The perils of unnecessary overtime

When I was a summer clerk at a big law firm, I used to secretly compete with the other summer clerks, to see who could stay the longest, and who had the most work to do. I’d make sure I was first in the office and desperately tried to be the last summer clerk to leave.

But longer hours don’t mean you’re working harder or getting more done.   I was so busy looking busy that I was distracted, tired and totally bored stupid. In fact, I do recall that I fell asleep in a morning meeting once- very embarrassing. It took me a while to realise that no one had noticed me soldiering on late into the evening, so my “efforts” were all in vain.

Some days, I feel like I’m watching myself from five years ago: summer clerks still soldier on late into the evening, they don’t take lunch breaks, and they don’t seem to muster up much conversation – for fear of looking like a slacker. They often outstay the lawyers, which amazes me.

I get it, you’re desperate to make a good impression and show the boss you work hard. You want that career progression and grad position! Or maybe you’re hoping those hours transfer into a lotto ticket for an extra bonus at the end of the year (trust me they don’t).

The boss can see you work hard. And provided you haven’t done anything too strange, chances are you have made a good impression. Of course, the boss is never going to tell you not to work the hours. If she or he fosters the habit of staff staying late, it’s a plus for her/him.

That aside, staying late when you don’t need to soon become the precedent you set. Your colleagues will grow to rely on it and expect you to stay. If you’re doing overtime everyday then that’s a habit you’re creating. Is that really a standard you want to maintain?

If matters arise that are urgent, pressing deadlines loom or a colleague asks for help, staying late may be necessary. Setting clear boundaries about staying only when you really need to shows others that your time is be respected, and is not a freebie you give away five days a week. Whilst you’re committed to your job, you also have a life outside of work.

In many respects, staying late only in necessary circumstances, demonstrates your ability to identify what’s urgent and what’s not. Learning to differentiate the two sounds like basic common sense, and it is. It’s not hard, it just requires you to put down your pen and think of your priorities.

Face time at the office can actually reduce your efficiency and your output. More hours in the day don’t necessarily mean you’re getting more done. In fact, studies have shown that you’re far less productive working anything over 50 hours a week. Anything over 55 hours has been proven to be counterproductive.

Us Corporate humans can’t mentally focus for 12 hours straight. You can’t perform at your best when your hungry, distracted and tired.

If you know you’ve only got 8 hours in a day, you’re going to need to start planning and organising your day before it even begins. It’ll take a bit of practice to develop a habit of planning, focusing all day and walking out the door at 5:10 pm, but you’ll be more productive for it and enjoy your day more. Think about the objective, and ask yourself, “what am I trying to achieve by doing X?”. When you know what you’re working towards, you’re more focused and able to cut out unnecessary tasks, and hone in on the pivotal parts that are going to enable you to get the job done.

I look back at my time as a summer clerk and laugh because now I look for every opportunity to leave on time. I have a life as well, that doesn’t get lived sitting in an office after hours. Perhaps we enjoy the irony, we stay late when we don’t need to, and leave early when we really shouldn’t?


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3 thoughts on “The perils of unnecessary overtime

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