When You’re the First to Arrive and the Last to Leave

At nearly every job I’ve had, including this one, I’ve had a tendency to be one of the first to show up at the office, and one of the last to leave.

My reasons for this:

• Once I fall into a routine, coming in early and leaving late becomes my mode of operation.

• Mornings and evenings—when there are fewer people around, no meetings to attend, and the news cycle has yet to begin or has already ended—tend to be the most productive times for me (you’ll notice that if you email me, I’m more likely to respond late at night, or early in the morning).

• I have a tendency to take on too much work and need the additional time to get everything done.

• I believed that my capacity to take on extra work and dedicate the extra time to my job to get everything done was, if not bad for work-life balance, good for climbing up the career ladder. The go-getter is eventually rewarded, right?

Once, at one of these jobs, a senior-level colleague who was not in charge of managing me pulled me aside and whispered, “Go home.”

“Wait, what?”

“Go home,” she said again. “Why are you working so hard? We talk about you, you know. You work hard—everybody knows that. But you know what your boss says about you? He says you like staying late. He says you like taking on more work, and that you never complain about it. And he’s taking advantage of that—of you. You are affordable, efficient labor to him and he’s going to keep you around, keep you under his thumb. So, go home. Give yourself back some free time. If you’re here waiting at a night for promotion, you’re not going to see one.”

She was right about the promotion. I went home.

There’s a business principle that many of us use when we’re at work: “under-promise and over-deliver.” It’s the smart way to please your boss or your clients or whomever you’re working for.

But how effective is that really?

I worked long hours and over-delivered and it didn’t propel me up the ladder. Instead, my boss saw me as a good value—two employees for the price of one.

Bloomberg Businessweek put it a little more bluntly recently: “Nobody Cares How Awesome You Are at Your Job.” The conclusion comes from some studies that behavioral scientists from UC-San Diego and the University of Chicago did:

Epley and Gneezy conducted several studies, ranging from a simple survey of people’s satisfaction after a promise was exceeded to actually promising their subjects something and then seeing what would happen when they broke, met, or outshined it. It turned out that there was almost no change in people’s levels of satisfaction when they were given more than what they were promised. Epley finds this particularly interesting in light of all the promises that companies make to their customers. “If you deliver books for Amazon.com and you promise four-day delivery, getting it to people in three days isn’t that beneficial to you,” says Epley. In other words, this explains why I’m only mildly pleased when my plane flight is a few minutes early but I’m furious when it’s delayed.

The reason for this, Epley says, is that promises work a bit like verbal contracts. If I promise you something and you accept that promise, you assume I’ll do it, nothing more, nothing less.

And so I stopped over-delivering and instead did my job (still well!) and went home when everyone else did. My boss barely noticed the change. The truth is, nobody cares how many hours you work—they just want to see some results, and I delivered (and sometimes still over-delivered).

Now, I am self-employed and effectively my own boss. I still come in early and still leave pretty late. Why am I working so hard, and whom am I doing it for? I’m doing it for me.


Photo: Jamal Fanaian



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