Most of us with full-time jobs don’t work nearly as much as we think we do. Very few people who claim to work 80, 90, or 100 hours a week actually log that kind of time. But in the course of asking people to record the 168 hours we all have each week for I Know How She Does It, I did come across one woman who was, in fact, working 100 hours a week. We’ll call her Dorothy for now.
It’s not that she was spending 100 hours a week on a work trip. She was actually in her office, on the computer, for 100 hours. This was possible because her office was at her home — she ran her own accounting firm — but she clearly wasn’t getting any flexibility benefits from being self-employed!
She told me that she felt like all she did was work and sleep, and she wanted to spend more time with her kids. But she was the primary breadwinner for her family, and so she worried about cutting back. She didn’t think it was feasible to hire staff for her business, so she was doing all the work herself. She hadn’t taken a day off in more than 5 years.
When I heard that, I knew we weren’t dealing with quite a normal situation. I am not a therapist, so I didn’t want to delve into the issues of why people work long hours when they don’t want to — particularly in her case, when there was no boss involved — but I did email back a few observations:
- Most breadwinners are able to support their families working 40-50 hours per week.
- Consequently, I wondered if there was a problem with her business model — either her family’s expenses were too high, or her rates were too low. I suspected it was the latter, but in either case, she needed to do something about it or the health problems she’d mentioned were not going to improve. While I’m not a doctor either, it’s hard to imagine that working 100 hours a week is good for anyone’s health!
I realized this was a bit curt, so I was curious to see what her response would be. Imagine my surprise when she sent me an email that started with the word “hugs.” It turned out that not only was her family living well within their means, she hadn’t raised her rates since 1997. She had been more willing to steal time from nurturing her family and herself than negotiate for better compensation. And she was glad to have someone point this out to her.
Given that she hadn’t raised her rates in 12 years, I imagined that she could probably get away with an increase easier than most businesses, but we also decided that there was another solution — she could fire her most problematic client. This particular client was a big source of her stress and was, by itself, taking 40 hours per week. Since she didn’t need to earn as much as she was currently earning, she could terminate her contract with this client, and hence get herself back to a far more reasonable workweek.
I also challenged her to simply take a day off. There would never be a perfect time, and I was sure her clients wouldn’t mind a few hours of no availability. Some might think it was a family emergency, and in a way it was! She agreed to try this out.
I’m happy to report that last time we touched base, Dorothy’s lawyer had drafted a letter outlining the terms of ending the contract with the stress-inducing client. Dorothy had also shut the office door at 2:30PM one afternoon and had gone with her kids to the pool. She also spent another evening toasting marshmallows with them, rather than hunching over her work. These may sound like small steps, but remember, this woman hadn’t taken a day off in years. Given that the earth did not crash into the sun during her time at the pool, I imagine she’ll try this again soon.
Like I said, I think Dorothy’s story is instructive, because while many people don’t work as much as they think they do, some people work a lot just…because. Particularly if you’re in a situation where every additional hour leads to additional revenue, it can be hard to say no. Since work can always expand to fill the available time, you have to be willing to examine both your business model (does your income match or exceed your family’s needs?) and your priorities. You can’t wait for a perfect time to do non-work stuff. You simply have to do it, and trust that few things explode when you are not available for a little while. After all, if you were hit by a bus, people would figure something out. They figure something out while you sleep. So it’s not a huge leap to assume they’ll figure something out while you take the evening off for a family dinner or a weekend day off to go to the park.
A version of this post originally appeared on Laura Vanderkam’s website.