going to happen,' it was always going to happen."

I interviewed Onstad (on a Wednesday during working hours) to learn more about The Weekend Effect and why and how we should reclaim our weekends.

Kinni: You offered a pretty pithy response to Jeff Bezos in the book. Why shouldn't we work long hours?

Onstad: Because the research shows that our work doesn't get better. We get more and more tired, which leaves us more and more vulnerable to error. Shorter, smarter days make for better products and better employees. The Bezos quote bothered me because it represents the antiquated idea that hours logged is the same as success. It's ironic that someone who is such a great innovator has such an old-fashioned relationship to time and work.

A lot of companies are buying ping pong tables and beer fridges these days. Does making work more like play fix the problem?

No, it's a somewhat insidious trend that I tag as "workplay." It's a very Silicon Valley work model in which your office becomes a playroom and your colleagues become a proxy for your family. I've worked in those places, and they are much better than the veal-fattening pens of the '80s and '90s, but the reason that they exist is to keep us at work. Those hammocks in the office--they are there for you to sleep in so you don't leave work.

If these workplaces keep people happy and refreshed, why not?

The downside is that they blur your work self and your private self, and then it becomes even harder to disengage from work. If you don't get that true disconnection from work, you miss the epiphanies and the experiences outside of work that feed the most creative, successful people. Outside of work is usually where we have our big 'aha' moments about work. If we are locked into our jobs all the time, it limits our creativity, and it can damage our relationships and our personal lives.

If I'm an entrepreneur, how am I going to become a billionaire if I don't work weekends?

Entrepreneurs always have that mindset and sometimes, they do have to work crazy hours. But you still need to find pockets in your week where you can disconnect and rejuvenate and nourish yourself with activities that aren't about pushing your brand or feeding your business. Because if you don't, your business is probably not going to flourish as much.

You write about Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder of Facebook and founder of Asana, as a model. But didn't he dial it back after he became successful by working weekends and long hours?

One of the reasons I talked to Dustin Moskovitz was that he wrote about how he wasn't sleeping and he was living off of energy drinks and how unhealthy he was and the toll that took on his body during the early days at Facebook. He said, "I look back on that and I would have done much better if I had pulled back." It's really telling that someone who was in the trenches at one of the most lucrative startups in history can look back on it and say, "I would have done better work had I worked less."

What makes a great weekend?

You need a true disconnection from work. Sometimes, we are so wired that when the weekend comes, we just collapse and watch Netflix. But that doesn't make us feel better because that kind of passive leisure offers instant gratification that doesn't last. What really does last are hobbies, activities like going outdoors, and relationships with other people. They are the kinds of things that will really stay with you throughout the week.

Published on: Jul 1, 2017
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