A century ago, economists believed that you could predict how poor someone was by how much he or she worked. The whole point of earning wealth, they argued, was that it afforded you less toil and more downtime. But somewhere in the annals of America’s workaholic culture, putting in inhuman hours at your job became a status symbol, especially for the elite. Today’s high-flying executives are some of the worst offenders. Apple CEO Tim Cook gets up at 3:45 a.m. each day to fire off work emails, and is often the first one in the office and the last one to leave. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has bragged about pulling all-nighters at her desk. Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban once didn’t take a vacation for seven years. These executives continue to put in grueling 100- hour workweeks long after they’ve made more money than they could hope to spend in a lifetime. Why? Because in our workobsessed society, busyness has become something that we aspire to. It signals that we are in demand, and that our time has value.
You could argue these executives are doing what they love, and that meaningful work provides a real sense of fulfillment. But all that industriousness probably isn’t making them more creative or productive. Some of history’s most accomplished figures across science, math, and literature—people like Charles Darwin, Henri Poincaré, and Charles Dickens—insisted on working just four or five hours a day. (See Last Word.) The rest of their mornings and afternoons were filled with long walks and other leisurely pursuits that recharged their mental batteries and gave rise to creative ideas. Studies of exceptional performers and athletes reveal similar work/rest patterns, with just a few hours a day of serious, focused effort. No one expects corporate America to suddenly start breaking for afternoon naps. But the next time your colleague sends an urgent 10 p.m. email, you might tell him, quite literally, to go take a hike.