It's okay to work your hours

When I was thirteen, I was paid £3 an hour to wash pots and pans in a pub.

It was a hot and dirty job. More than once the industrial detergent desiccated my hands. But I was young, and trading three sweaty hours for £9 was well worth it.

On some nights, there was a mountain of pots to tackle, so I’d work closer to four hours. But that was fine because I just asked for more money. That’s the joy of hourly-wage jobs – they’re crappy and menial, but there is a clear connection between time and money. Clock-in, clock-out.

This clear-cut connection weakens when you move to a salaried job. You gain the reassurance and simplicity of a monthly wage, but you trade this for blurred lines between work and pay. When you do a few extra hours here and there, you have nothing to show for it.

As you become more senior, you eventually cross an invisible threshold and the connection between time and salary evaporates entirely. Past a certain salary point, companies tend to think working hours don’t apply any more. And the employee often feels the same way.

If you continue down this path, work will invade every aspect of your life. You turn up to work and do your hours, but then you keep going. You come home late and keep working. Perhaps you’re checking emails in the evening or taking phone calls during family meals. Sometimes it’s simply being checked out in a daze because you’re too tired, or you can’t stop mulling over a work problem.

Inevitably, this impacts your emotional well-being. You can’t help but get stressed in an environment where you never switch off.

As you get more burned out, you’re liable to start solving this problem with negative approaches like quiet quitting. You begin to think your work owes you something, and you can start slacking off because you’re putting in so many hours.

This isn’t solving the problem at all. Instead, it’s turning you into a crappy worker who still works long hours for a lower effective hourly rate.

The real problem to solve is the disconnect between time and money. You’re acting like Five Guys when you should be thinking like Tiffanies.

Five Guys wants you to feel special. So, when you buy a $5 cup of fries, they blow your mind by throwing a whole extra scoop into the bag. It costs Five Guys almost nothing to do that, but it breeds loyal customers.

Compare that to Tiffanies, selling diamonds by the carat. Asides from the cup of coffee in the shop, you get nothing for free. Every thousandth of a carat will cost you dearly. Because Tiffanies knows they’re selling something priceless and irreplaceable, so they weigh it carefully and charge you accordingly.

You need to embrace a Tiffanies mindset. Throughout your career, you’ve developed a unique set of skills that makes you priceless and irreplaceable. Your salary has increased because you’re a more capable operator – it reflects the fact that each hour of your time delivers more value to the company than it did five years ago.

Your time is the most valuable asset you have – it’s the one thing in your life that you cannot replace. You mustn’t give it away like Five Guys does with its fries. You need to measure it by the microgram and sell it dearly.

Now, there is a hugely important caveat to all of this. Because, until the point, you might be forgiven for thinking I’m advocating being a clock-watching jobsworth. Far from it. I’m describing being a stone-cold professional who delivers eight productive, impactful hours of work, and then walks away. Those eight hours should be worth your salary (and then some).

If something is on fire, by all means, work later to address it. Provided this doesn’t happen often, it’s a fine and correct thing to do. If it happens all the time, then you need to set some firmer boundaries or find a different job.

Remember that any meaningful job will have more tasks available than there is time in the day. At some point, you arbitrarily stop all work. Eight hours is something we inherited from the industrial era, and it doesn’t reflect the realities of knowledge work. Nonetheless, it is the typical amount we are contracted to work, and so it seems a sensible place to down tools for the day.

Recognising you are never done is a critical way to separate work and home life. As Casper ter Kuile likes to post on Twitter each Friday – “The work isn’t done, but it is time to stop.”

I’ve realised this is what I love about productivity, and why I think it’s critical for work/life balance. Using the tools of productivity, you can deliver the most effective work possible during your contracted hours. Then you can walk away, knowing you have delivered your commitment, and sleep well.

When you take this approach regularly, your relationship with work will improve. You won’t resent it for encroaching on your life. You won’t feel guilty because you’re paid well and should be working all hours. Your family doesn’t have to share you with a dozen phone calls every evening.

Instead, like an artisan of old hanging up their tools at the end of the day, you can leave work behind you and return afresh tomorrow to try again.