In general I think overtime is usually pretty dumb.
How much can the productivity of two people differ? Can one person be 100 times more productive than another person? An easier question to say yes to (although it’s the same question) might be: could someone be just 1/100th as productive as you? Yes, of course they could.
There’s a false belief shared by many that says you get twice as much done in 80 hours as in 40 hours. That might be true for one particular week. I don’t think it’s true stretched across a career. For those people who are 100 times as productive as others, it’s of course not because they work 100 times as much. High achievers increase their leverage by becoming more knowledgeable and finding more effective ways of working.
I do think that overtime is sometimes necessary and a good idea. I happen to be in the middle of a stretch right now where I’m working a lot of hours. I committed to 40 billable hours per week with a client, and then I have other responsibilities on top of that, like email, various administrative tasks, and my product business.
I think the tragedy is when people confuse an investment with a donation. I used to work with a guy at an agency who would regularly put in 70-hour weeks even though he was salary. He was working on client projects for clients he would never meet. As far as I could gather, no one appreciated his extra time. He might have thought he was making an investment in his career by working all this overtime, but really, since no one was noticing his overtime, he was just making a donation. It’s dumb to make donations to for-profit companies. My current overtime situation is justifiable to me because it’s totally mercenary. The more I work, the more I get paid. Money is what I want right now so I’m working as much as I can. I’ll be using some of this money to help situate myself so I don’t have to work as hard in the future.
Another bad reason for overtime is bad planning. Just because a manager committed to an unrealistic timeline doesn’t mean you’re all the sudden on the hook for a bunch of overtime. “Bad planning on your part doesn’t translate to an emergency on my part.” You might think you’re a hero for trying to meet the unrealistic deadline. It’s possible that you’ll be seen that way. It’s also possible that your overtime will go unnoticed or unappreciated. It’s also possible that you’ll send a signal to management that you’re okay with this “bad planning = overtime” arrangement and make yourself a candidate to receive more such jobs in the future.
Then there are genuine emergencies. If there’s a genuine emergency and refuse to work overtime, then you’re of course just a dick.
Overtime is also pointless if you dilute yourself, through lack of sleep or whatever, to the point of being, say, 50% as productive as normal. What good is it to work 80 hours if you’re only being half as productive? What’s worse yet, and probably not that uncommon, is when you drive yourself to be 0% as productive as normal. You’re just a zombie, sitting there, pretending to work. I’ve done that before. Pure stupidity.
Here’s what my advice would be to someone considering some overtime. Ask yourself these questions:
- Is this an emergency or just bad planning?
- By working this overtime, and I diluting my own productivity such that the overtime is actually a net loss?
- Will my extra effort be appreciated or even noticed?
- Am I making an investment or a donation?
However I don’t think most people have the leverage or power to say no in work setting. How would such people be able to implement your advice?
You can of course always say no, no matter what. They might fire you for it but that’s not always so bad. In general, your ability to comfortably reject bullshit is proportional to your marketability as an employee. If you know you could immediately get a job somewhere else if you lost this one, you can say whatever you feel like to your employer without too much fear. If you’re junior-level and you’re not that marketable yes, best be an ass-kisser until you become more valuable.