Back in 2018, interviews with Elon Musk revealed what we all assumed: He works a lot. By his own admission, he was actually working 120 works per week at one point, but pared that down to a “modest” 80 that he called “pretty manageable.”
For those targeting success, he advocated for working somewhere in the 80-120 hour/week ballpark — reasoning that if one person works 100 hours per week doing the same work as another working 40 hours per week, the first person will achieve more than twice as much in the same amount of time.
Here’s the problem: We’re not robots. We’re human beings who require social interaction, intimacy, rest, fun, and regular activity.
When we work too much, we get fatigued. We get depressed and anxious. We miss critical social connections that fuel us. And quality suffers.
If you need proof, take a look at some of the overworking norms pervasive in Asia. The Harvard Business Review took a close look at it a few years ago, citing a host of problems associated with overworking: stress, less activity and exercise, bad diets, higher consumption of stress-abating substances like alcohol and tobacco, and on and on.
And what about the work itself and the culture that surrounds it? There are problems to be called out here, too: Another Harvard Business Review article highlighted several studies that underscore absenteeism, turnover, lack of investment in quality or precision, and hobbled communication as symptoms of overwork.
Just the same, in some cultures, consistent and widespread overwork has become part of the vocabulary. In Japan, for instance, death attributed to overwork is common enough to warrant its own word: karōshi.
So what’s the magic number? How long can we work to keep our health strong, quality high, and balance in place? Well, it depends to some extent on the person, but Sarah Green Carmichael at Harvard says that the research indicates a week or two of 60 hour weeks every few months is okay — but otherwise, the standard eight-hour day, five-day week is a good guide for work time.
That may not seem feasible for high-performing, go-getter CEOs and entrepreneurs, but it’s important to remember one key thing in the business fray: Business is ultimately not about numbers, profits, products, or power. It’s about relationships. If your head is so buried in process and drudge that relationships fall by the wayside, there are two potentially devastating consequences. You either fail to inspire trust and loyalty in the people you lead, debilitating your company from the inside, or you alienate prospects and customers on the outside, hobbling your company from the outside.
So I suppose you’re asking: How, then, is Elon Musk successful? That depends on your definition of success.
On the other hand, he’s been divorced three times, has a history of in-comptruculence and disagreements (paired with spates of firings), and has been known to attack the media — more than once. Meanwhile, his outspoken and unwelcome public commentary on business-unrelated topics like Covid-19 has lost him some devoted fans.
I will always advocate for work-life balance as the foundation of success. Yes, you can hunt money — but what’s the point if relationships are in the gutter and respect is hard to come by?