Undervaluing time at work

The strategic value of working excess hours

While most knowledge work jobs feature occasional periods of longer hours — for example, in the run up to a product launch — the benefits of work-life balance have been proven time and again. The upside is indisputable.

But this isn’t a post meant to argue in favor of work-life balance. To the contrary, the goal is to argue in favor of temporarily forgoing work-life balance[1].

First, a bit of context.

A nuanced view of work-life balance

Given everything I had experienced and read about the benefits of work-life balance, I desperately wanted to avoid a culture of long work hours once I stepped into a manager role. As a result, I used to pressure people to go home after about 8 hours at the office.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that my crusade was misguided and my opinion lacking nuance.

That’s not to say it didn’t stem from good intentions: I was scared that team members might feel pressured to work longer hours if I didn’t explicitly encourage the opposite. It didn’t help that I was Chief Hypocrite, frequently spending 10 or more hours a day in the office. (In my defense, I worked those long hours specifically to protect other people’s ability to maintain their work-life balance — a form of servant management.)

Over time, I’ve revised my opinion to something more nuanced. Instead of feeling that everyone should have work-life balance and clock out after 8 hours, I now believe that everyone should have the opportunity for work-life balance, if they desire it.

That’s an important if. I’ve come to realize that there are good reasons to forgo work-life balance in favor of more work on occasion.

The strategic value of excess hours

And that brings us to the heart of the argument: people consistently undervalue excess time at work.

First, it’s important to define “excess time.” That means time above and beyond the norm for your company or team. If someone is on a team that works 45 hours a week, anything noticeably beyond that counts as excess time. Note that working excess hours does not simply mean working hard or working more than the standard 40 hours a week — it means working more than your peers.

The main reason people undervalue excess time at work is because it is easy to overlook the future consequences of their work in the moment. That shouldn’t be surprising: it’s for the same reason that we don’t always eat healthy, prioritize sleep, or save enough.

To illustrate this point, imagine someone who works longer hours decides to have a bit of fun and compute their actual hourly wage. Easy enough: they simply divide their salary by the number of hours they typically work.

hourly wage = salary / number of hours worked

Assuming they work 50 hours a week and their weekly salary is $2,000, that suggests an hourly wage of $40 per hour.

However, that calculation ignores a critical piece of information: their future earnings. What matters is not how much they’re currently making, but rather how much they can expect to make over their career if they continue on their current trajectory. If they’re spending an extra hour or two at the office every day compared to their peers, it might result in getting promoted six months earlier, thereby increasing their total earnings over a set period of time. Those increased earnings should be factored into the value of the excess hours the person is working today.

The opposite case makes this point more obvious: if that same person starts working only 20 hours a week, it’s easy to see that the lackluster performance at work and possible loss of a job might lead to dramatically lower lifetime earnings.

(If you’re familiar with economics, the idea of accounting for the future value of something when considering its worth today is known as present value. If you’re so inclined, you can use the formula for present value or an online calculator to compute a more appropriate hourly wage.)

Putting excess hours to work

So what does this all mean? Well, if you happen to be employed at a company with upwards mobility and where your team or company’s average work volume is currently manageable (e.g. 40 hours a week), you might want to consider strategically working excess hours.

The most obvious reason you might want to do that is to shift the trajectory of your career.

Imagine you put in an excess of two hours a day during your first year at a company. The result of those hours might be as follows:

  1. The excess hours increase your output[2] and demonstrate your dedication.
  2. Due to your high output and dedication to the job, more and bigger projects flow your way faster than they otherwise would.
  3. Those projects translate into a promotion, again on a faster timeline than you would otherwise be promoted.
  4. Your promotion yields a higher salary and gives you a higher baseline when negotiating future jobs or roles.

The net result is that your natural career trajectory shifted up by some amount. And from both an earning and an impact perspective, what matters is the area under that career curve. A small shift early on can result in a huge difference in terms of lifetime earnings or impact.

That’s especially true when you consider the knock on effects of a shift in trajectory. A faster-than-usual promotion might establish you as a higher performer, which in turn might translate into even more opportunities flowing your way. That completes the positive feedback loop: your hard work early on builds upwards momentum that lasts even after you stop working excess hours. (Another way of describing it is that you build a strong personal brand, and that brand continues to pay dividends even after you stop working as hard.)

A couple well-timed periods of working excess hours can have a big impact.

This is a contrived example, but it’s useful for making a point: what matters is not the slope of the line, but rather the area under the curve. A small upwards shift in your trajectory (e.g. by building a brand of being a high performer) — especially early on in your career — can result in large differences in your lifetime earnings or impact. It’s the equivalent of the value that saving a dollar today has over saving a dollar ten years from today. In this example, the lifetime earnings are almost 50% greater in the excess hours case — presumably a much larger difference than in hours worked.

All that said, the implications for your career trajectory aren’t the only reason you might want to work excess hours.

Especially when you’re early in your career or are working in a new industry, excess hours can dramatically accelerate your learning. When I first shifted from mechanical engineering to software engineering, I put in a lot of hours at the company I worked for. No one was asking me to, but I was hungry to learn the craft. The excess hours allowed me to transition from a front-end web developer to a backend engineer much faster than I otherwise would have been able to manage.

A final reason you might wish to work excess hours is if you’re absolutely passionate about the cause. In that case, work is so rewarding that accounting for hours is an afterthought. And as previously mentioned, those excess hours can increase your total impact.

Disclaimers and caveats

There are a couple of important caveats to all of this.

First, this argument only applies to people at companies with clear opportunities for upwards mobility, learning, and/or impact, and with reasonable baseline work volumes. Conversely, this does not apply to people who have little control over their schedule, either due to work conditions or personal situations, or to people who are already expected to work 60+ hours a week.

Second, excess hours are generally not sustainable and should be used intermittently. If you make a long-term habit of working excess hours, both you and the company might acclimate to the longer hours and it might become expected. If that happens, many of the benefits disappear.

Last, a plea for managers: if you manage other people, it’s important to understand the difference between long hours that are driven by intrinsic motivation versus long hours that are driven due to extrinsic demands (real or perceived). The former is often productive; the latter is destructive.

[2] Output per hour worked tends to decrease as you exceed 40 hours a week, but output as a whole usually goes up until you get into severely overworked situations.

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