Book excerpt: Methods for controlling the hours you work

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My book, Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success, is available now!

Here is tip #37 from the book: A Long List of Ways to Dodge Long Hours

It’s hard to leave the office at a reasonable time of day when your workplace culture centers on long hours. But the cost of not leaving work is high: a half-built life and career burnout. Of course, if you never work long hours, you will never appear committed enough to get to the top ranks. So your job is to work enough hours to look committed but not so many hours that you risk your personal life and your ability to succeed over the long haul.

People cannot work full-speed until they die. Pace yourself so you don’t burn out before you reach your potential. But don’t blame your long hours on your boss, your CEO, or your underlings. Someone who does not make a conscious, organized effort to take responsibility for the number of hours they work can be thrown off course by anyone. But the person who systematically follows the steps below will not be thrown off course, even by a workaholic boss in a workaholic industry:

Concentrate on quality of work over quantity. The person who builds a career on doing the most work commits to living on a treadmill. The work will never be done, and you will become known among your co-workers as someone who never turns down an assignment. Read: dumping ground. Quality is what matters. People don’t lose a job for not working unpaid overtime, they lose a job for not performing well at the most important times; and a resume is not a list of hours worked, it is a list of big accomplishments.

Know the goals of your job. You need to know the equivalent of a home run in your job. Get a list of goals from your boss, and understand how they fit into the big picture. Judge if your work is high quality by what people need from you and how they measure success. Be sure to get goals that are quality oriented and not hours oriented. Suggest replacing, “Devote eight hours a week to cold-calling” to “Find six qualified leads in three months.”

Find the back door. Figure out what criteria people use for promotion. It is never only how many hours you work. In many professions you need to work a lot of hours, but there is always a way to be impressive enough to cut back on hours. In the realm of superstars, achievement is based on quality over quantity. Figure out how to turn out extremely impressive work so that you can get away with fewer hours. For example, if you’re a lawyer, you could pick up one, very important client for the firm, and then cut back a little on your hours.

Refuse bad assignments. Figure out what matters, and spend your time on that. Once you have clear short-term and long-term goals, it’s easy to spot the person you don’t need to impress, the project that will never hit your resume, or the hours worked that no one will notice.

Say no. Constantly. The best way to say no is to tell people what is most important on your plate so they see that, for you, they are a low priority. Prioritizing is a way to help your company, your boss, and yourself. No one can fault your for that.

Go public. Tell people about your schedule ahead of time. For example, “I have Portuguese lessons on Thursdays at 7 p.m. The class is important to me.” When you plan a vacation, announce it early and talk about it a lot. The more people know about how much you have been preparing and anticipating your trip the less likely people will be to ask you to cancel it.

Find a silent mentor. Look for someone who is respected but does not work insane hours. This will take careful hunting because this person is not likely to be obvious about it. Watch him from afar and figure out how he operates. Few people will want to mentor you in the art of dodging work — it’s bad for one’s image. But you could enlist the person to help you in other areas and hope he decides to help you in the workload area as well.

Know your boss’s goals. Your best tool for saying no to a project is reminding your boss what her goals are. If she cannot keep track of her own goals, help her. Because if you worm your way out of work that doesn’t matter to her, so that you can do work that does matter to her, she is more likely to back you up. Also your boss will protect you from assignments from other people if you show her how the other peoples’ work affects your boss’s goals.

Take control of what you can. Even small efforts at control add up to a lot, and best of all, they usually go unnoticed by others. For example, refuse to make meetings on Monday and you are less likely to have to prepare for meetings on the weekend. Refuse meetings after 4:30 p.m. and you are less likely to miss dinner at home. Ignore your phone while you write your weekly report and you’re less likely to stay late to finish it. You don’t need to tell people: “My policy is no meetings at x time.” Just say you’re already booked and suggest another time. You can’t do this every meeting, but you can do it enough to make a difference in your life.

Know your own boundaries. “Wanting to work fewer hours” is too vague a goal because you won’t know which hours to protect. Try getting home by 7 p.m., not working weekends, or leaving for two hours in the middle of the day to lift weights. These are concrete goals for cutting back hours.

Create something important outside of work. If you don’t create a life outside of work that is joyful and engaging then you won’t feel a huge need to leave work. And if you don’t project a passion for life outside of work then no one will think twice about asking you to live at work. So get some passion in your personal life. If you can’t think of anything, start trying stuff: Snowboarding, pottery, speed dating. The only way to discover new aspects of yourself is to give them new opportunities to come out.

Be brave. Brave people can say no when someone is pushing hard, and brave people can go home when other people are working late. The bravery comes from trusting yourself to find the most important work and to do it better than anyone else. But sometimes, the bravest thing to do is leave. Some industries, for example coding video games, or being a low-level analyst at an investment bank, are so entrenched in the idea that workers have no lives that you will find yourself battling constantly to get respect for your personal life. In some cases, you are better off changing industries, or at least changing companies.

19 replies
  1. Cara
    Cara says:

    Great list! I plan to try some of these tips. I wonder what your thoughts are about professions, such as the legal profession, where your perceived performance is directly tied to the hours you work (in the form of billable hours)? In that case, the “quality over quantity” tip doesn’t seem to work because in the law firm’s perverse calculation, inefficiency is actually rewarded. Yet another reason why I’m glad I work in a corporation now, where it IS all about the results!

    * * * * *

    Interesting question, Cara. I think of two things:

    1. This is why being a lawyer is like flipping burgers at McDonalds.

    2. At least if you work for yourself and not a big law firm then you’ll only work hours you need to work.


  2. Rambler
    Rambler says:

    Have to say extremely useful post, I am planning to take a print out of this and hang in my cube, hopefully I am able to achieve 50% of these.. really need to control my hours of work

  3. Roger Anderson
    Roger Anderson says:

    “achievement is based on quality over quantity”
    I love this. It is hard in a large organization to find many people doing this. Some times you have to cultivate a plan with your boss so that such things are recognized. I would rather have people work 30 hard hours and achieve a Top 5 Priority than to have people who work 50 hours but never seem to accomplish anything. I was able to compete on a shoestring with companies that had 100X our funding because we had a focus on functions not on fluff.

    Thanks for sharing a bit more of your book.

  4. Greg
    Greg says:


    I discussed billable hours in the private sector with an attorney I worked with, and he explained how he kept work hours from eating into family time; when he was in the office, he was doing billable work. So his 6-4 workday resulted in 10 billable hours for the firm.

    Compare that with the attorney who works a 16 hour day, goes out for a latte and muffin, takes a 2 hour lunch, hangs out around the coffee pot, and takes care of personal chores because there is no time available outside of work. At the end of the day, there may be a little more billable time, but the attorney spends the day unfocused and inefficient.

    There are some firms that demand unfocused face time, but as my attorney friend pointed out, there is always a demand for focused, efficient attorneys.

  5. Cara
    Cara says:

    Greg, thanks for looking into the billable hour topic and posting. From my own experience, though, simply billing hours isn’t enough. Non-billable work, such as client development, training younger attorneys, firm management, reviewing and marking up client bills, continuing legal education, etc. all can take up time as well. Billing 100% of your time in the office simply isn’t realistic for the long haul.

  6. Rowan Manahan
    Rowan Manahan says:

    Solid points all Penelope. It’s very easy to cave in to a culture where everyone is expected to contribute 20% more hours than they are paid for. I haven’t yet encountered an established company where people were happy to do this, but they all shrug their shoulders and essentially say, “That’s just how it is around here …”

    Expectations will be built on the precedents you set in the first few weeks and months in a job – and that is when most people, still on probation, are happy to work long hours in order to show maximum enthusiasm. Think veeeery carefully about how you handle this. (I have had clients working past midnight while they were learning the ropes, but making a point of leaving the office at a civilised hour and crunching the extra stuff at home.)

    I had the experience of working 60+ hour weeks for my first months in one of my early jobs and when I started going home a 7.30 instead of 9.00, my boss’s reaction was, “So you’re keeping bankers hours now are you?”

  7. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    A good time to start saying ‘no’ is when you become a dumping ground for grunt work you are overqualified for. These points are all excellent – I wish I’d had this list when I was 27 and didn’t know how to say ‘no.’ Because I wasn’t assertive enough and didn’t put my foot down, I ended up leaving a job I otherwise loved, and then they had to hire three more people. Words to remember: THEY’RE NOT GOING TO FIRE YOU!!! Work your 40 hours and let the grunt work slide. When your boss gets tired of the work not getting done, he’ll hire some more help. Otherwise he’s got to find someone willing to work 60 hours all the time, and if that’s what he really wants, then LET him fire you and go find something better.

    When I was in that situation, my boss (and most of the other staffers) worked a normal week. It was only myself and one other co-worker who were putting in the backbreaking hours month after month. When I asked the boss to spread our workload out a bit, he told me that since the other co-worker and I didn’t have kids, it didn’t hurt us to stay later. That would have been a good time for me to start leaving at 4:30 every day and let the cards fall where they may. I did get very burned out and am ashamed to say I was 30 years old before I took my first vacation. Don’t let that happen to you!!!

  8. Richard
    Richard says:

    “THEY'RE NOT GOING TO FIRE YOU!!!” Technically they can fire you for anything they want. Most U.S. states are at-will, meaning they can let you go whenever they want with no reason. However most larger companies have HR departments that make firing someone, for reasons you described, more difficult.

    If you decide to implement Pirate Jo’s advice, they might not fire you but your mgt could make life very unpleasant for you. The resulting affect is that you decide to leave on your own.

    Another possibility is mgt. gets ticked at your tactic and starts being hyper critical about your work. This results in a “case” being built up against you. So when mgt pulls the trigger they have evidence of why they canned you.

  9. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    Richard, that may have been the case – I will never know, because a job opened up in another department and I transferred into it. That was the way I handled it, and my new manager didn’t think childfree people should be expected to cheerfully accept the lack of a life outside of work. A definite plus! My work week immediately went to 40 hours and one of the first things I did was take a two-week vacation to Europe.

    Would my old manager have worked harder to keep me if I had pushed back harder? I don’t know. I had been a senior-level person and a good performer for several years, and he really had his hands full with new hires for quite a while.

  10. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Hey Penelope,
    I loved this column. Like so many readers I”ve been burned a few times by the mistakes listed.

    Question for you: is there any research to suggest that in today’s workplace, having a life outside of work will make you more productive and/or successful? Following up on your 2nd-to-last-tip, if you can’t make up for working slowly or unproductively by working extra, you have to find a way to make the most of your hours. If you desperately want to finish everything crucial by 5:30 PM so you can go to Guitar lessons or have dinner with your kids or go mountain biking, then you’ll find a way to do it.

    If there is too much on your slate, you’ll find a way to delegate and/or ignore the unimportant stuff — because it’s important to you.

    * * * * * *

    Hi, Wendy. Good question. I think that there is research that we can extrapolate to say that having a life outside of work makes people perform better in their work. For example, people who go to the gym regularly do better at work, and you have to leave work to go to the gym. And people who have good relationships are happier at work, and you can’t have a relationship with a spreadsheet. I can think of a lot more examples like this.


  11. Fran
    Fran says:

    I agree with the list, especially with being in control of the things we do. We don’t have to force ourself to do things that we don’t like. If we think that a certain task will only slow us down and make us unproductive, we should should be frank about it.

  12. Ron
    Ron says:

    I’m obviously in the minority here, but I think the column about how to cut down on hours at work is nothing more than a how-to for lazies. I’m continually frustrated by the numbers of people who are expert at making themselves look productive when, in reality, they’re doing nothing but busying themselves with avoiding work. Working long hours doesn’t automatically make someone more productive or harder working, as some organizations and firms seem to think, but the advice given in this column seems more useful for all the lazy mo-fo’s interested in doing as little work as possible — a dime a dozen in most every organization I’ve ever worked in. It’s the American way . . .

  13. Alan
    Alan says:

    Sometimes we forget that the value of our work depends on the quality and not on quantity. We can’t expect anyone to be convinced that we did a good job for doing many things but don’t give much effort in doing it.

  14. Justin Bishop
    Justin Bishop says:

    Great recommendations for how to control your time.

    My only quibble is with the claim that coding video games is an industry that expects ungodly hours. This is a myth, perhaps perpetuated for you by stories concerning EA which came out not too long ago. It’s really not true. A great game programmer is valued, and allowed to work very flexible hours…

  15. Andrey
    Andrey says:

    Hi Penelope,

    The column is great! I will print a copy too.

    One question: If one tries to get loaded less then others, and many of the others work overtime, then the one will not be likable among the stuff.
    How to be likable in the situation when others see your efforts and results in getting less workload?

    Thanks for the article, it gives food for thought …)

    * * * * *

    Andrey, this is a good question. Here is something that comes to mind: If doing a lot of work made people likeable then the hardest worker would be the most likeable. But in fact, it’s usually not true in the office. So the people who are not the hardest workers are doing something else, besides work, that makes them likeable. Learn to do that stuff so that you don’t have to focus on workload. That said, if you do no work and force everyone to pick up your slack, you will not have friends. Moderation is the key here, I think.

  16. J
    J says:

    Hi Penelope,
    Most billionaires and others successful people work/ed incredibly long hours. I know no one rich or successful whom works 9 to 5 with the weekends off. The talk about decreasing productivity from long hours I think results primarily from doing work you don’t like. So the key here isn’t less hours, I think the key is to find work you like.

    A lot this work life balance in my opinion is just laziness.
    The average person watches 4 hours of television (although to be fair, this probably includes retired persons whom drag this up). I don’t have data to prove this, but I really don’t think people need to rest 4-6 hours a day.

    As a former professional athlete, I’m sure you practiced more than the average player. Why doesn’t this make sense in the workplace.

  17. venkat
    venkat says:

    Walter Schloss, disciple of ben graham and contemporary of warren buffet, worked from 9 to 5 only. he managed investment firm. he is not obsessed about money investing and being rich.
    you can searc thru google ben graham center of value investing.

  18. ChrisH
    ChrisH says:

    hmm. I like this post. some of this is normal ‘manage up’ or managing scope and risk. the part about establishing boundaries and outside priorities is especially true.
    i found that the prevailing attitude in a lot of companies is managing by objective has trumped the idea of working a sensible schedule. ‘do what it takes’ is no longer a motto i can subscribe to – maybe in my 20’s, less so in my 30’s, definitely not now in my 40’s. life’s too short, and i have my own shit to do – some of it is occasionally even fun or interesting.
    a lack of understanding of what X really takes by upper management causes a lot of this. some just don’t care because they get paid more when you work harder and they keep their expenses down by not hiring people or creating ecosystems with tools and process. this is also known as bad management and leadership, and trust me when i say that there’s an astonishing amount of it out there.
    if your boss or bosses are routinely worked excessively by objective by the company (their bosses) or take on too much work to establish their own value and compensation, then you can assume that you will be too. shit travels downhill predictably.
    one thing that you can’t overcome when you reach the management ranks is that the amount of time that you spend in meetings – either contributing to them, being informed by them, or leading them means that’s essentially your work product. i have found zero time to actually do the work required to support those meetings during the standard working day. trouble is, i don’t have staff to do my work for me, and that’s the rub. more often than notm, my staff are not as experienced as i am, and i can’t generally rely upon them to give me what i call ‘finished work’ – work that i don’t have to touch and can present to my management as representative of good quality work that i would be comfortable presenting as my own (because that’s what i’m doing, essentially)
    most people in this situation are doing meetings 6-8 hours/day, politiking in the off-meeting time, firfighting and running down last minute lists of things that are required to keep the wheels on their team. 
    all too typically what happens is that they have to their own work to do still, and otherwise they have to proof or edit existing work provided to them when they’re not constantly being interrupted while in the office. that means working at night to prep for the following day(s).
    it also means working during the weekends to make up for the work that required longer blocks of time to consume and produce – capital projects, operating budgets, fiscal planning, resource allocation, prep for hiring, etc.
    in today’s corporate environments, this is status-quo, and it’s what’s required to lead, manage and be successful. if you’re not able to push back effectively, manage assignments given to you (as opposed to requested), limit risk and free up time in your own weekday calendar, then you will fail. eventually. either your career will fail, or your personal life will come so unglued as to make you pay attention to that as an emergency rather than a maintenance activity. been there, done that, lived it, and no thanks.
    understanding this will help you to create those boundaries pretty quickly, or suffer epic burnout at which point you’ll either be performance managed and worked out (fired, contract not renewed), or you’ll be looking for a new job anyway.
    so this list is essentially a must-have for any professional in modern-day business.
    my tips:
    find a reason to leave, even if you have to make it up, and leave
    don’t enable work e-mail at home or on your phone, or find a way to shut it off and do it as soon as you leave
    do not work at night. period.
    do not work during the weekends. period.
    otherwise, it’s your fault for being overworked. and consider this:
    on salary you are being compensated for a normal work week – that’s 40 hours.
    you should be expected to work additional time as necessary, but create a cap.
    i tell my directs that if they are putting in more than 15% extra time each week (44-46 hours per week) then they are at max capacity and need to let me know if it goes for more than 3 weeks consecutively.
    don’t forget that if you routinely work 50% or more on overtime (60+ hours) you not only have no life, but you’re absorbing the company’s risks of underfunding and under-resourcing as well, and that’s not fair or reasonable.
     60 hours/week, you’re also getting roughly a 34% decrease in your hourly wages. so if you make $10k in salary, you just made the equivalent of $6.6k every time you put in a 60 hour work week. that’s math that hurts you because you don’t get paid for it, ever, but the expectations are that you continue to produce or perform at that level. ergo, you’ll never get the resources that you need because if you were the company and getting the milk for free, why would you buy an extra cow, so to speak.
     so just don’t do it. and if it’s required ad-infinitum, leave.

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