Productivity gurus love to write about how we shouldn’t overwork ourselves. They’ll say things like, “If you stay late, you’re just being inefficient.” Or “there’s more to life than work”. And up till recently, I agreed with them. I used to make fun of people who stayed in the office till 10pm and didn’t have a life.
Until I became one of them.
It all started when I had to generate a regular bi-weekly statistics report. Now, generating statistics isn’t the most sexy task in the world, so I decided to create a simple Excel template that would help me quickly manipulate the data I needed. I’d done templates like this before, so I figured that it should be pretty easy.
Except that it wasn’t easy, and I started getting annoyed at myself.
And so I began to obsess over this template. I started coming into the office early and leaving at 9pm. I skipped 3 exercise sessions. Many emails went unanswered. Last weekend, when I was supposed to be blogging, I went to the office so that I could work uninterrupted – on Saturday AND Sunday. I was a wreck.
And then late on Sunday, after working for several hours, I pasted my data into the right columns, and poof! The template I’d been working on just worked. It was pure magic.
I did a little dance around my empty office – even though I had the shittiest week ever, it was worth it.
Everyone talks about having a “balanced lifestyle”, but there was also no way I could have created that template if I’d left the office on time every day.
So this little episode got me thinking: When is it ok to obsess about your work?
When You Want To Accomplish Something Great
Cal Newport wrote a post recently about how obsession can be a productivity tool.
Some context here: Cal is pretty much the most productive and balanced blogger I follow. He’s a full-time assistant professor at Georgetown, runs a popular blog, has written 4 books, AND he doesn’t work in the evenings or on weekends. Oh, and he has a kid. Dang!
Cal normally plans his day and week in excruciating detail, so I was surprised when he ignored his carefully laid-out plans to work out a bothersome theorem that was bugging him.
In a weird way, it was kind of a relief: I’d been feeling bad over how I’d been “inefficient” I’d been the entire week. But it was only after reading Cal’s post that I realised that even the most productive/successful people get a little crazy about work sometimes.
In Cal’s words:
“If I hadn’t allowed the relevant problem to evolve into an obsession, I might not have solved it. They required lots of hours of deep thinking under lots of conditions: both products of obsession.
Important things are hard to do. Obsession supports hard accomplishment.“
Having a “balanced lifestyle” and leaving at 5.30pm is nice, but there are some times when you need to be a little obsessed.
Last year, I spent the greater part of 6 months writing an ebook I was immensely proud of. (It’s not on sale now, because I’m working on something even better). I woke up at 5.30am to write every day, and often wrote late into the night when I came back from work. There were days when I would write for 9 hours at a stretch.
It’s important to work like crazy when you have the momentum. Let a large project drag, and you’ll become less likely to finish it. Obsess over it for an intensely focused period, and you might just push out something great.
Most serious entrepreneurs work crazy hours trying to ship a product that they truly believe in. The smartest employees stay late in the office during crunch time because it’s their opportunity to shine.
Having a balanced lifestyle is nice, but sometimes you just need to be a little obsessed if you want to achieve something great.
When It’s A Time Asset
It’s easy to understand that obsession might be necessary if you’re starting your own company or writing a book. But what if you’re not terribly excited about the task you’re doing?
Jobs aren’t always about glamorous events and high bonuses – there will always be certain parts of it that you don’t enjoy, but need to get done anyway. (let me know if you find a job that you TOTALLY love every aspect of).
In my case, it was generating that routine bi-weekly report full of numbers. I don’t have any illusions: that report isn’t going to cure cancer or change the world. In my resume, I’m not going to write, “Generated the most kickass reports the world has ever seen!!”. But it still had to be done.
Which brings me to the second instance when it’s ok to obsess over your work: When it’s a TIME ASSET.
Productivity blogger James Clear wrote about the concept of Time Assets recently. In his words:
“Time Assets are actions or choices you make today that will save you time in the future.
Software is a classic example of a time asset. You can write a program one time today and it will run processes for you over and over again every day afterward. You pay an upfront investment of time and get a payoff each day afterward.”
Increasing your computer’s RAM is a time asset. Creating canned responses to common questions is a time asset. When it comes to personal finance, creating and setting up a personal finance system is a time asset.
And in my case, creating that Excel template was a time asset. Yes, I spent more time on it now than I would have preferred. But it’ll probably save me around 4-6 hours a month and help me avoid countless mistakes in the future. (Time will tell)
This way, I can free up more time to focus on the Great Accomplishments: things that could really move the needle.
And for that, I personally think that my burnt weekend was well worth it.
Obsess Only When Needed
I’m not saying that you should obsess about your work ALL the time.
For 80% of your work, you shouldn’t be staying late or sacrificing your health, sleep and relationships. Fire-fighting and “kancheong”-but-unimportant tasks from your boss are simply not worth it. (I know, easier said than done).
For the most part, constant overwork just isn’t a good idea. It makes you more prone to mistakes, less efficient, more grumpy, and it’s generally bad for everyone all around.
But sometimes, it’s GOOD to obsess about your work, within boundaries.
But before you grab another Starbucks to fuel you through the night, ask yourself:
- Am I trying to accomplish something great?
- Is this a time asset?
If the answer is “No” for both questions, close your laptop and go to sleep.