What you do with your 5–9 can have a powerful impact on your 9–5. Here’s how.
The workaholic life is so detrimental to long-term success
Do Americans live in a workaholic culture? Compared to the rest of the world, it seems we do. And with the lines blurring more and more between our personal and professional lives, this type of overworked lifestyle can be all too easy to fall into.
Overwork is positively correlated to a host of physical, mental and emotional problems, with burnout leading the pack. So why do we do it? I’d like to think for many people, it’s because we love what we do and want to see our projects succeed. But unfortunately, the biggest reasons for our workaholic culture are, well, cultural.
People feel guilty taking vacation time. Many stay plugged in during their vacations, feeling the pressure of being indispensable. Others work incredibly long hours to be noticed by the higher-ups; in some organizations, you can’t move up the ranks unless you’re willing to make work your life. For younger workers especially, all of this overwork during formative career years can create habits that are hard to break.
I recently connected with Kenny Mendes, Head of Finance, People and Operations at Coda, to talk about why the workaholic life is so detrimental to long-term success—and how we can counteract the cultural pressure to work so darn much.
Younger workers are particularly susceptible to the workaholic mindset. “It often begins with pressure at school to be a top performer,” says Mendes. That get-it-done-at-any-cost mindset naturally translates to the workplace, but it can have dangerous consequences. “I worked burnout hours in my first startup—and pushed myself to the point where I got physically sick and needed to step back,” he says. “Straight out of school, it’s easy to fall into the trap of working beyond a sustainable pace.”
When he was invited to join Coda, Mendes was initially reluctant because he never wanted to go back to living that 80-hour-workweek life. “Coda’s founder, Shishir Mehrotra, convinced me that there’s more than one way to build a successful business,” Mendes says. “He and the other first employees had young kids at the time, so from the beginning there was a culture of prioritizing family and balance.”
This commitment to a non-workaholic culture often surprises new hires, fresh from college and expecting to put in some crazy hours. “They were surprised to see the office empty by 6pm,” says Mendes. “Soon, they realized Coda’s environment was structured where people on opposite ends of the spectrum— new college grad to mom with three kids—could both be successful in their careers and make a meaningful impact on the company without being held to constrained office hours.”
If companies don’t model this type of trusting approach, Mendes says that younger workers put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed. “Without outside factors like family putting constraints around their time, they can fall in the trap of working far too hard for far too long. Finding the right balance depends on setting personal boundaries, as well as finding the right environment to work in—you have to have both.”
The hours of 5–9 are often synonymous with side hustles and creative pursuits that have little or nothing to do with your day job. But what you do with that time can have a powerful impact on your professional performance. “Investing in an outside creative passion will help you be better at your day job,” says Mendes. “Finding an outlet that helps clear your mind and gets you into a different state of flow leads to better performance during your 9–5.”
Sometimes, those side projects can turn into more. Mendes relates the story of a colleague who worked as a marketer but spent her evenings expressing her artistic side. “What began as a passion project turned into a full-fledged entrepreneurial endeavor, where she sold her work to individuals and had pieces commissioned by companies to decorate offices,” says Mendes. “Now, she has a thriving career as a full-time artist in San Francisco.”
Of course, the whole point of the 5–9 is that it’s something you’re passionate about. And you don’t have to turn every passion into a career or a moneymaking hustle. Sometimes you just need to pursue what you love because it helps you fight burnout—not because it will make you a millionaire.
For many of us, getting creative is the last thing on our mind once we check out of work. “It’s natural to spend the evenings unwinding with a TV show or browsing social media,” says Mendes. “But if there’s something you’re passionate about, pursuing that passion can be a source of energy as well as a way to supercharge your own learning and development.”
Mendes points to three ways that a creative pursuit—instead of just mindless vegging out—can benefit you:
Of course, creativity requires an investment of time and energy. So what if you feel too tired, burned out or busy to even think about creating anything after your day job? Mendes believes you should start by running an audit of your time to see where your energy is going. “If there’s no room for personal passions, try to set boundaries,” he says. “If your energy distribution is off, then make a change.”
Then, if you still feel stuck, it may be time to try something new. “Test out a creative outlet way outside of your comfort zone. Even if it’s something you don’t plan to continue or you’re bad at it, trying a new creative outlet can spark the next idea,” Mendes says.
Lastly, says Mendes, don’t forget to invest in yourself. Proper rest, diet and exercise are often neglected when we’re trying to push at maximum pace, but our minds and bodies need them to perform. “Creativity is much harder to find when these needs aren’t being met.”
If you want to stop overwork and burnout in their tracks, the answer is not to make your 5–9 hours mindless. Rather, the cure is to exercise your brain in creative ways—to never stop learning and developing as a whole person.
“Today, there are so many opportunities to convert an idea to a product or business without any technical skills,” says Mendes. “The barrier to entry is so low and the tools to learn are all around you.”
Even if your 5–9 passion doesn’t convert into monetary profit, it’s still significant in combating the workaholic mindset that can suck the life out of your career.
“Workaholic culture insists that being successful means making big sacrifices outside of work, even at the expense of personal health, but I’ve come to believe that it’s not all or nothing,” says Mendes. “I urge younger workers to think about sustainable high performance over a long career—it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”