During the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been working more than usual—especially at night. Apparently I wasn’t the only one.
A survey with 10,000 respondents showed that Americans devote about 35% of their time savings to their primary jobs. And most of us save a lot of time during a pandemic.
While most articles focus on the mental toll of work and stress, I hardly hear people talking about the physical toll of knowledge work. Of course, it’s not comparable to manual labor.
But still, too much desk work also leads to physical issues. I’ve had neck pain, back pain, dry eyes, and headaches from putting in too much work.
And I do everything to avoid those things. I lift weights, walk at least 10k steps a day (I recently bought a foldable treadmill that I’ve put underneath my standing desk), eat healthily, sleep 8.5 hrs a night, meditate, take breaks throughout the day, and live worry-free. But here’s still a limit to how much I can work on an average day before I start breaking down my body.
The truth is that some of us find it difficult to stop working all day. We trick ourselves into believing that “I’m not doing any manual labor, so I can work all day.”
A study from RescueTime, a popular time-tracking app, showed that 40% of their users were working at night (they were active on their computers after 10 PM). And that was before the pandemic.
It doesn’t matter what the reason is that you work a lot. Maybe you simply love your work so much you can’t stop. For most of us, there’s an inverse relationship between the number of hours we work and the effects it has on our lives.
Too much work is counterproductive
A student of Procrastinate Zero 2, my online class about improving productivity, recently wrote this in our community when we were talking about our goals: “I work 8h a day, most times more than that. I am also building a blog.”
I wrote, “Why work more than 8hrs?” I was talking from experience here. While I’ve gotten a lot better with taking on more work over the years, I’m not a robot. Most of us assume that more hours equals more output. That’s just not true.
The same study from RescueTime shows that people are only productive for 2 hours and 48 minutes a day (working on their most important tasks). Of course, that’s an average. And most people who are into productivity are more productive than that.
To figure out how many hours I’m productive each day, I occasionally keep an activity log. For a week or two, I write down what I’ve done after every hour of work. Over the past 5 years, I’ve done this several times a year. Guess what? I’m only productive for around 4 to 5 hours a day. That’s how much time I can spend on writing articles and running my business.
The 8-hour workday is a fallacy for knowledge workers. Most of us are not capable of doing actual productive work for multiple hours a day. Why is working more counterproductive? You risk burnout. And no one likes to be out of the running for longer periods of time.
What I do to limit working at night
During the day, I usually call it quits when I’ve completed 3-4 priorities for that day. My biggest pitfall is working at night—that’s how I end up working too much. So here’s what I do to avoid taking that too far.
1. I turn off my work devices before 10 PM
When I actually power off my devices, I don’t feel like turning them on. I also feel like I closed the workday by turning off my computer. When it’s in sleep mode, or if my laptop is laying on the couch, I feel like I can continue at any time. That’s why it’s important to have some kind of mental ritual that helps you “close” your workday.
Another thing that works well for me is to tuck away my laptop. I either put it in a drawer or in my backpack. It’s about making it difficult for yourself to work.
2. I put books everywhere in my house
I make it harder for myself to do work at night and easier to read. Since I like to read a bunch of books at the same time, I have books everywhere. When you see your books or Kindle, it’s easier to pick it up. What works best for me is to have a wide variety of books around. I just read what I feel like reading.
3. I use sleep mode on iOS
Before I started this strategy, I once messaged Karl, who’s handling customer support on my team, late in the evening. We have a timezone difference. I think it was 10 PM for me, and middle of the night for him. He forgot to turn off his notifications and woke up because of the sound.
So he thought, “I’m awake anyway, I’ll reply.” My initial thought was, “Dude, why do you have your notifications on?” But then, I thought, “Why am I messaging Karl at 10 PM about something that’s not urgent?”
Turning off our notifications is not enough. We need to power off our devices. But since I don’t want to do that with my phone because of emergencies, I use sleep mode on iOS.
It basically locks your screen, doesn’t display any notifications (so you can’t quickly peek at what you’ve missed), and it reminds you to go to bed!
The tortoise always beats the jackrabbit
Do you remember the race between Cecil Turtle and Bugs Bunny? It was based on an Aesop fable. The story is about not underestimating your opponent.
In real life, you have a tortoise and jackrabbit inside you. The latter urges you to go fast, and the former tells you to go slow, but steady. In your life and career, you’re better off listening more to the tortoise inside you.
While it’s good to sprint at times, we should not become complacent and think we can always rely on our speed. At some point, we will lose your agility. But if we go at it slowly, it doesn’t matter.
That’s why we should avoid working too much—especially at night. You will achieve more results by making a little bit of progress every day, month, and year.