If you work the most hours you look the most desperate. You shouldn’t look lazy, but don’t be the hardest worker. After all, why do you need to work so much harder than the next person? Are you not as smart? Not as organized? Not as confident in your ability to navigate a non-work world? In many cases all three are true for those who work the hardest.
The sad cold hard truth that the hardest worker is not necessarily the most successful rears its head before work even starts: A study conducted by Alan Krueger, professor of economics at Princeton University, shows that when it comes to workplace success, it doesn’t matter if you get in to an Ivy League school, it matters if you apply. In this case what matters is ambition and self-image, not getting the best grades or having the best test scores.
Nonstop work offers diminishing returns after graduation as well. Marita Barth is a student at MIT in biological engineering. She is at the top of her field yet she makes time to play ice hockey and volunteer at local charities. When she talks about taking breaks from her lab, Barth says, I could not maintain focus and energy if I worked nonstop. I would completely lose perspective.”
Don’t tell yourself that you work nonstop because you love your work: If you really loved your work, you’d take a break so you don’t mess it up. People who work longer than the typical eight hours a day start to lose their effectiveness quickly. “If you work all the time, you lose your edge,” warns Diane Fassel, CEO of workplace survey firm Newmeasures and author of Working Ourselves to Death. “Often these people are perfectionists, controlling and not good team players. The hardest workers are “not the best producers in terms of efficiency and creativity.”
Ironically, moments that elevate your level of success at work often require time away from work. For example, a grand idea that impacts your company’s bottom line probably won’t come to you when your brain is entrenched in workplace minutia. Anyone can work the hardest, but only special people can sit on a rock and come up with a brilliant idea. In fact, even daily troubleshooting requires some mental space. Barth has found that, “It takes a lot of thought to see what’s going wrong and make another plan. And at some point, if I spend too much time in the lab without a break, I’m not efficient.”
If you can’t stop working, you might be in for some bad news: Workaholism. Kevin Kulic, professor of psychology at Mercy College, says, “With any of those -holics, you are one if it causes you or other people a problem.” But some people purposely create imbalance. “For many people, workaholism is about perfectionism or avoidance,” says Kulic.
The hardest workers have actually lost the self-confidence to stop working. They are either terrified of making a mistake or a misstep, or they are terrified of the world that lies beyond their work — for example crumbling personal relationships.
Kulic cites the Yerkes-Dodson law that says too much or too little stimulation is bad. We need a happy medium in order to perform best. And Fassel cites worker surveys that support this law — the happiest workers have a workload that falls in between very heavy and very light.
This rule for working less applies to a job hunt, too. Many of you will be happy to hear that, “The amount of time you work beyond five hours a day has no impact on your ability to land a job” — good news brought to you by David Perry, managing partner of the recruiting firm Perry Martel International and co-author of Guerilla Marketing for Job Hunters.
Perry told me that a job hunt is like training for the 50-yard dash. “Everything is aimed at getting the interview. And you need to be mentally prepared.” Just as an athlete does not over train for the race, a job hunter will also experience defeating fatigue if there’s too much energy spent on the hunt.
Perry is adamant that the best jobs do not go to the smartest person or hardest worker but to the person who best reads his or her situation. So forget being the hardest worker because you need to be “bright eyed and bushy tailed.” Get out from behind that computer each day, he says and “enjoy the rest of your life.”
Take this research at cost value. Just remember when times are tough. Sometimes you need to press on the breaks and chase after the play.