Overwork vs. Productivity

Today I’d like to talk about how overwork impacts your productivity and how to flip the switch so you can enjoy high productivity and balance.

What is overwork?

A lot of people have the belief that you must work hard to succeed. And while this is correct in many ways, I want to split the hair and separate working hard from overwork.

When you hear the phrase ‘working hard,’ what comes to mind? What does it mean to you?

Does it mean working to produce an outcome, or working long hours or to the point of exhaustion?

In this episode, we’ll cover

* What is overwork?
* What is productivity?
* What leads to overwork or productivity?

Our ability to work with balance starts with what we make things mean – in other words, the meaning we assign to words and phrases.

To me, working hard is staying focused on a task, giving it my sole attention and finishing it in the allocated time. I define working hard as focused work that has an outcome of positive, empowered productivity without burnout. It is punctuated by dates, boundaries around a finishing time, and working to a step-by-step plan mapped out in advance.

That means I define overwork as the opposite of that.

To me, overwork means spending long hours on a task and driving yourself to do it, with insufficient breaks, and with diminishing returns.

To me, a hallmark of overwork is long hours for diminishing returns. In other words, it is inefficient and ineffective. We know that your productivity and focus decline after x minutes. So working longer usually means working softer, being less efficient and less productive.

Overwork doesn’t mean high quality, and it may not even mean high output. It often means the opposite – a low to moderate volume of low to moderate quality work.

Very few people who work long hours for long periods are able to generate high-quality work. Or if they do, it comes at an emotional cost.

What is productivity?

Productivity is the art of working in a focused way to produce tangible outcomes and results.

It is not about the number of hours you spend. It is about the quality of focus and results that you create.

Here are some hallmarks of productivity.

I think a big one is the fact that you feel good and like you have accomplished something.

Another hallmark of productivity is that you can see a tangible output. You’ve completed something. There is something to show for your efforts.

A simple way to sum this discussion up is that productivity is about quality, not quantity. Overwork tends to be more about quantity, not quality.

The problem with overwork

Overwork causes problems for both individuals and organisations.

At the individual level, overwork often leads to excessive stress. When someone becomes stressed, their behaviour changes.

They are prone to become emotionally imbalanced and reactive towards other people and situations. They feel negative emotions more often, such as irrationality, frustration, irritation, and resentfulness. They are more likely to take things personally, and more likely to catastrophise or amplify problems.

Thinking patterns of rumination and worry can result.

Since the human brain can’t multitask (yes, that’s a myth), it makes sense that with all of those things going on in your brain, you have very little space left for productive work.

Imagine the impact of this if you are running a solo business. It means that you’re left feeling flustered, lost not getting anything done, and doubting yourself.

Now, imagine the impact of that person within a team or an organisation.

If that overworking person is a manager (and I’ve worked with these) then their team ends up walking on eggshells to appease their boss and avoid getting sprayed. The team may feel pressured to also work long hours and may lose confidence in themselves. Everyone in the team feels stressed.

If that overworking person is an employee (and I’ve worked with these), they may feel entitled to more money, better conditions or elevated status. But remember that overwork usually means poor quality output, and possibly a low volume of it, so the person who overworks

The overworking employee might become a prickly person who is hard to connect and interact with. Or they may become withdrawn or morose. None of these outcomes is favourable for team or client relationships.

What leads to overwork…or productivity?

Simply, it’s all about your values, beliefs, thinking patterns and expectations.

If you value hard work and believe that you must work hard and long hours to get an outcome and that it must be perfect, then you’re probably on the path to overwork and actually lower productivity due to burnout.

If you value tangible outcomes and efficient use of time without distraction, with a sense of balancing your energy on the journey to getting there, even accepting imperfect results, then I believe you’re more likely set up to be productive.

Resolving overwork

Since overwork is founded in beliefs and may be driven by workplace culture and policies, the answer to resolving it is two-pronged.

Firstly, businesses (even solo businesses) can create policies that set boundaries around working hours and can introduce initiatives to help people better structure and plan their work.

In other words, workplaces (and solo business owners) can change their work environment to make it more conducive to breaks, to manage expectations and to send a message about the importance of time off to rejuvenate.

We’re talking about a positive workplace culture.

But a lot of the resolution is in the hands of the individual.

So the second prong is supporting individuals to set boundaries around their work and personal lives, to review their own expectations of themselves, to challenge old thinking patterns, and to better manage urges.

Let’s use my old workplace as an example, in the 1990’s.

I managed a business where we had very clear boundaries around personal time off and encouraged employees not to work on weekends. We allowed them to take some of their sick leave as ‘well days’ if needed so that they could rejuvenate themselves.

We were very progressive, and our CEO was big on creating a supporting culture that rewarded hard work and encouraged enough time to rest and recover.

This went against the grain in our industry, because many other firms like ours were requiring their salaried staff to work many hours of overtime to finish work that was over budget.

Our approach was to quote for jobs very accurately, to teach our staff tightly manage time budgets, and to ensure we have the right people for the right job so that they could work efficiently and effectively in their zones of genius, which is much more time efficient than trying to make somebody do a job that they’re not very good at.

So as a workplace, we created the environment and policies to support productivity, and we created a culture that upheld those same values.

That is the bit we could control. We also encouraged employees through our performance review system to work productively rather than excessively, and we engaged staff who fit this way of working.


As I mentioned earlier, a simple way to sum this discussion up is that productivity is about quality, not quantity. Overwork tends to be more about quantity, not quality.

You may be driven to overwork or to be productive in a balanced way, depending on your work environment, your beliefs and your values.

If you’re in an organisation, the policies and structures can drive overwork or productivity.

If you’re a solo business owner, then it’s up to you to create this framework for yourself.

But as an individual, your values and beliefs may require examination to discover what drives you and if necessary, how to develop a more positive, self-sustaining perspective that promotes work-life balance.

Ready to get clarity on your pathway to success?

Understanding who you are and what you need will allow your business to thrive! If you’re truly ready to break old habits and get out of the rut I encourage you to check out the Habitology membership.

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