go home on time dayNovember 20th is Go Home on Time Day, an annual day to acknowledge and address the impact of unpaid overtime.

Overwork is a society-wide problem and a significant challenge for many activists. How do you develop boundaries around work when it is also your personal passion and social change mission? What about when your activism is unpaid work in addition to paid work – what do reasonable hours mean in that context?

Plan to Thrive welcomes discussion about work/activism/life balance! Here Joel Dignam makes the case for working less.  


Overwork has heavy costs. Working longer hours is dangerous and ineffective. But poor management, the subconscious, workplace culture, and work volume, can each be a barrier to better workplace practices. Thankfully though, these barriers can be overcome.

If You Work More, You Get Less Work Done

Why shouldn’t you work more than 40 hours a week? If you work in the private sector working more than you are paid to constitutes a de facto donation to your employer, and last time I checked, they didn’t have DGR status. But let’s say you are working on an activist project or at a development NGO, for example. Every hour you don’t work is an hour that you aren’t helping to make the world a better place. So 50 hours a week is 10 extra hours improving the world. Right?

Wrong. If you work more than 40 hours a week, your per-hour productivity declines, as does your overall output. That is, if you work more hours, you will get less done. In fact, “five-day weeks of eight-hour days maximize long-term output in every industry that has been studied over the past century.” Yes, really.

Why is this so? One obvious thing: over the course of a workday you become physically and mentally fatigued and your output decreases. If you regularly work overtime, this physical and mental fatigue accumulates, affecting how well you work.

Two other things might be considered. Particularly when it comes to knowledge work, if you are willing to spend extra time at work, it is harder to decline work that is less valuable, so you spend less of your time effectively. Further, even for worthwhile tasks, if you have an unbound amount of time to spend, you will tend to procrastinate and work less efficiently. So, if your manager knows you will tend to work more hours, they’ll tend to give you extra work to fill those hours. See Timothy Ferriss’ 4 Hour Work Week for more on this.

Another way in which overwork decreases total output is that it uses up the internal resources that enable you to work well. In Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys To Transforming the Way We Work and Live, Tony Schwartz describes how humans naturally need to “pulse” between work and renewal in other areas of their lives. Effective workers, Schwartz demonstrates, have a work routine that allows time out on a daily, weekly, monthly, and annual basis. Too, such workers experience renewal in other areas of their lives: emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual.

If you are working more than 40 hours a week, each extra hour is an hour away from something else that means something to you. Maybe you don’t have time to visit the gym, to make your partner dinner, to meditate, or to play a game with your friends. Each of us is a whole person, the person who goes to work each day is the same one who comes home. So if your work is adversely affecting you outside of work, it’s also adversely affecting you inside work. A poorer personal life leaves you deprived of the internal resources needed to work effectively.

If you make people work longer, less work will get done. Yet just knowing this isn’t enough. There are still various barriers between you and a sustainable – and productive – work life.


When it comes to working less, what’s getting in your way?

Your manager makes you less productive.

Sometimes you can’t choose to work productively because your manager doesn’t give you a choice. Many modern managers are bad managers: they demand extra hours from their staff, completely oblivious to the adverse impact on staff output – let alone staff wellbeing. If you are in this situation you could:

  • Actively stand up to your boss – join your union and organise with others in the workplace!
  • You could passively stand up to your boss – let them say their piece, but still have the breaks that are your right.
  • You could find a new manager, or a new job.
  • You could accept their demands and suffer the consequences for your productivity, health and wellbeing.

Unfortunately due to the conditions and power relationships in many workplaces many workers end up taking the last option.

But even with a good manager who doesn’t expect you to work overtime, it still isn’t necessarily easy…

The voices in your head want you to work more.

A primary barrier to a productive worklife is “projection”. First conceptualised by Freud (although possibly in a different context), projection is when you subconsciously reject a negative attribute of your own, defensively pushing it on to others. Or, as Trent Hamm puts it more concisely: “you’re putting your own thoughts into their heads”. Have you ever left work early, or told a coworker you couldn’t take on that extra project, only to then think to yourself how slack people must think you are? Feeling judged or lazy is a serious disincentive to working less.

In this situation, it’s important to recognise that these are your own thoughts. We can’t know what others think of us, and if we are concerned that our manager thinks we’re freeloading, that’s a conversation better brought out into the open. Rather, these thoughts reflect our own self-judgement and discomfort – given the dominant culture of overwork – with looking after our own selves adequately. Recognising these thoughts for what they are can help us to accept them without being controlled by them.

You want to work as much as everybody else does.

Workplace culture can also be a barrier to working less. Glen Ochre of The Groupwork Institute describes culture as “the way we really do things around here”, and this definition perfectly captures the potential problems. Even if it is explicitly OK to restrict one’s work to 40 hours a week, it is implicitly not OK to do so if everyone else in the office is working unpaid overtime. We’re all accustomed to discerning the difference between what people say and what they do, between what people say is acceptable and what actually is acceptable. The leaders in a workplace have great influence over its culture, and their behaviour – more so than any induction manual – indicates what is expected of others. The risk is thus that the leaders themselves work a great deal of unpaid overtime, and other staff feel compelled to do the same – because that’s the way people really do things.


The way people actually work is more significant than what they say.

There are two ways to mitigate this risk. The best way? For leaders to model sustainable work practices. If your manager walks out of the office with a surfboard at 5pm on Friday afternoon, it makes it OK for you to spend more time with your family. If your manager never calls or emails you outside work hours, you know that it’s OK for you to have boundaries too. This is true leadership that means much more to employees than any words could.

But a manager’s sustainable work practices may not be apparent to staff. In which case the best option might simply be honest communication: talking to staff about what expectations actually are, while naming the implicit pressures that might exist. For example: “Lots of people here do lots of work, but each one of them has found a balance that allows them to do their best possible work. I encourage you to do the same – even if, and especially if, that means working fewer hours.” While few things are stronger than culture, open and ongoing discussion around workplace norms can give people permission to look after themselves as they need.

But there’s so much work to be done!

Even if you have decided to finish work on time it’s hard to say no to a last minute urgent-and-important request. Put on the spot our sense of responsibility or concern that people like us can trump our commitment to balance.

But let’s face it – there’s always more work to do, and at some point you have to turn off for the day. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to turn off if you are in the middle of your best work, or if you desperately need to meet a deadline that’s one hour off. But the mere fact of there being more work doesn’t mean that you should do it now. And, in fact, if that deadline is tomorrow, or a week off, you’re probably more likely to meet it if you have a break in the meanwhile.

Katrina Shields, in In the Tiger’s Mouth, talks about “the urgency of now” – this moment can always seem like the most important moment, this action like the most important action. But is it? Asks Shields, “Do you believe that if you just work a little harder it will stem the flood of demands? Do you put life on hold until everything is cleared up? Unfortunately in most cases the demands are endless.”

Yes there’s a lot of work to be done. It can probably wait.

Work It Out

Work can be immensely rewarding. It’s possible to wake up energised by the thought of what you’ll achieve at work that day. It’s possible to glance at the clock, see that it’s 5pm, but decide you want to finish writing that paper you’re right in the middle of. This is all healthy.
What isn’t healthy, whether you love your work or not, is overwork.

So, if you want to do the best work you can, do less work. Centuries of research and experience point to a lesson that is pretty obvious even after just one 60-hour workweek: humans don’t work well if they work more than 40 hours a week. Yes, there are barriers to working less. There are bad managers, your sneaky subconscious, insidious workplace cultures – not to mention the deluge of emails in your inbox.
But you can do this. You can give yourself permission to chill. You owe it to your employer, you owe it to your clients, perhaps you owe it to your social change mission. Above all, you owe it to yourself. Work less. You’ll work better, and you’ll feel better.


Joel DignamAbout the author

Joel Dignam is a passionate youth activist interested in community organising, volunteer management, and social media. He has worked (paid and unpaid) with collectives active on Environmentalism and Peace, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), the Oaktree Foundation, the Groupwork Institute of Australia, and United Voice Victoria. He is currently Party Organiser with the ACT Greens.


This article was originally published on Joel’s blog Scit Necessitas where he explores a range of eclectic topics including activism and relationships.

What have you figured out about your working hours? Are you going home on time today?