I have worked in a demanding and creative career for almost 20 years. I have no college degree and no formal training, and I lucked into my first gig due to timing and strategic volunteerism. When I started, my only previous experience was in retail and I was desperate to excel so I could have a professional future. I was a workaholic in the beginning. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be at the office till midnight, but I loved it. The work was meaningful, and all that investment made me very successful! Some of my friends worried at the time that I was missing out on other aspects of my life, and they were probably right … but it was what I felt I needed to do to have security.
I have achieved some really terrific results in my career so far, but in my current job, I am the absolute star of my department. In the past year, my work has brought in more revenue than the rest of my 30-person department combined. The CEO has sent out company-wide emails (that’s to 20,000 employees) praising me more than once in the past few months. I am compensated very well, I have terrific relationships with my colleagues, and I love my job. But I am starting to worry about my work ethic and how it has changed over the years.
Today, I am lightning fast with many of the elements of my job — think complex research, writing, and creative design — so my colleagues tell me that I have insanely high productivity. But I am only really engaging in the work a few hours each day. Maybe three? Four max. I spend the rest of my day walking my dogs, doing yoga, making art, taking naps … just generally goofing off. This trend arose before pandemic working from home, but it’s gotten more pronounced since then. Despite all this downtime, I am still a rock star — I even won our company’s Employee of the Year award a few weeks ago! My manager recently told me that I am the reason she knows working from home can be done successfully without damaging productivity (I have not told her about how I spend my days, and she’s so busy, she will likely never notice).
Lately, I am starting to wonder: Should I feel guilty about all this downtime? Am I behaving unethically or somehow sabotaging my future? Sometimes I will ponder a problem while I am walking my dog or exercising, and the lightbulb goes on, so I can start doing the work when I sit back down at my desk … but a lot of my time is unproductive. The work is never boring, and I still get excited by it, but it’s just not difficult for me to execute. While everyone around me is working like crazy and having a billion Zoom meetings, I have found a balance and an ease in my life that I love despite the demanding nature of the work we do. In basically every way, I am happier than I have ever been in my life. But I am starting to question: Am I stealing time from the company? Am I somehow hurting my ability to re-adapt to a demanding environment in the future?
If I tried to spend eight hours a day being productive, I would really have to hunt down additional work to do, and I don’t think I would see much benefit. I am basically maxed out on compensation, and because my work is so niche, any promotion would result in me supervising others instead of doing what I am good at. I have zero desire to do that. When deadlines approach and self-discipline really matters, I can absolutely kick into high gear and put in the time, so I know I can crank when I have to.
If you were my manager and you knew the truth of how I spend my time, would you be upset? What would you advise me to do?
You have discovered a not-often-talked-about secret of work: Some people are much faster than others. It sounds like you’re one of them.
If you can get the outstanding results you’re achieving in three or four hours a day, you don’t need to find ways to make yourself busier and more frazzled just so you feel like you’re doing “enough.” You are doing enough. You’re apparently outperforming your entire department, and your employer is thrilled with your work.
It’s possible that what you consider “downtime” is what’s making that high level of achievement possible. Your brain may be one that works well in quick spurts followed by periods of recharging. And you might be doing more work during your downtime than you realize; sometimes, relaxing your mind and not consciously focusing it is what lets your brain do the behind-the-scenes work that leads to creative solutions (see: those lightbulb moments while walking the dog that you mentioned). That’s why creative thinking is usually harder when you’re stressed out and being pulled in a million directions.
In fact, if you did try to generate extra work to fill more of your hours just for the sake of being busier, it could negatively impact the work that’s making your employer so happy!
It is worth making sure that there’s real substance behind all that praise your work is garnering. I suspect this isn’t the situation with you, but sometimes an employee will be lauded as being tremendously productive and accomplished … but when you look at what they’ve actually achieved, it turns out not to be all that much, and instead they’re just talented at talking up their work, schmoozing, and appearing to be doing a lot. If that were the case with you and you were concerned about the ethics of it, I’d say that yes, you should be more rigorous about getting results in your work, not just the appearance of them. But that doesn’t sound like your situation; your revenue numbers alone prove your success is genuine.
That said, I get why it feels weird to be relaxing or doing yoga while your colleagues are scrambling through their own tasks. It’s definitely remote work that allows for that. If you were working in an office with others, you’d presumably be choosing a different, more discreet set of activities for that unused time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean those activities would be more productive or even relevant to your job. Believe me, plenty of people spend hours of their in-office workdays poking around on social media, reading the news, and watching YouTube — and a lot of them aren’t getting nearly as much accomplished as you are.
I bet you’re not really fully checked out during the hours you consider downtime either; it sounds like you’re accessible to members of your team when they need you. You’re just not panicked about getting more done, and it doesn’t seem like you need to be.
If you were worried that you’d sunk so deeply into bad habits that you now questioned your ability to kick into a higher gear when you needed to, I’d be more concerned. Sometimes people get so used to a leisurely pace in their work that they have trouble adjusting when circumstances change (for example, when they get a new manager or change jobs). But that’s not the case for you; you noted that you’re more than able to crank it up when you need to.
Ultimately, you’re being paid to produce certain results, you’re producing them at an extraordinarily high level, and your employer is thrilled. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working.