The Hours Problem

A month ago I wrote a semi-tongue-in-cheek piece about how I was feeling like a single parent. At the time, Lisa’s foot surgery was a week in, and I was absorbed in “running the household.” It was damned hard work. I made a bit of light in the process of bemoaning it.

We’re a month further into it, and things are (hopefully) drawing to a close. Perhaps next week Lisa will be given the go ahead for nearly full pressure on her foot, and at that point things will get considerably easier. That said, she’s still struggling with pain when she’s up for long, and I can’t see that she’ll be back to full strength for some time.


Lately, I’ve been spending my day job time working on something called “the hours problem,” which can be generalized down to “Why do people work so many hours?” but is really “Why do men work so many hours?

Don’t read that too strictly, of course. There exist women who work insane hours. I personally know several. But on the whole it turns out that only about 15% of women are willing to put in more than 50 hours a week. Those are apparently the magic numbers. 50 hours. 15% of women. Perhaps not so oddly then, women’s progress into the top level of corporate jobs has stalled at about 15% (progress in gender representation has been continuously made in other areas for many years, but female representation at the top levels of companies grew to 15% a decade or so ago, and has since stalled out). So, in addition to all the other “natural” barriers that exist to women’s progress up the corporate chain, it seems to me that it is unlikely that further progress will made until the world comes to grip with what it means to be successful at work.

It turns out, of course, that while men (on the whole again) don’t necessarily want to work those kinds of hours, they will do it, the reasons for which are most likely deeply rooted in masculine culture defined by expectations of men both inside the home and at the work environment–expectations that men have of themselves, expectations that men have of people who work for them, and expectations that (by default, then) companies expect of people who are going to succeed. Hours worked, you see, is a measure of corporate commitment, and in a lot of ways, at the end of the day corporate commitment matters as much (or more) than results.

It’s a fascinating problem–one that has obvious answers, but probably cannot be solved because it requires leaders to think about things from the perspective of those who work for them rather than from their own viewpoint. Leaders are generally men. And leaders get real value out of working 50, or 60, or 70 hours a week, after all–they get ahead when they do that because the corporate environment rewards that kind of insanity. It’s only natural then, that leaders would tend to think everyone should have to work those kinds of hours to get ahead. The problem, of course is that most people cannot work at this rate and maintain peak performance. You might notice from the picture at the side of my blog that I am a male. But I’m apparently a bit of a strange case. Now that I’m working on this problem, you see, I’m coming to realize that over several years I have had a base understanding of this aspect of the corporate environment and of the human nature for most of my career. I couldn’t have stated this fact of peak performance vs. work hours as directly as this 15 years ago, but I knew it. And unlike most leaders, I valued it intensely. I have rarely, if ever, asked people who work for me to work any specific hours. In general they set their own hours, and I hold them accountable for completing tasks on a schedule that whenever possible they set for themselves.

And as I get further along in my career I realize that this approach has been a competitive advantage for me as a manager. I don’t mean to brag, but people have chased me down to ask about working on my teams for the past 15 or more years. I rarely need to recruit to fill positions internally. Don’t get me wrong–I select people who are dedicated, and those people do work long hours. But when they do, I am the one telling them to go home.

That’s not really what this post is about, though.


As a result of this work I’ve been doing, and because of the events of this past month–events that include an emergency trip out to Arizona due to a medical emergency in the family, and the need to keep my work life going (as well as make at least a hand-waving attempt to keep this writing career going in the interim) at the same time as dealing with Lisa’s surgery–I’ve been truly revisiting what it means to be able to do quality work. I made light of it in the post I linked to. But the fact is that I feel the quality of my work fading over the past month. Earlier today I was talking to a senior leader about physical exercise and how it kept me from dragging in the afternoon–but then I looked at him and said, “but really this last month it hasn’t worked too well” and then I proceeded to talk about what it’s like to be a single provider and to try to work as a corporate “leader.”

Let me tell you, it’s freaking hard.

Some time back I wrote about how having Lisa at home in my formative corporate years was a major competitive advantage. There is no doubt in my mind today that this is true.

Lisa is going to be better in a few weeks. It’s all good. I’ve got it incredibly easy. I’m NOT complaining.

But honestly, I have no idea how single parents do this. How do they work day in and day out, 50+ hours a week, and be there for their kids and family, and take care of things they want to do themselves, and stay healthy? Seriously. If you’re the kid of a single parent, you owe them. Big time. But, of course, I know how they do it. I do. Yes, it’s hard at times. Yes, you’ve never got enough time. But to tell the truth, I would do this for Lisa forever if I needed to.

I would cut back on hours I work, of course.

And I would probably pay a price in the corporate world–much like many women apparently do today. But I would do it because I love her more than anything, and because twenty years from now that’s all that is going to matter.


Take what you want from it.

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