Columnist Eileen Tyrrell shares the toxicity of over-hours "productivity."

Every day, my roommate and I have a conversation that goes something like this.

Me: Hey, how’s your day been? 

My roommate: Good, I’ve actually been so productive today! How about you?

Me: Eh, not so great; I haven’t really gotten anything done yet. 

Or perhaps it’s the other way around, and I’m the productive one. Or maybe neither of us is having a “good” day. You get the point. However the conversation spins, it’s always — I mean, 98 percent of the time — centered around our internal punch clocks. A good day means the Amazon warehouse manager of my mind is happy. A bad day means I’m committing time fraud. The amount of sheer stuff that gets done each day has become a kind of shorthand for the quality of that day, with no time to stop and think about whether that makes for a good quality of life.  

In reality, a huge proportion of Americans are stuck in jobs they don’t like. Why, then, have we designated the amount of hours we spend working each week as our measuring stick for success? Why don’t we place more value on, say, the amount of hours we spend on our hobbies, with friends and family and resting? 

I certainly find the time that I spend doing those things more fulfilling and enjoyable than when I’m clocked into Workday. Yet I often feel a vague sense of guilt when I choose to get a full night of sleep or when I spend my weekend relaxing rather than slaving away on schoolwork. After all, Elon Musk sometimes works 120 hours per week. If I truly want to be successful, maybe I should strive to be more like him.  

This laser focus on productivity and time spent working is neither new nor uniquely American, but it does seem to have taken on a new level of monstrosity in the last year, with the pandemic blurring the line between work and home.

The advent of working from home and Zoom calls on top of an already huge technological sector devoted to productivity makes it all the more possible to simply never stop working. In fact, the last thing I do before bed and the first thing I do in the morning, almost every single day, is check my email on the Gmail app. Do I enjoy doing this? No. But ignoring the looming possibility of a critical work or school update feels even worse.  

The ironic (and super obvious) part of all this is that pushing people to maximize their work hours and never truly clock out just serves to make workers more burned out and less effective. Research suggests that decreasing mandatory work hours often serves to boost productivity; in other words, workers can get just as much work done in 35 hours as they can in 40. And luckily, some countries and organizations are starting to recognize this 

New Zealand recently experimented with a 32-hour workweek (while still paying employees for 40 hours) and is now considering making the policy permanent. The city of Provo, Utah, has functioned on a four-day workweek for years. Not all workweek cuts have been successful; in some instances, transitioning to a shorter workweek has resulted in layoffs and higher deficits. But I think the key here is starting the conversation about what type of hours and work schedules are actually effective and which ones are just doing more harm than good.  

When you’re expected to be available to co-workers and managers 24/7, you aren’t actually working from home; you’re just living at work. Call me crazy, but I don’t want to live like that. It’s time that we start prioritizing smart and sustainable ways of working rather than the nightmarish hellscape Elon Musk lives in.

I’ll go first. I’m never answering a “How are you?” question with an answer about my productivity levels again.

Eileen Tyrrell profile

Eileen Tyrrell is a senior in civil engineering and global resource systems.

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(3) comments

Matthew Brown

Thank you for sharing your writing talents and timely perspective with the ISU community, both students and faculty/staff alike,

As an advisor for Chemical Engineering majors, I know some of the academic rigor and expectations that surround your undergraduate student experience. Like you said, there are moments where we can all choose what to focus on, love and respect ourselves enough to step away from studies / work without inflicting self-guilt or being consumed by real or imagined expectations and comparisons, and perhaps be even more successful in the narrow measure that too often feels like the only measure of success and only pathway to happiness.

Well done and best wishes over the final weeks of the semester and beyond. Thank you for choosing Iowa State, the College of Engineering, and Optimism!

Dawson Schmitt

Thanks for this! I am definitely a person who measures my productivity for the day by how much I work, so it can be hard for me to slow down when I need it most!

I have seen the studies about the 32-hour workweek, however, it is hard for me to agree that we should switch to that. I am definitely a person who likes to make as much money as I can being in the early stages of my life. But this is a good reminder that I need to recognize when to take a step back and focus on my relationships with family and friends as well!

Jim Baxley

If Americans exerted as much effort to better themselves as they do complaining about how bad they have it (or how much better someone in New Zealand has it), they'd very likely be a lot happier. When did this nation turn into a bunch of whiners and quitters?

News flash: There will ALWAYS be someone wealthier, healthier, better looking, smarter, and happier at their job than you are. Should that make you unhappy? Of course not.

Delete your Facebook account, get your nose out of your phone, and get out there and MAKE the life that you want. Nobody is going to hand one to you. Just please spare us your whining.

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