In the 3.5 years* that have passed since quitting my engineering career, I've had months where I earned $0 and months where I've earned $90,000 or more (6 times so far):
I’ve learnt something really interesting going from $0 to $233,000/month.
- Being overworked kind of sucks.
- Being overworked while making lots of money still sucks just as much.
I’m going to break down exactly why this is the case, as well as why we continually get stuck in the overworked trap using real data (my own) collected over the last few years. Then I'll explain exactly what you should do to get out of this trap once and for all. No matter which end of the income spectrum you sit on.
First, let’s start with some basics.
Don't Fall Into This Trap: Overworked Vs Working Hard
First of all, let’s clearly separate ‘being overworked’ from ‘hard work’.
- ‘Hard work’ is applying consistent and focused effort towards something, for some period of time. It is not a bad thing at all.
- ‘Overworked’ is working hard until it becomes a negative influence on your life.
You might be familiar with some of the characteristics & symptoms of being overworked, which sound something like this:
- You routinely rely on weekends to catch up on sleep you missed during the week.
- You dread Mondays and dream of Fridays.
- Your body, brain or eyes are routinely fatigued or in pain as a result of work.
- You feel a constant background stress due to work issues.
- You find it hard to ‘switch off’ outside of work.
Those all sound pretty crap. So why do we put ourselves through this so often? Is it because we want...
- To be rich?
- To be successful & important?
- To save for the future?
- To give ourselves or our family a better life?
- To be happy?
- To achieve purpose & meaning?
- To survive?
Some of these may be worthy goals. But if you’ve found yourself entering into ‘overworked’ territory in the pursuit of one or more of these goals, here’s the rub. If working harder and harder should get you closer to this future goal where ‘life is better’ in some quantifiable way…
- Why isn’t your life getting better?
- What is it that you should ACTUALLY be doing to make your life better?
In the rest of this post I’m going to expose a fundamental truth that will provide the answer to both of these questions. The fundamental truth comes down to a relationship between 3 key metrics:
- Time worked
Let’s continue. But first, a common objection.
The “Why Should I Try?” / “Why Should I Care?” Response
You might see this response closely associated with the “life is tough, suck it up” attitude. Unfortunately, this attitude is very common. And hey, maybe they’re right. Maybe it doesn’t matter and we should just keep our heads down and keep doing the same thing we’ve always been doing - because life is hard. And that’s how it’s supposed to be.
If you see no benefit in maximizing & enjoying life, then cool. By the way, you might be a nihilist.
Or maybe you believe that you don’t have the ability to control your working conditions. But you do have this ability. I’ll explain this more later in the article. Here is why I try, why I care and why it matters a lot to me:
- My life is all I have;
- Someday, it will end forever, and I will no longer have it; and
- I want to enjoy my life as much as I can, while I have it.
That’s it really. I have never felt like a naturally 'happy' or 'bubbly' person, but this life is all we’ve got. Your life is all you have. So isn’t it worth expending a little more conscious effort now, to be able to maximise your happiness and enjoyment for the rest of your days? In my opinion, it is worth it. And that is why I hope that you care too.
Income, Happiness & Time Worked: Definitions & Data Collection Methodology
For years I've rigorously tracked 'life KPIs' to measure my own success & progression in life. These are the relevant three I want to talk about today:
- Time Worked
The data I will cover below is taken over this period from late 2017 through to the end of 2019. If you’re interested in life optimization and self improvement like I am, here is a description of each and the tools I use to measure them. Otherwise, feel free to skip ahead to the next section.
Income: How I Measured My “Salary”
Right now I don't pay myself a regular salary, so instead I count net profit across my businesses at the end of each month. This is the best proxy as it goes to me one way or another in the end. Both my businesses have fairly predictable cost structures so I can do this reasonably accurately (to a few percent) & jot it down in my personal KPI dashboard at the end of each month.
Happiness: How I Measure It
I measure happiness with daily check-ins on a subjective scale of 1-100% based on specific factors that make me happy: relationships, fitness, adventure, meaningful work, mental balance, sex, and nature. This is the scale I use:
- 10-40% I have never rated myself this low. I guess it would be a deep depression, complete isolation from society, or mental breakdown.
- 50-70% I’m feeling grumpy, stressed, tired or anxious and distracted. I’m not satisfied, and I’m thinking that life could be a lot better. But I’m still whole and alive.
- 80-90% I’m content, smiling, and I can feel positive energy radiating from within me. I feel grateful for the world and my environment. On days like these, I feel I have a lot to give.
- 100% I’ve never rated my happiness this high. I guess it would be a euphoric high, perhaps temporarily drug induced.
Long term, I average around 75% happiness, and 85-90% is pretty normal when I do not have any chronic stressors present in my environment.
Warning: definitions of happiness may vary! I could also describe what I’m measuring as fulfilment or contentment - something quite subtle, deep and satisfying.
Working Time: How I Measured It
I use a free tool called Toggl. I activate it whenever I am working. It does not include any hours spent thinking about work (at night in bed, on the plane etc). Since it’s just a button click to start/stop, this is pretty much accurate to within a few minutes each day. This is what Toggl looks like on my desktop:
FYI these hours aren’t comparable to ‘office hours’: an 8-10 hour office day includes things like breaks, eating, socializing and a lot of timewasting. I do not track any of this nonproductive time, so for me a 8-10 hour day is a really big day.
Therefore when you see the data below, understand that 180 logged hours is significantly more difficult to maintain than the 180 hours per month of an average 9-5 job.
HOW & WHY Being Overworked Makes You Unhappy (Data & Results)
We’re going to analyse the Income, Happiness & Time Worked variables over time to see what information we can draw out. Let’s start by testing the most obvious assumption.
1. Income Vs Happiness
What we want is happiness. Happiness is the goal, and money is an indirect means to the goal of happiness. We work to make money, so we can get happiness in one form or another. The more we work, the more money we earn (hopefully). So the more money we make, the happier we get, right?
No. See below:
You probably get the idea just by looking at the graph, but if not: to test the strength of the relationship between two variables, we plot them and then measure the Correlation Coefficient, or R², between the two variables:
- R² = 1 is the strongest possible correlation. The two variables are directly linked.
- R² > 0.5 is a medium to strong correlation. There is a strong relationship between the two variables.
- R² < 0.5 is a weaker correlation. The variables are linked, but not very closely.
- And R² = 0 means the two variables are completely uncorrelated - there is no relationship linking them.
So for Happiness Vs Income, what conclusion can we draw?
Happiness vs Income R² = 0.0035.
There is no correlation between happiness and income.
Also, this excludes data from 2016 - where I was very happy and was earning nothing. Including these data points would drop the correlation even closer to zero. So this is the smoking gun, right here.
I am just as likely to be happy earning $100,000 - 200,000 / month, as I am earning $20,000 / month.
And it’s significantly harder to earn $200,000 than it is to earn $20,000. It takes a lot more work. So, if you are driving yourself into the ground working, to accumulate a larger bank account balance, in order to achieve greater happiness, you are operating on false assumptions. Your efforts are doomed to failure. Now take a look around your workplace. Do you see people doing this? Are they happy people? Now you know why.
But this doesn’t provide any actual guidance - we need to find a better solution. What should we aim for instead? Let’s bring time into the equation and consider Hourly Income vs Happiness.
2. Hourly Income Vs Happiness
Now we’re comparing happiness to time-based income i.e. how much we earn per hour. It makes more sense to include time in the equation, since time is the ultimate non-renewable resource and the foundational metric by which we measure our lives (literally: “lifetime”).
We aim for happiness - for a period of time: today, tomorrow, next year, when we retire. But we also we trade some of our limited time for money: today, tomorrow, this year, the next 30 years. This makes hourly income an efficiency metric: it represents how well we convert our non-renewable resource (time) into money. And then we convert that money into happiness (hopefully).
So, if our hourly income is high, and we are efficient at converting time into money, does that make us more happy?
No, it doesn’t either. See below:
Happiness Vs Hourly Income: R² = 0.00535
There is no correlation between happiness and hourly income.
I was certainly surprised when I realized that aiming for a high hourly rate still doesn’t pay off in the game of happiness.
My first big ‘a ha!’ moment as a young graduate engineer happened when I finally realized that what mattered much more than the big glossy six figure salaries in my industry, was the very real and very significant amount of personal life being sacrificed to obtain that salary.
I’m no philosopher, but at least Henry David Thoreau agrees with this approach:
“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
That exchange of life for money made a lot of my coworkers unhappy and stressed. It was a loser’s trade. Since that realization, I’d assumed that optimizing the hourly rate was the key to happiness. But this data shows that I was wrong:
- There is no correlation between happiness and absolute income.
- There is no correlation between happiness and hourly income.
So if we’re looking for a variable to optimize for happiness, this isn’t looking good. Luckily, we still have one other variable to test.
3. Time Worked vs Happiness
This is our last variable to test. Let’s dive in straight away and see how it looks:
THIS is the type of graph I was hoping to find. Less random noise, more obvious correlation.
Happiness Vs Hourly Income: R² = 0.5456
There is a strong correlation between happiness and working less.
So, to summarize what we have discovered so far:
- There is no correlation between happiness and absolute income.
- There is no correlation between happiness and hourly income.
- There is a strong correlation between happiness and working less.
Alright! So earning more money doesn’t make you happy. Earning more money per hour doesn’t make you happy. Working less makes you happy. So the solution is to just quit working. Right?
No, it’s not quite that simple.
Not Working Is Not The Answer
Obviously, there are at least two problems with this conclusion:
- Most people are not 100% financially independent & still need to work to financially sustain themselves.
- Most people do get value out of work. Remember that hard work is not a bad thing. Whether it is fulfilment, passion, relationships or whatever it may be, work has a place in our lives, especially if it is the right type of work.
For most of us, simply quitting our jobs and not working is not the answer. There’s one more idea we must understand.
In fact, it’s the most important one of all. Let’s talk about it now.
The Happiness-Optimizing Sweet Spot*
(*try not to giggle.)
There is a way to account for our innate need to work, while still recognizing that the goal of work is to actually make our personal life better in some way.
I’m calling it the Happiness Optimizing Sweet Spot. Since we already showed that income and hourly income do not affect happiness, we have to measure the Happiness Optimizing Sweet Spot in terms of Time Worked.
Let’s define it like this:
The Happiness Optimizing Sweet Spot is the amount of time worked that allows you to extract maximum value out of both your work life and your personal life.
In other words, it’s where you live your best life overall. And it’s a continuous spectrum, not a hit-or-miss target. But it exists. You have one. I have one too - here it is:
My Happiness Optimizing Sweet spot, in my current situation, is to work 50-100 hours per month. I’m happy (80-90%), I still make great money, and I get to live a really good life.
Of course this is all relative and mine is not equal to yours. There is only one way to know where your sweet spot is for your individual personality, your specific occupation and your specific workplace environment…
You have to evaluate it for yourself.
John vs Alice: Why The Happiness Optimizing Sweet Spot Is Different For Everyone
Not sure where your Happiness Optimizing Sweet Spot should be? Use the following list as a guideline.
- How fulfilling & enjoyable your work is
- How much good you believe you are doing for the world
- How much personal autonomy you feel that you have
- How close & positive are your personal relationships with your coworkers, team and clients/customers
- How challenging your work is & how much work time you spend in a state of Flow
- The physical workplace environment, comfort or hazards present
- How fulfilling & enjoyable your personal life is, relative to your work
- The same points as above, but applied to your personal relationships, pastimes & hobbies
- Your natural ability and predisposition to work
- Work is an inherently structured activity. Some people just feel better with less structure imposed on their life (and that is okay too)
This may not be a comprehensive list but it will get you 80% of the way there. Using the above factors, let’s look at two opposing examples (completely hypothetical):
Example 1: John is 40 years old and:
- Works 12 hour shifts in a smelter doing manual labor, producing lead ingots.
- Works in a dangerous and uncomfortable environment that presents both acute and chronic health risks.
- Very rarely works in a state of Flow as he long ago learnt all the basic work routines required in his job.
- Is not motivated by any intrinsic passion to produce lead ingots.
- Never gets to meet his customers - the real people whose lives are made better by John’s hard work.
Consequently, John works hard every day but never feels that his job is doing much good for the world. He’s often bored, is conscious of the damage slowly accumulating in his body and frankly doesn’t enjoy his job. John’s Happiness Optimizing Sweet Spot is probably somewhere close to 0 hours per month. If John didn’t need to earn money to live, John would be happiest not working this job at all, spending his time doing more enjoyable and fulfilling activities.
Example 2: Alice is 32 years old and:
- Is a partner in an online creative marketing agency
- Sets her own flexible work schedule & usually works in comfort from her home
- Constantly meets interesting new challenges in her job & regularly enters a state of Flow
- Has a growing list of happy customers who like and appreciate the work she does for them
Alice still encounters challenges and has bad days at work, just like John. But she likes her job. A lot. Every day she learns something new, gets to help her clients in a meaningful way, and more or less has her work life operating in harmony with her personal life. It pays well, but truth be told - Alice would still do it if it paid much less. Alice probably doesn’t have much to gain from learning about the Happiness Optimizing Sweet Spot. She’s already there.
Now, these examples contrast strongly in a lot of ways. Don’t infer any meaning behind manual labor vs online work, that is not the point. The point is: Are you John, or are you Alice? You must understand where on the spectrum you currently sit.
If you’re incredibly driven by what you do, if your work is your passion & your purpose, your sweet spot could be 200 hours worked per month or more. You really like what you do, so keep doing it! Just remember - it’s not about working less for the sake of working less. It’s about:
- Recognizing that your most scarce resource is your time, not your money.
- Guarding your time consciously and investing it wisely - just as you would your money.
We’re not the first generation to realize this either. The Greeks had it figured over 2000 years ago:
“It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing.” ― Seneca
But today the lesson seems to be forgotten. I hope this article can serve as a timely reminder of what is important.
“No Pain, No Gain”: False Myopic Thinking, Not Intelligent Long Term Planning
There is one last final and very deeply ingrained false objection to this framework of optimizing for happiness. I’m going to call it the ‘No Pain, No Gain’ Fallacy. It goes something like this: ‘By optimizing for happiness today, you are sacrificing more happiness in the future. It takes 20+ years of hard grinding to build the financial foundations for a happy life that you can enjoy only when you are in your 50s. Therefore, being overworked and unhappy is a normal part of adult life and you should not expect this to change.’
OK, fair. A career could last 40 years. Wouldn’t it be terribly short sighted to sacrifice future happiness for short term gratification? And the dataset I’ve shared only covers 2.5 years, peanuts in comparison to the average human lifespan. Really, I can’t speak from experience when it comes to lifetime planning.
So let’s turn to external proof.
What The World’s Longest & Most Detailed Study Of Adult Development Says About Happiness
Since beginning in 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has become one of the most comprehensive studies of emotional well-being in history. Now ongoing for over 80 years and currently headed by Robert Waldinger, it has expanded from its roots tracing Harvard sophomores (including later president John F Kennedy) to encompass the generations of descendents of the original participants.
All up, the study has collected a lifetime of data across vast medical records, hundreds of in-person interviews and even brain scans. Or, put simply: I may not know what I’m talking about... but these guys do.
And what does the Harvard Study of Adult Development say is the single biggest determinant factor of happiness? Waldinger has a simple response:
"Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period."
Relationships determine happiness. Not fame or success. Not money. That’s still a bit of an indirect answer, so to bring it back into our context let’s consider the impact of being overworked on relationships. Think for a moment and answer these four questions:
- Does being overworked help you build/maintain loving relationships with your partner? Or harm them?
- Does being overworked help build lasting friendships that stay with you for life? Or harm them?
- Does being overworked help strengthen family bonds that will stand the test of time? Or harm them?
- Does being overworked help you to be with your kids as they grow into adulthood? Or harm it?
The answer is clear. Across all timeframes in the short, medium and long term, pushing too hard with work either harms happiness & life satisfaction, or at the very best does nothing to help it.
So now you know that the traditional ‘no pain, no gain’ way of thinking is a fallacy. If you truly want to plan for long-term happiness, stop focusing all your efforts on working so hard. Focus on relationships instead. And that takes time.
Work less. Be more happy. Spend more time with friends, family & loved ones. Do things that matter to you. Live a vibrant life. At the end of the day all of this may seem obvious to you. If you don’t really like your job, working less should make you feel better.
But then again, if it’s so obvious... What are you doing about it?
- The reason why most of us work is as follows: we work so we can make money, so we can be happy now or in the future
- ‘Being overworked’ means working hard to the point that it becomes a negative influence on our lives, making us less happy
- We routinely fall into a negative, overworked state by following this false assumption: we believe that working harder to make more money will make us more happy.
- By comparing happiness, time worked and income in experimental data we have seen the fundamental truth, that the reverse is true:
- Making more money does not make you happier
- Making more money per hour does not make you happier
- Working less DOES make you happier
- The Happiness-Optimizing Sweet Spot is the range of time worked that optimizes for happiness & life satisfaction while still maintaining a sufficient level of income. This range could vary drastically based on your own individual circumstances.
- Pushing past this happiness maximising sweet spot to chase more income is a loser’s trade that will result in you becoming overworked, unhappy and sacrificing valuable relationships.
What You Can Do To Fix It:
- Adjust working hours to maximise happiness, not money. If you don’t know where the Happiness-Optimizing sweet spot is for yourself, start by adjusting your working hours until you find it.
- If your workplace doesn’t allow you the freedom to experiment and find this point, find another workplace, or start a business/side hustle so you have control & flexibility. These opportunities exist and are only becoming more common as the paradigm of work shifts to the knowledge/attention economy.
- Once you reach this point, take full advantage of the better quality of life. Enjoy yourself & focus on the relationships that matter most to you
- Want to make more money in the medium-long term? Focus on independent learning, productive hobbies & creating value for others. This will guide you towards more fulfilling & flexible sources of income.
- Always remember that time, not money, is your most scarce and non-renewable resource. Don’t squander it, or surrender it unconsciously to others.
*Article originally published February 2020. My income has grown significantly since I wrote this, and the dataset has grown. The conclusions haven't changed.