am I an underachiever?

A reader writes:

I am in my late 20s and have been working professionally for about four years, plus a handful of co-ops/internships during my education. I work in a field that’s known for attracting overachiever types, and also for somewhat poor/outdated working environments that are stressful on employees and tend to result in burnout (think, like, corporate law).

I have never been the overachiever type. I was always smart and a good student, but never the one who stressed over getting straight A’s or taking every extra credit opportunity I could. If I had to choose between pulling a few all nighters to get a B+ on an assignment and getting a good night’s sleep to get a B-, I would take the B-.

Now that I’m in the working world, I’m starting to think of myself as not just a non-overachiever, but an underachiever. I’ve always been highly efficient and worked very quickly and accurately, but the older I get, the more I find myself deliberately stretching out how long I spend on assignments to make it seem like they’re taking me more time than they really are. I don’t want to fall victim to imposter syndrome, and so I try to look at the facts: I have never struggled to get a job offer or find references, I’ve gotten (sometimes quite generous!) raises consistently, I have never been let go, and I rarely get negative feedback (and work to make changes when I do). The only red flag was at my last job when I was not selected for a “leadership development program” in my office; in that case, candidates were selected by managers—it was not an application process, so I have no idea if I was ever considered or why I was not. I answer emails promptly, meet deadlines reliably, and, as stated, am accurate and correct in my work. To me, all these are hallmarks of a solid employee.

But I can’t help but compare myself to my peers. My partner is in the same field, so between the two of us, we have a lot of acquaintances who work similar jobs. I hear many stories from old friends about brutal 70-hour work weeks, caffeine (or other substances) dependence, not having time to date or see friends, and so forth, while I struggle to wring 40 hours out of my workload. This is just so common that I feel inadequate and lazy when I look at the difference. (It may also be worth noting that these acquaintances did much better in school than I did, and were offered more prestigious jobs, so it’s not that I’m just a rockstar in comparison to them.) I’m not sure if this is just a personality difference, or if I’m truly slacking and just tricking my managers into thinking I’m a better employee than I am. I worry how long I can keep this up before I start to be passed over for promotions or otherwise dead-ending my career. This causes me a lot of anxiety, and on the other hand, I’m frankly bored at times!

How can I tell if I am doing enough, and if I’m doing fine, how do I stop feeling so lazy?

It sounds like you just know too many over-achievers, given your field, your partner’s field, and your friends. Seeing so much of that around you can throw off your norms.

Look at what you’ve written here: You’re highly efficient, work quickly and accurately, respond to people quickly, meet deadlines, have never struggled to find a job or get good references, regularly get good raises, rarely hear negative feedback, and are responsive to critiques of your work. That all … sounds pretty good. I’m not seeing a problem with anything you’ve described!

As for the potential flag of not being selected for a leadership development program — without any other flags, I don’t think that’s much of a flag at all. By definition, lots of people don’t get selected for those programs, for lots of reasons. Maybe your management didn’t realize you’d be interested. (Were you? Would they have known that?) Or they might have chosen people who are more go-getter-y than you — the people who would stay up all night to raise a B- to a B+. It sounds like you’ve deliberately chosen to be okay with making kind of trade-off … and if so, it doesn’t make sense to worry when you see others get the B+. (That said, if you did worry, ideally you would have asked your manager at the time what you could work on to be more competitive for that type of opportunity in the future.)

I think what’s happening is that your higher-achieving peers have thrown off your norms and are making you feel like you’re slacking because you’re … what, not working horrible long hours and missing out on any leisure time? First, most people don’t do what this peer group is doing. Most people work roughly 40 hours, don’t work at a breakneck speed, mentally leave work behind them when the day  is done, and have a reasonable amount of time for life outside of work. In fact, most people’s main focus is on their non-work life. That’s normal! You’re normal. You’re comparing yourself to a group that’s far outside the norm and feeling like something’s wrong with you. There’s not.

Second, you don’t want that life. You specifically chose not to pursue it because it doesn’t appeal to you! Now you get to reap the rewards of that decision. Don’t squander them by feeling guilty!

If you’re really concerned that this is all just a ticking time bomb and at some point your career will dead-end and you won’t be able to get promoted or find work you want (against all evidence to the contrary!), by all means talk to your manager. Check in and ask how she thinks things are going, and whether there’s anything she’d suggest you work on doing differently, and what a path for promotion in the next few years might look like.

But I’d also ask yourself whether you’d have these questions if you weren’t comparing yourself to other people. It’s possible you’re feeling bored or restless in this job because it’s time for a new one, or maybe this one was never as strong of a match for you as it ideally would be. That happens! Or are you mainly feeling anxious because of what you think you should be doing — unrelated to how you’d otherwise feel about it?

Overall, you should focus on what you want your measures of success to be. It doesn’t sound like those are “work in a high-pressure, high-prestige job.” My guess is that they’re more like “do work that I feel reasonably good about, be a good colleague, earn a wage I’m happy with, and have time outside of work for the rest of my life.” By those measures, you’re succeeding wildly, no?

But you won’t measure up if you use someone else’s measures that were constructed around goals you never had for yourself! So stop doing that; it’s just going to make you feel bad, and — even worse — it could lead you to make choices that aren’t aligned with what you actually want in your life.

And frankly, your over-achieving friends might look at you and want what you have: a life without 70-hour work weeks and time for family, friends, and leisure. Don’t get so focused on what they have that you miss what you have (and they don’t).

{ 264 comments… read them below }

  1. Monty & Millie's Mom*

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a solid worker and a team player who doesn’t want the pressure to continually advance. I once told a new manager I wasn’t ambitious (which admittedly wasn’t the best thing in the world!), but I clarified that it meant I wasn’t looking to advance and was happy being a part of the team and doing what I could to help everyone succeed. I think she understood – we ended up having a good working relationship, and she has ended up being a reference for me twice since then!

    1. The Rural Juror*

      My boss has wanted to train me to be in a different position with wildly different responsibilities and I told him I didn’t think I’d be happy doing it. It’s not that I couldn’t do it, just that it wouldn’t play to my strengths. I’m glad he considered me for it and that he appreciates my hard work, but I can recognize in myself that I’m not going to be that person who needs to prove I can do more more more! That’s not to say I won’t have opportunities for advancement, just that I didn’t want *that* particular, high-stress position. No thanks!

    2. Been There*

      I always answer the “where do you see yourself in 5 years” with “Honestly, this might sound a little odd, but I have zero desire to be a manager – I want to do my work, do it well, gain more responsibility and skills, but ultimately what I want to do is be a designer, and design. And I’m okay doing that for the next 10-15 years because I LOVE what I do!”

      I don’t want to be a manager, and that surprises some people. Not everyone does, and workplaces couldn’t function if everyone was managerial level!

      1. Diahann Carroll*

        This. I swear I have this same conversation at every new job I’m in. The only thing appealing to me about a management position is the pay – that’s it. I’d rather keep writing and creating and let someone else do all the boring administrative stuff that comes with being a people manager.

            1. Arvolin*

              Every few months, I’d get a glimpse of my boss’s Outlook calendar, and it reinforced my decision to stay in a technical role (fun, and paid well) rather than go anywhere near management.

        1. TrainerGirl*

          I’m loving all of these comments today! My boss sometimes makes comments about “We all want to move up the ladder and no one wants to get stuck doing this job”. Well, did you ask everyone? Management is not everyone’s goal, but some people who want it think that those who don’t are lazy and have no ambition. I’m really glad that my company has instituted a promotion track for non-managers, because they realized that there are people who are great in their jobs and should be rewarded for it, and there should be a way to achieve it that doesn’t involve becoming a manager. Some people weren’t cut out for it. My boss isn’t…they are way too abrasive and think it’s okay to treat people like crap if they’re stressed or having a bad day. We’ve gotten a new leader that recognizes that bad behavior and won’t allow it continue just because someone knows a lot. It’s quite a refreshing change.

      2. LunaLena*

        Totally agree! I’m a graphic designer, and have zero desire to be a manager or advance further up the ladder. I became a graphic designer because I love to design, and I’m where I want to be now, doing what I love in an industry I wanted to be in, with a good work environment and good people. Being in a position like this was my goal, and now that I’ve achieved it, I have no plans to leave it.

        And I say that as a former overachiever – I *was* that kid who would pull all-nighters to get a B+ instead of a B-, who had a total crying meltdown when I got my first C in college, and was absolutely devastated the first time I got fired. I’ve since learned that there are other things that are way more important to my happiness, things like work/life balance and learning to relax. It might help OP to remember that people are different – some people absolutely thrive on high stress environments and loads of work, and that’s okay! But not everyone does, and that’s okay too. It doesn’t make you a slacker to accept that you are happy in your own way, even if it’s different from what everyone else around you is doing.

      3. WantonSeedStitch*

        I had that same conversation with managers for quite a while! Then a point came at which I decided I WAS interested in management after all. It wasn’t something I could have predicted, though, especially since it was based largely on changes within our organization. Before that happened, I learned to instead talk about the skills I wanted to acquire and the non-position-based accomplishments I wanted to achieve (presenting at conferences, acting as a mentor to newer employees, etc.).

      4. NotAnotherManager!*

        There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and the workplace would collapse without people like you. Frankly, when I find people who really like their individual contributor roles, it’s really helpful and we try very hard to keep those folks happy and working with us.

        I am not at all surprised someone would not want to manage. I miss my individual contributor role(s) a lot, and management definitely has some less appealing aspects. My spouse’s boss keeps trying to convince them to apply for a management role, and, fortunately, they realized that that it’s not a good fit with their personality and they’d be miserable.

      5. Cartographical*

        This. Not everyone can be a manager. There’s this cycle of over-promoting and flushing of managers that some companies seem to develop because they hire high achievers who they want to keep but then they can’t do so without promotion and you get this horrible clog around the director level.

        We’ve been more than 20 years with the same (generally wonderful) company but at some point they shifted to prioritizing “go-getters” and “idea generators”. I have to be honest — many self-described go-getters are not team players (from what I’ve observed) and leave a wake of chaos as they plough through the ranks, focusing on their bonuses and promotion opportunities and not the strength of the company; institutional knowledge crumbles as relative fly-by-nights zoom through and knock out staid and comfortably solid workers who are not going to cheer on the latest idea-guy but who also know “why we did that weird thing with the databases ten years ago”; many of the bright and shiny “idea generators” don’t have great ideas (for this particular context, at least) because they haven’t been around long enough to know why the company hasn’t ever done $COOL_THING, neither do the previous wave of recently-promoted “go-getters” who approve it as a potential gold star for their work history and, by the time they move on, there is a pile of stalled and dead projects rotting in the supply closet while the heads-down employees juggle what has always worked and the demands of the “fresh blood” to meet the company’s (legally mandated) benchmarks on time.

        Everything we’ve learned in the last few decades suggests that “ever upward” is not always the best way to go, especially in a field with a long vision arc. A long enough arc looks like a flat line when you’re in the middle of it. It’s good to be a solid worker with a specific and well-developed skillset and a strong foundation of institutional and professional knowledge. It doesn’t exclude you from innovation and development but promotion shouldn’t have to be the end game. A friend of mine says: “most ‘excellence’ is just ‘the basics’ practiced to perfection”. I wish more upper management types grasped that and didn’t discount those of us who have no ambition to be promoted beyond the job we’re happy to do.

        1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          I agree completely. I’m a translator, been doing it for 25 years and still feel like I have plenty to learn. I haven’t stagnated, I’ve worked in various different fields, learned a lot from the texts I’ve translated. I’m currently working a lot in the field of art, loving the learning, and getting my head around the convoluted ways that art critics express themselves. I could never have produced even half-way decent translations of those texts last century, or even ten years ago. I haven’t started earning way more money because of course art doesn’t pay. If I wanted more money I’d have specialised in finance or legal translation. But, since transitioning to freelance status, I’ve managed to get to a position where I can afford to turn down work, pick and choose the texts I want to work on. And I have far more free time than when I had to stay in the office all day even if nobody had any work for me to do.

      6. A Teacher*

        Same here. And I think it’s a pity that ‘advancement’ = management in so many fields. It’s a very specific skill and it always boggled my mind that it was the only way to progress in a lot of places.

      7. JM in England*

        So much this!

        I decided long ago that I have none of the essential qualities for being a manager, chief of which is not being a people person. Thankfully my current and past managers have been very understanding of this but others have given me the side-eye when I’ve mentioned this in reviews.

        As for your last sentence, I have a military analogy for manager-heavy companies, which is trying to have an army composed entirely of generals!

        1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          There are plenty of managers who should have passed on being a manager. Looking at the managers I had in my previous job, you’d think a penchant for sadism was the clinching factor when hiring managers.

    3. charo*

      I think some people are not that EFFICIENT.
      They produce more “heat” than “light” with their drama and long hours, but if you actually look at how they spent their week it might include more talk than action.
      But then, sometimes that’s how people network. They talk to each other about how hard they’re working. And after they talk about it they have to still put in the time to do the work.
      If you have extra time, maybe you can think of a project you can carve out for yourself. I initiated one for myself that turned into having to interact w/the bosses, to my surprise, as if we were peers. When it was done, it actually saved me time, so I needed a new project. But I was glad I did it.
      What I wouldn’t do is be everyone’s helper when they need it, but if I suggest and execute the project that the boss appreciates, that seems like a plus. It can also protect you from being assigned other projects that you’d like less. A long-term side project can be a good excuse and actual palate cleanser and you do it your way.

      1. FormerTVGirl*

        I love this idea of producing more “heat” than “light.” I wouldn’t say I’m exactly in OP’s shoes, but I *am* a very fast and efficient worker. I know this, because I’m regularly told I get my work done way faster than anyone who previously held my role. Because of that, I’m often left with idle time during the week — and to OP’s point, I don’t ask for more. I wait a beat before turning in assignments. I think there is something to people who appear to be go-getters or high performers, who “brag” regularly about working 70-hour weeks simply, in some cases or at least in part, just not being as fast as I (and maybe even OP!) are at getting work done. OP, don’t stress yourself out. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about.

        1. Wintergreen*

          I have learned not to ask for additional work because it always ended up being things I really dislike doing. As for carving out my own individual projects, been there, done that. And although they are almost always adopted, implemented, and become department standards, it never seems to translate into better assignments/jobs, better recognition, or better pay/raises.

          1. Quill*

            When I carve up my own projects I usually make them something that will make *my* job easier… and then tell my boss that the improvement is about 75% of what it actually is so that I have time for the days where my brain just refuses to cooperate.

        2. DireRaven*

          A former coworker was always going on about how stressed she was, how she was overloaded with work and was constantly pulling overtime. She ended up leaving and I was given her duties on top of mine. Funny how it works, but once I got the statuses sorted on her unfinished projects and combined them with what I was doing, I rarely ever have needed to pull any overtime.

        3. Former Producer*

          I’m assuming based on your username that you used to work in TV news? I did too, and I think that helped make me a verrrrry efficient worker. In my last job, I was one of the fastest copywriters on the team and in my current job, I complete my projects really quickly and find myself with a lot of down time, and find it awkward to ask for more work, so I just hold off on turning in assignments, because I find that when I turn them in as soon as I complete them, my boss still doesn’t approve them right away and I get annoyed that my work is waiting there in the queue. Some of us are just more efficient than others, and for some reason that can make us appear to be underperformers just because we’re not putting in the ridiculously long hours that less efficient workers are.

        4. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          Yup. My colleague was the boss’s “golden girl” because she’d stay late every time. However once he crunched the numbers, he saw that I was getting more done in far fewer hours. Not that it changed his mind about us, he still preferred her because she would always say “yessir” whereas I would push back if I thought he was making a mistake. I would push back in the interest of HIS company, but he’d take it as a personal attack. Result: he had to sell the company off in 2008. The guy who bought him out kept the valuable staff members and chucked him out as soon as he had handed over the client file. That was a Super Schadenfreude moment for me because previously he had told me that if I didn’t like it I could leave, because he wasn’t going anywhere.

      2. Lady Meyneth*

        I can almost guarantee those 70+ work weeks don’t have more than 50 productive hours. There’s a point when your brain just can’t go further. I very much doubt anywone can have 12h+ days every day and have better results than the person doing 8 or 9 and coming back to it fresh. For me, if I do over 10 hours a day, I swear I can barely understand anything I read on my screen, much less be productive about it.

        On very rare occasions, a project might call for such crazy hours. I have worked 30+ hours over one weekend when somebody resposible for a project due Monday quit the previous Friday and erased or corrupted most of the files (yes, we involved the police). By the end of that 16-hours Sunday, I was literally crying from exhaustion.

        1. TardyTardis*

          I know! If I have to work that many hours, my brain turns to jelly and my work product is not as good, and then I have to do it over again (looking at you, year end). I remember driving home at 45 miles per hour in a 70 zone (nobody else was on the road) because I was not safe driving any faster once everything had finally been turned in.

    4. PeanutButter*

      This is something I have to explain all the time – working in biosciences people assume you’re gunning for a PhD and want to head your own lab someday. Nope! I love being in a support role, getting my name on papers with my data analysis, but not being lead author or having to deal with the royal headache that obtaining funding for the lab or for my research would be. Ugh.

    5. Ellen*

      I was a manager, once. I was mostly ok at it, but it ATE at me constantly. I’d rather earn a LOT less money and sleep at night.

      1. allathian*

        Especially as in many orgs middle managers don’t even earn that much. I definitely don’t envy my manager, she basically earns about 10-15K more than I do per year. She thrives on management, though, and as a result is very good at her job and is always looking to do even better. I think she sleeps pretty well at night, too.

  2. ThatGirl*

    This honestly sounds a lot like me. I was always smart enough to get by; I put in effort but I never pulled all-nighters or fought hard for that extra 5 points. I try to work smart, not hard — and have definitely always been a fast reader and a fast worker, so I have definitely slowed down to make it seem like things take longer than they do. (Part of that too is so that if it DOES take me longer than expected occasionally, it won’t seem like something is wrong. Underpromise and overdeliver.) I don’t want to be a manager, I don’t want to work long hard hours, I want to do my work, get paid, and be done for the day.

    There’s nothing wrong with any of it – if your work is being done on time, accurately and well enough to get you raises and good reviews, there’s no problem! You’re doing great!

    1. Wintergreen*

      I have also had to measure my pace. It’s almost like if I do things at “my normal” pace I get taken advantage of. I’ve held positions where I gradually ended up doing the work of three people in my 40 hours a week with very little effort. But it was a nightmare to take time off as it was struggle to cover my workload. When I eventually became bored with the work, the company’s solution was to totally revamp the department because they couldn’t find anyone to replace me. And the extra work never seems to be reflected in my paycheck. Not the best attitude in the world but it taught me to slow down to “standard normal” pace. Which is a shame because the day’s go by so much better and the work is more fun at “my normal” pace.

      1. Lady Meyneth*

        Yep! I also learned to slow down. I tend to do “standard fast”, so I’m delivering in 80-90% of the normal time the task would take even though I could have done it at 50%. That way I still get recognition for being fast but not enough that I’m doing the work of 2 people. This came as a legacy from my toxic OldJob, where I had a crazy workload, heavier than anyone in my department, but at raise time that was not accounted for in my review, but the one error I’d had 3 months earlier was.

      2. TardyTardis*

        Tell me about it. If I did stuff at the speed that I can–and accurately–I got everyone else’s work, too. At most of the jobs I’ve been at, I’ve been replaced by two and a half people.

      3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        I would romp through my work and then just tootle about on Internet, answer emails, do a bit of volunteer work. I had wangled a corner desk so nobody could see what I was doing. And if anyone looked at my browsing history, a lot of websites could be a source of information for a translation. And if it was obviously not the case, my stats were sky-high compared to those of my colleagues who barely did half what I did, so it didn’t make sense to accuse me of anything. I regularly sent out emails to the project managers telling them I could take on more work too, I’m not sure that there was much more they could have sent me, even if I could do half as much again in the hours I worked.

    2. allathian*

      I could have written your first paragraph. I sometimes get bouts of mild impostor syndrome, although I can usually talk myself out of it. But underpromise and overdeliver is definitely a part of my MO, too. And I absolutely love being an individual contributor with enough seniority to mostly need my boss for backing up my decisions and occasionally for changing our work priorities, when she has more info about the priorities of our C-suite than I do. I don’t want to be a manager, because I don’t want to manage people, because that would stress me out.

  3. Jay*

    If you consider a standard review process, you fall likely under “meet expectations.” You come in, you do your job, you leave. You don’t do more or less than what is expected of you. Which is fine, there are plenty of people out there that are perfectly happy coming to work and doing what is expected of them.

    But you mention that you are concerned with being passed up for raises which definitely is a possibility, but it all really depends. There are people that constantly perform at an exceeds expectations level that get passed up for promotions.

    What I’d suggest – figure out what your goals are (I want to be promoted to a senior level within 5 years, I want to have a direct report by this point, etc.) and then go to your boss and ask them. State that you enjoy what you are doing, want a long career with the company and want to know what you can improve on to help reach your goal, you can even say “I would like to be at x level by the end of 2021, how do I get there?”

    1. Shakti*

      I think the letter said that they’d gotten a lot of raises and quite generous ones so I don’t think that’s an issue here

    2. Diahann Carroll*

      There are people that constantly perform at an exceeds expectations level that get passed up for promotions.

      This is something that doesn’t get talked about enough. I don’t know what field OP is in (sounds like some kind of law), but when I worked in foreclosure law and then insurance, there weren’t that many levels that one could be promoted up to to begin with. So you had a bunch of people breaking their necks, working ridiculous hours and having no life outside of work – all to end up with a “Gee, thanks” from management and a pat on the back. That’s it.

      And in insurance, one of the divisions I was in, our AVP flat out told my coworker that they didn’t promote people based on their work, but rather based on who they liked. After that, she stopped doing extra work and found a job someplace else that would actually reward her hard work. Basically, many people kill themselves in the workplace for very little reward and recognition in the long run. OP is in the best position because she does enough to get by and still gets good raises and glowing reviews. That’s working smarter, not harder, and I think that’s the best way to go.

      1. ellex42*

        My experience in 20 years in the work force as to who gets promoted:

        -people with seniority (who has been there the longest)
        -people who everyone else likes (who gets along with everyone/has few to no personality conflicts)
        -people who talk to the boss the most (visibility)

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          Yup – and none of that has anything to do with the quality or quantity of work produced.

      2. HR Exec Popping In*

        Performance level generally does not equate promotional opportunity to higher level positions. The OP needs to decide if they are happy at the organizational level they are at. If they are, and are not interested in taking on more responsibility, then no issue. It is likely the OP’s friends all want to advance into leadership roles.

    3. Lady Meyneth*

      One other thing OP should think about is the quality and efficiency of their work. More worked hours don’t always translate into better or even more work. I achieved a “exceed expectations” this year, and I earned it, but I very rarely do more than 40h work weeks. Fact is, I often do less (being salaried) because at some point my work is done and I depend on input from other colleagues/departments.

      OP, it sounds like your work is solid, even great. Your managers seem to agree, and your raises reflect that. If your main worry is just the hours, know more hours don’t equal better work. Also, not being a rockstar doesn’t mean you can’t be more efficient in what you do than your overachieving friends, even if the biggest original contributions will probably not be yours. And that’s ok, you’re still a regular great employee.

      It doesn’t sound like you want to be the big rockstar, so it looks like you’re being very successful in what you actually set yourself to do!

  4. AndersonDarling*

    I just want to suggest that you question the massive time commitments that you are being quoted. Of all the people I have worked with who talk about working 70 hour weeks and staying at the office until 9pm every night…it’s all BS. Of the dozens of people who brag about their long hours, not a single one of them actually worked those hours. They stay late one or two times and suddenly they are company martyrs. Not to say that no one puts in those hours, but in my experience, the “big fish” time fudging grows exponentially based on how many people are playing the game. Those 70 hour weeks are really 50 hour weeks.

    1. OrigCassandra*

      And (as we’ve seen several times here at AAM) sometimes people putting in a lot of extra hours do so because they’re not working as efficiently as they might. I might also take a look at the supervisors for people who are putting in extra hours: sometimes all they know to measure is butt-in-seat time, and they can set the expectation, or even just the tone, that leads to employee martyrdom.

      As an ex-perfectionist/”high achiever,” let me assure you that you’re fine, OP. Absolutely fine. Enjoy your life! Get that leadership development training if you truly want it — there’s lots of ways! But don’t get it if you don’t want it.

      1. SharonC*

        I’m in the IT industry and another thing I’ve seen in that realm are people who run around like crazy putting out fires and being praised by management for all the hard work and being there to solve crisis after crisis. Then crazy-busy person burns out and leaves so I take over. I’m very efficient and believe in fixing things so they don’t break to begin with, so it’s not very long until things are running smoothly, I’m doing a flat 40-hour workweek (and sometimes coasting because my work is done) and management sees me as a reliable worker but not perhaps the super-hero that the other person was. In other words, if management is non-technical, they often buy into the hype of people who set fires in order to put them out and look like heroes. Anybody reading this who is a manager, watch out for this!

        1. Bostonian*

          Oh, this is so insightful. At my work, though, senior management creates enough fires for us to put out that we don’t have to start any. ;-)

        2. lemon*

          oh wow. you just described my boss to a T. She’s been the only technical person on a non-technical team for almost a decade, and everyone has bought into her hype because she’s constantly talking about how busy she is, having 10 meetings to discuss something that should take no more than 30 minutes to do, answering email on nights and weekends, etc. Whereas it takes me 30 minutes to do what takes her hours, because… I know what I’m doing and I’m organized.

    2. Ashley*

      My partner regularly worked 70 hours for around a year. He set a schedule and made it work for the two of us and generally speaking you would never know he did that.
      I have worked places where late nights were more standard but often that involved the non morning person who wasn’t coming to work first thing in the morning, related to a season special project or conference, people on the East Coast planning major events with people on the West Coast. My experience though are those that routinely do the long hours don’t actually get the work done in the 8 hour time frame either socializing, saying woe is me, or not following the basic instructions the first time so they have to keep redoing work.
      I try to re-frame taking longer to complete something as a thoroughness / quality issue and not being lazy or slow.

    3. Kiki*

      Yeah, I don’t want to say that everyone working 70 hour weeks is inefficient– that’s definitely not true, some people genuinely have that much on their plates– but a lot of the people I encountered who talk a lot about their crazy hours (as fellow students and in the working world) are often not reallllllllly working all 70 of those hours or are otherwise inefficient. A university roommate of mine is a prime example: she complained constantly about burning out and staying at the library until it closed at 2am, but spent a lot of her time socializing. She also wrapped a lot of her identity up in her grades and school life.
      I think there are different approaches to work and careers. Some people’s work lives are integral to their entire identity, so pushing for a B+ instead of a B- is very important to their sense of self. Other folks perceive work as a necessary part of life that allows them to do other things. They do their job, they do it well, and then they go do other things. It sounds like LW is the latter. It does seem like the upper echelons of companies tend to be populated more often by the former, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way or at all better than the latter.

    4. nona*

      I’m assuming OP is a lawyer (the situation really smells like the insecure overachievers that law school and the legal field attract). In which case, I totally believe the 70 hr weeks, since you have to work more hours than you bill and there are some big billing requirements in the law.

      That said – I went to law school, but am not practicing, so I could totally be in OP’s shoes. I have a 40-50 hr/wk job that uses my degree tangentially, but there is definitely a feeling of maybe not having lived up to my full potential.

      But the truth is, I have a workplace where I can set healthy boundaries and don’t have a (law) partner pushing unreasonable deadlines b/c the client has unreasonable expectations. The workplace expectation is healthier.

      1. EPLawyer*

        I’m thinking law too, or at least very law like. Look, the goal for most people busting their butts in law offices is to make partner. Okay then what? You get minions to work those insane hours so you don’t have to. Big deal. BUT, you are expected to rainmake like mad. One of the MANY reasons I put off law school as long as I did was I did those 70 hour work weeks once upon a time as a paralegal. It sucked. Never again.

        When I went to law school and then hung out a shingle, I was very clear that I wanted work life balance. My classmates were pulling all nighters, I wasn’t. Because I started the paper three months ago instead of waiting for the last week. So I could get a good night’s sleep every night. Same thing in law practice, I plan my schedule so I am not breaking my neck to prep for a trial next week.

        If you work for a firm, accept you are going to be an associate forever. A steady paycheck is not to be sneezed at. Of course some firms may help you out of the door after being an associate for so long — but you know what — going solo is always an option. Then you are your own boss and you work the hours you want and get to keep all the money. Instead of working insane hours so your boss can afford his beach house.

        One last bit, if you find yourself stretching the work out, ask your boss for another project, or come up with something on your own. It won’t take over, but it will fill in the time. You have the capacity to add in work to make 40 hours a week.

      2. NotAnotherManager!*

        Yeah, I thought law firm as well. The hour suck in law, too, is that you are on call when the client needs you, particularly in BigLaw – and, if you didn’t bill anything during the 9-5 workday and the client pops up at 5 and needs something by 9 a.m., you’re working to their deadline no matter what time it is.

    5. Mazzy*

      This is true. I used to work 50 hours a week. That’s 9-7. Leave home at 8 and get home at 8 if I went straight to work and straight home. It definitely felt like I was doing more hours. My boss asked for a raise for me and was telling them how I did 60 hour weeks and they got alarmed about my workload. My boss didn’t realize that 60 hours would be 9-9 every single day, which would have been insane.

    6. Firecat*

      Yep. Forbes did a report on that where 90% of people claiming to work 55+ hours a week were “faking it”. Tactics included talking a lot about the brutal hours. Making sure to be the last person in the office, but generally slacking during the day, and sending late night emails making it seem like you had worked all evening.

      My experience with everyone working insane hours like that is that they did not have that much work to do.

      The most egregious example was when I was given the role of someone who was working 75+ hours a week. Logging in on all weekends, constantly in the office until 8pm or later. She was promoted by our butt in seats manager who was mad I didn’t work overtime.

      Well when I went to her role I was able to finish it all in 30 hours a week. it was actually less work then I had been doing in my prior role, and I was free to take on interesting projects. I also had to go back and correct over 3 months of her work which was littered with errors.

      1. AndersonDarling*

        On being the last person in the office…I was in an office where I worked earlier than everyone else in my department and I left at 4:30 every day. All my co-workers griped about working SO MANY late hours. Well, one day I was in a meeting until 4:45 and when I got back to my desk, no one was there. The entire department was gone. That’s when I discovered that everyone left immediately after me every day. They were complaining about working late but in reality, they were coming in between 9am and 10am and leaving at 4:35. Ha! They were only putting in 6-7 hour days and I thought they were staying till dark!

    7. TechWorker*

      Interesting. I try to stick to my contracted hours (37.5) but realistically do more like 40-45. If due to something urgent I work til 9/10pm multiple days in a row (which still only puts me at ~50/week at most) I feel awful :p so I am amazed by those who work 70 hours and you know, survive.

    8. Anon25*

      I definitely worked 70-80 hours a week for about five years of my career. It’s what I needed to do to get seniority. Now I have a job where I work about 50-55 hours, much more responsibility and pressure but less long, grueling hours. I don’t think it’s sustainable if you want to have a partner, a family, hobbies, or be healthy to maintain a schedule of 60+ hours for many years. I would look at long hours as a vehicle to get where you want to be in terms of career/earning power/etc – but it shouldn’t be viewed as a career-long commitment. No problem if that is not something you want to do!

  5. MaureenSmith*

    Also look at those 70+ hour work week friends and ask yourself, are those 70 hours productive? Are they producing twice what you are in 40? Or are they so burned out it takes them 4 hours to (accuratly) do a task you can do in 1? Has hours worked become their way of bragging about their (unstustainable) work-life balance?

    Beyond a certain number of hours per day/week/month, my brain gets fried and can no longer perform effectivly. Think back to school, did reading the text obsessivly for 12 hours overnight result in significantly better marks than someone who selectivly reviewed for 3 and got sleep? Probably not. My exam marks were always better with sleep beforehand.

    1. BookLady*

      Ditto! I used to share my role with a co-worker who took 3-4 days to do a task that I can do in an afternoon. She worked nights and weekends to get everything done, and I was able to manage my part of our shared role in 40 hours. In fact, when my boss noticed that I was more efficient, the co-worker was moved to a different role and I took on both parts of the shared role–which I’m still able to do in 40 hours.

    2. CastIrony*

      You remind me of a time my best friend studied with a fake friend until midnight, and she ended up with her worst test grade.

      Her professor told her to never do that again, and she didn’t.

  6. Work-Life Balancer*

    It sounds like the LW has a proper work-life balance in a field full of workaholics. I can sympathize. I’m in middle-management in the public sector. A lot of my peers work 50-60 weeks, while I work 40 hours most weeks. When I came in I streamlined a lot of outdated processes, trained my employees well, and delegated tasks. I’ve taken on many more responsibilities since then, but still rarely need to put in more than 40 hours. Sometimes I have the same gnawing feeling I am not working enough, then I step back and look at what I am doing and try to get some perspective.

    1. Marillenbaum*

      This is really encouraging. I am also public sector, in a field where people are encouraged to overwork themselves because of stakes and prestige. There’s an assumption that everyone who comes in wants to become a senior official. I don’t. My fiancé, who is in the same field, mapped out the maximum time at each promotion level so he can retire without having to make the leap into the senior ranks. At the end of the day, my job isn’t my life; it’s a means to an end.

    2. Wenchie*

      I work in academia, but I’m not an academic. A lot of my coworkers seem to have been trained in overwork by their academic programs. They respond to Slack and emails 24/7–even weekends or when they’re supposed to be on vacation. They’re always impressed when I log off at 5:30, not to be seen again until the next morning. I turn off notifications when I’m out of the office. I keep telling them, “you can do this, too!” I’m trying to normalize being just okay. An article I recently read called it “positive mediocrity.”

  7. MK*

    OP, where and when do you hear these stories about barely having time to breathe? I mean, apparently these people do have the time occasionally to chat with an old friend about how incredibly busy they are?

    Ok, irony aside, do take into consideration that everyone tends to exaggerate when venting to their friends. I am sure they are busy, busier than you who have chosen not to focus on your career so much, but it’s unlikely that everyone in your social circle is working 70 hours a week, every week.

    1. Glockness Monster*

      Unfortunately this is in fact the norm when you work in consulting, accounting, or the law. Associates at firms are expected to do insane amounts of billable hour work (and not all work you have to do is billable) to justify their existence in the firm.

      1. Underachieving LW*

        Interestingly, I’m not in any of those fields, but my dad was, and he’s the source of basically all my career advice because he was so successful. Maybe I have unrealistic expectations coming at me from multiple directions! He did tell me to expect to put in 70-hour weeks for the first few years out of school…

        1. Glockness Monster*

          It definitely sounds like you do. Just in case he hasn’t spelled it out for you, associates in these environments are seen as both expendable and as a drain on company resources. So the sentiment is, “We’re going to squeeze as much billable work as possible out of you because you need to justify your employment here and earn back more than your salary for us. And if you’re not willing to work 70 or 80 hours a week, there are scores of wide-eyed new graduates desperate for a job who are.” There’s been some tepid movements toward reform in that area but nothing really concrete yet. Your dad has that old school mentality that a lot of younger people (like myself, I’m 31) aren’t okay with anymore.

          1. Ominous Adversary*

            Dad also might have no idea that you get a lot more credit for those 70 hour weeks when you’re a man (especially if you’re a white man, and ESPECIALLY if you have a family).

            1. Underachieving LW*

              Oh, how he would hate to hear that. :) He also has the boomer mentality of “company loyalty above all else!” which we young’uns learned would eventually backfire horribly on us during the Great Recession. Overall, I do think he gives good advice, but the further I get in my career the more I realize that we’re just different people, so I take it with a grain of salt.

          2. KH*

            This is totally the case. I worked at a big global management consulting firm in the late 1990s/early 2000s. The younger you are, the more hours you worked. They would travel 5 days a week, every week. Any time they were traveling, they were either working or talking about work in a hotel bar after working until late at night. Which is work. They only got to go home late at night on Friday, and had to fly back out again on Sunday night.
            If they were lucky enough to get a client in their city of residence, they were still expected to work and socialize with the out of town consultants.

            It was depressing to watch. There would be staff meetings where they talked about work balance… which they would solve by providing concierge services to handle their dry cleaning or other chores.

            This didn’t let up until the mid 40s when they either made senior manager / partner status or quit or are pushed out.

        2. higheredrefugee*

          I have also seen those kind of hours in some high stakes finance jobs, though it tends to be at least somewhat cyclical, though I absolutely see those kind of hours from my fellow lawyers across sectors (BigLaw just does it the most visibly).

          Some of what needs to be examined is, what ways or how can you get promoted? In many engineering fields and in the government, you need to be willing to take on management of others AND projects to be promoted as there are ceilings to which they can continue to give the big raises and still bill your hours or justify the next step/grade increase. Here’s where mentors in your field, but outside your organization, can be particularly helpful in seeing a broader horizon of career paths, and which ones you’re willing to pursue and accept.

      2. Baffled Teacher*

        Yeah my cousin’s in BigLaw; he’s 37 and been at it for about ten years and he is *just now* getting something resembling work-life balance. He only had his first kid last year.

      3. BB*

        Was coming here to say exactly this – I am in corporate law and my sister works for one of the Big 4 accounting firms. Can say without a doubt that while not every week may be 70 hours, that is more the norm than not when you’re associate level. People in these industries generally tend to think it’s a badge of honor to work obscene amounts of hours and use it for clout. It’s not a healthy mentality and is challenging to be around if you have a lot of friends who are bought into this.

      4. CJM*

        My insane hours as a CPA are limited to about 2 1/2 months a year during tax season. I couldn’t do it if it was every week, all year long.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      Well, if it’s BigLaw, you chat with your friends while you’re hanging around waiting for the partner to get back to you with feedback on your latest draft of something due to the client first thing in the morning. Or after you’ve reviewed a thousand documents and need a ten minute break from the document review platform. Or you leave the office at 6 for dinner and then go back and work some more.

      When you routinely work those hours, you figure it out. When your peer group works those hours, they get it and work it out with you.

    3. Mina, The Company Prom Queen*

      True- some people see bragging about how busy they are and how they work “70 hour weeks” as a badge of honor.

    4. TardyTardis*

      Nope, year end (and sometimes month end) in accounting is Usually Really Like That. So glad not to be there now!

  8. Ana Gram*

    I think the answer here is spot on. What does success mean to you? For me, success is enough money to pay my bills and travel, good coworkers, a meaningful career, and free time to spend with my husband and on my hobbies. I’ve made career decisions with an eye toward that goal and I’m pretty happy with where I’m at. Others work harder or more and make more or have more prestige, etc. but I wasn’t willing to give up the things I valued to get the money or prestige. If it’s something you value, go for it! But that doesn’t mean that not desiring those things is odd or bad.

    1. Underachieving LW*

      That’s a good point, and I think it’s important for me to figure out what it is that I value. I definitely like having my work-life balance, but I also know I have good leadership skills and would probably thrive in a management role (and I like money, let’s be honest). At the job I’m at now, I think I could probably achieve both of those things, but I’ve worked at companies where it doesn’t work that way–so depending on where I end up, I may have to make a choice.

      1. nona*

        If you want that leadership/management position as the next step – is this this something you can talk with your manager about? Not about “why wasn’t I selected”, but to ask what mgmt looks for to demonstrate leadership or management aptitude. And then ask if there are opportunities to take on some small projects in that area to develop and position you for taking on that kind of work.

      2. Diahann Carroll*

        I don’t know your field, but there are people in management/supervisory positions that work regular hours. I had a couple when I worked in claims, and my now-departed manager in software (on the documentation side) didn’t work crazy hours either unless an emergency cropped up (which was rare). You may not have to choose between moving up for more pay and work-life balance.

        1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

          This. At least in my field, the folks in middle management who were struggling with work-life balance were taking on extra individual contributor-level work because they were either managing understaffed teams or weren’t so great at delegating.

      3. Just J.*

        LW, since you posted here, I am going to reply here. Yes, you really, really need to look at where you want to be in the next few years. And then talk to your manager on how to get there.

        I manage people like you. I am currently managing several. They are all on their mid-to-late 20’s. They think that they are all doing well and that they will all move ahead and I can tell you they will not. Trust me, management is watching. And it has nothing to do with technical skills. They are all rock solid when it comes to that. But technical skills will only get you so far. Some of the crew are just don’t “have it” to move into management. And this has nothing to do with soft skills – as they are all great people who are good communicators, honest, ethical, supportive…..pick an adjective. It has to do with that willingness to go the extra step, ask the extra question, think through the process through to the next three steps. It is the willingness, when dictated by schedule or deadlines, to put in the 60 or 70 hour week. It is also the willingness to help the staff around you – especially the staff younger than you. It really is all about attitude.
        Moreover, it is about enthusiasm. How much do you WANT to get ahead.

        If you want to get ahead, you do have to show it.

        One last note: If you are struggling to stretch your workload to 40 hours a week, you seriously need to talk to your manager. You need more work. If you are getting through your workload because you are efficient, then ask for more work. If you are stretching out your time just to fill time, we in management definitely notice this. Your managers KNOW how long things should take. So don’t BS them by doing this. It will bite you.

        1. SharonC*

          I’m glad you posted this. I’d love to see a discussion of this by itself, because too often I’ve seen people who do go the extra mile and just get taken advantage of. So how would a person be the enthusiastic extra-miler you want to promote without either being used or burned out?

        2. Underachieving LW*

          Just curious–do you let your employees who think they’re doing well and that they will advance that that isn’t the case? It seems kind of cruel to string them along…

          1. Analytical Tree Hugger*

            I agree. A good manager would have this discussion with them, probably framed as a “What are your goals over the next five years?” That gives the employees a chance to express their interest and for the manager to share what they need to change to get there.

        3. A Person*

          My experience with this is definitely different. I’ve been in a management role in 3 different companies now, and while yes I’ve put in an occasional 45-50 hour week I’ve NEVER put in a 60 or 70 hour week. I’ve done this by explicitly working for companies with good work life balance (and probably getting a bit lucky).

          I agree if you want to be in leadership it would be best to pick up a little more work (that you can do in 40 hours) and be willing to step up and work in the evening once every few months. I also don’t work at the “sexiest” companies in my field and probably don’t make the highest salary that I could. But I’ve chosen to pick good companies that promote work life balance where my boss tells me he’s impressed with my work/life boundaries.

        4. Ana Gram*

          This is a great comment because it illustrates a type of culture that I would look to avoid. I’m not willing to either work 70 hours a week to get ahead or be looked down upon because I won’t. I’m very good at my job but you get 42 hours/week from me (that’s just how our schedules work) with the occasional overtime for an event or extra assignment. While I think it’s unusual to consistently not have enough work to fill the day, the options aren’t that or the rat race. It’s possible to find the middle ground *if* you want it.

        5. TechWorker*

          Agree on the ‘your manager will notice you stretching time for tasks’ and that that’s not a good mindset to be in if you do want to get promoted at some point. Disagree *all* management jobs require you to be prepared to put in 60-70 hour weeks, I’m pretty sure my absolute worst has been 50-55 and that’s rare. I am certain my own manager who is director level does not work 60-70 hr weeks regularly if ever too.

        6. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

          I’m glad that you mentioned this, because a lot of the skills you’re talking about aren’t just ones that are necessary for moving up, they’re ones that really help you share your value as an individual contributor.

        7. Ginger Baker*

          I uhhh….think the time a task takes can be very worker-dependent. I know for a fact I work much MUCH faster than many of my peers (for tasks that are exactly the same – usually three times faster and with no errors; sometimes faster for tasks where I have created systems [say, using Excel] to make things go smoothly). Where the LW falls on that scale (ie whether they are on average slower, the same, or faster than their coworkers for the same tasks) I don’t know, but it is definitely not universal that any worker who stretches out tasks will be noticed.

          1. TardyTardis*

            Same here. If you give me a process, I will find a way to automate as much of it as humanly possible, and yes, Excel was definitely one of the methods I used.

            And then I get two other people’s work dumped on me, for which I try to do the same, lather rinse repeat.

    2. ThatGirl*

      Yeah, I’m at the point where more money would be nice, of course, but I honestly don’t really want a lot more responsibility. I value work life balance and having free time.

      1. Ana Gram*

        Same! I could work more for more money but it is very literally not worth the trade for me. For a lot of people, it is and that’s great. But it seems like many people view the “work crazy hours” lifestyle to be the standard and anything less is a quaint deviation.

  9. Jenny*

    I’m someone who turned down a promotion (I had been doing the job temporarily) because it severely cut into my work life balance. Climbing the ladder just to climb the ladder is silly as long as you’re happy where you’re at.

  10. OtterB*

    “the older I get, the more I find myself deliberately stretching out how long I spend on assignments to make it seem like they’re taking me more time than they really are.”

    This is the piece that caught my eye, and seems like a place to make a change without burning yourself out trying to be what you’re not and don’t even want to be.

    What happens if you work the assignments without stretching them out? If you have work time left over, what could you do with it? Is there a reason you don’t want to do that?

    Otherwise it sounds to me like you’ve made a life decision that works for you, and good for you.

    1. Colette*

      Yes, if you always have to stretch work to get to 40 hours, it might make sense to take on a little more. But if it’s occasional, that’s just the way it goes sometimes.

      1. Bostonian*

        This is a good point. It’s OK IMO to stretch things out occasionally, especially as a break after busy times. But if it’s daily or multiple days a week… that’s a sign of boredom and that it’s time to either move on or take on more fulfilling/interesting work.

    2. A Reasonable Number of Rodeos*

      I could see not wanting to finish things more quickly and then get assigned more work for the same amount of pay. I am also like the OP in that I am a good employee but I work to live not live to work. I would rather be passed up for a raise than have a raise that comes with the expectation to work 70 hours a week. My time and my life are worth more to me than any job.

    3. Underachieving LW*

      “What happens if you work the assignments without stretching them out? If you have work time left over, what could you do with it? Is there a reason you don’t want to do that?”

      In response to this–I run out of work pretty quickly, ask for more, may or may not be given more. If I am, then I finish that pretty quickly. If I’m not, then I’m not–but that’s pretty anxiety-inducing, like what if my boss decides they don’t need me if they can’t keep me busy for 40 hours? Better to just look busy than to take that risk, at least in my mind. It may not be logical but that’s my thought process.

      With the leftover work time, I can always think of things to do, whether that’s organizing parts of the office or doing software training tutorials or whatever else, but we work on billable hours and don’t really have the overhead to pay me to do that. So instead I end up dragging out my work because I don’t want to get in trouble for working non-billable. It sucks, but that’s how it is. I’m open to suggestions if anybody has them!

      1. OtterB*

        Ah. I’ve never worked in a billable hours environment, just places where there were always little projects hanging around waiting for someone to do them. I can see that’s different.

      2. Glockness Monster*

        Do you think this is a delegation issue (as in, your boss not giving you work that’s available) or the company literally doesn’t have work for you? Do you have peers in this role, and would it be possible for you to take some of their work?

        1. Underachieving LW*

          I would say 80% not having the work, 20% not delegating. I do help out my peers as much as I can.

      3. Two Dog Night*

        You know, you might be happier in an industry where billable hours aren’t a thing. Careers like that exist, and, in my experience, they’re a whole lot less anxiety-inducing if you do want some balance to your life.

        1. CheeryO*

          Yup. I moved from consulting to the public sector within the same industry and am so much happier and less anxious for it. That kind of work environment isn’t for everyone, and it’s not a failure to admit that.

      4. Massive Dynamic*

        Oh I’ve been exactly there too. In an office where many other people were either generally overloaded and working long hours, or performatively busy. I kept my head down and tried to stretch my work as best I could, and did ask for more/volunteer to take on more wherever I could glean that I could be of help. Honestly, the best thing I did was find a new job where now I’m genuinely busy but also limited to 40 hours/week and it’s amazing for me. I didn’t realize the full extent of how much mental energy was spent playing that “look busy so they don’t fire you/don’t let them overload you” game until I got out.

        If you’re on billable client work, can you volunteer yourself for very specific things that you know how much time it will take you to do? That’d be a good way to get more on your plate and seem like a team player, and at the same time you are controlling the time budget needed for the new work you’d be taking on.

    4. SomebodyElse*

      This is the only thing that I’d side eye as a manager.

      I happy if my employees are happy, well placed, and productive. That means different things to different people, for some it’s doing their job and going home, others it means stretching and doing more than the job description to move into new roles. Both are needed and appreciated on a team!

      That being said, without knowing more, I would not be particularly chuffed to find out that an employee was purposely stretching out existing work to cover 40 hours. IME, there are usually 3 types of activities in every job: need to do now, need to do sometime, and want to do sometime. A healthy backlog of work involves all three types so there shouldn’t be a time were there is nothing to do. All 3 types should benefit the team, organization, and the employee.

      My advice to the LW… Don’t worry about being solidly placed and doing a good job. Don’t worry about not being a rockstar… Do take a look at this point of stretching work… this is what can take a person from being an achiever to an underachiever.

      1. SomebodyElse*

        I see the point made above about billable hours. That can be a consideration that I hadn’t fully considered. Not enough information to know if that’s the case here or not.

        1. SomebodyElse*

          And now I’m just embarrassing myself (as well as talking to myself)… didn’t even notice the username for the comment!

          1. Underachieving LW*

            On the contrary, I thought that was a really helpful comment, especially the “three types of work” you’re describing. I tend to run out of “need to do now” and “need to do sometime” quite quickly and instead find myself doing “want to do sometime” a lot. I’ve felt guilty about it but maybe I shouldn’t, if that’s seen as part of a normal workload.

            I do think maybe I need to work a bit more on going above and beyond. I always ask my manager or coworkers for more work when things are slow, but they don’t always give me some. Maybe it would be better to come up with ideas for more work on my own and then ask my manager about that, instead of asking them to come up with ideas for me.

            1. A Person*

              This is a GREAT idea, and is the sort of thing that shows management potential (identifying work that needs to be done).

      2. Just J.*

        I posted above to this effect and am going to repeat myself here. Do not stretch out your work. I work in an industry with billable hours. If you are using 30 hours to do something I know that you can do in 10, I will be having a discussion with you as to why you are eating up hours on a project. If those answers aren’t legit (change in project scope, delay in getting answers from another consultant, etc.) then I will tag you as an underachiever. And if this sounds harsh, it is meant to. Upper management fights to keep the slackers off their teams.

        I would way, way more want you doing the “need to do sometime and want to do sometime” projects that Somebody Else talks about. I would rather have you billing to Overhead or Non-production Time than to book hours on projects. There are ALWAYS a million things to do in an office, and they usually fall on the “want to do sometime” spectrum and we just never have time to get to them. Volunteer for some of those projects.

        Right now, COVID is hitting my industry hard. I have super-star junior staff that do not have enough work. But I would rather that they keep asking for things to do – and me finding them stuff, even non-billable stuff if it educational or helps the office – than for them to while away hours and bill dead time on my projects.

        1. Underachieving LW*

          I am speculating, based on what you’ve said here/your terminology, that we’re in the same field, so I’m going to respond to you as if we are.

          You say that managers know how long a task will take. I’m telling you that tasks that take most employees 4 hours will take me 2, so managers assign me tasks based on what they expect it to take and now how long it actually takes ME. So I stretch those 2 hours into 4 by taking breaks to work on side projects, or fussing around with minor things on my project that don’t really matter. It’s not a whole lot of, say, sitting and browsing Facebook. (I mean, there’s that, too, but that’s not how I spend the bulk of my day.) It doesn’t make it less of a bad habit, but I’m wondering if that changes your advice.

          1. CheeryO*

            Maybe my industry is different because the clients are mostly cash-strapped municipalities, but I don’t think it’s okay to work on something else and bill the hours to a project… if you work quicker than most and still produce good quality work, that’s great, but you should really still ostensibly be working on the project.

            If you’ve been there for a while and they aren’t feeding you enough work, then either there’s not enough to go around, or there’s some underlying issue with your work. Neither one is good. I would be job searching, honestly.

          2. TechWorker*

            It really surprises me that you see this as something that would make you less valuable (‘we don’t have enough work to fill their time’) vs more (‘I know that if I give them work it’ll be done easily on time and they’ll have extra time to correct mistakes’).

            Managers estimate for the average, or often actually, more than average time something will take – better to tell the client it’s 4 hours of work and bill 3 than tell them it’s 4 and it take 6? (Not sure how that works with billing :)). You might be perfectly happy as is, but if you work anywhere sane then you should get rewarded for doing things efficiently and having more time to spend on other projects. (Or, if your manager ‘wants’ something to last 4 hours because that’s what they charged last time, then let them tell you that rather than assuming?)

        2. Brooke*

          Both of your comments seem to be missing several important points that OP has made in other comments.

          –They *are* asking for/volunteering for more work, and sometimes they don’t get any
          –They get in trouble for working non-billable hours
          –They do their work much faster than other people in their position
          –They consistently get high performance reviews and raises to reflect their good work
          –There are issues with other people who’d give them work not delegating work well, making it harder to take on additional work

          So, there’s no slacking happening here, no “eating up hours”, no billing dead time on projects. There *are*, however, some systemic problems in how work is getting assigned and prioritized.

          As Alison was pointing out, OP’s opinion of themself doesn’t match their documented history of work performance. It seems like your comments are matching OP’s opinion of themself rather than the facts about their work.

          1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

            Yeah, there’s something going on here that’s a bigger issue, and not necessarily one that’s about OP as a worker.

            There’s a real possibility here that OP’s being assigned “low-hanging fruit” work that may be of a lower complexity level compared to what other people in their position are being assigned. Or something else is going on that’s affecting how OP receives assignments. What that is we can’t know, but I suspect that whatever’s at play is more of an issue than OP realizes.

    5. Wintergreen*

      I’m in a similar situation where I stretch out the work. In my current position, if I don’t stretch, I end up doing a lot of crap work I don’t enjoy with the added bonus (since my workload determines workloads downstream) of creating additional work for co-workers who will then rush thru the additional work, make errors, that then gets turned around on me to either get the blame, or to fix. While the additional work to do is nice, and as boring as it is to stretch the work, having to fix something that wasn’t broken when it left my desk 2-3 times is insanely annoying. And as mentioned above, I just end up doing the work of 2-3 people with no additional pay, no back-up and headaches whenever I try to take time off work.

  11. Roja*

    OP, I sympathize. I am also in a field like this and have struggled for years thinking that I just don’t cut it because I wasn’t the best of the best or pushing myself to exhaustion to earn prestige. Now, however, that we’re all in our late 20s (people tend to peak early in my field, let’s put it that way), some of my peers are starting to burn out, retire, and switch gears, whereas I’m still going strong and happy in my work. I’ve been fortunate to have a balanced life so far with family, friends, and hobbies, which can be a rarity in my field.

    Like you, the what-ifs haunt me sometimes, but I suspect that when we’re both retired, we’ll find that we had perfectly nice lives and any tradeoff was more than worth it. You really have to be head over heels in love with your work to make 70 hour weeks worthwhile for any length of time. Are you? Or would you rather enjoy it, make a living, and have a life outside of work too? Nothing wrong with the second option. If you’re really concerned about long-term prospects, I’d recommend finding someone who’s older in your field and whose life looks like you want yours to, and ask them for some wisdom. I bet they’ll be happy to share. Or just take a look around and see who you see. I can think of lots of mentors I’ve had over the years who are leading lives just like mine and yours, and they’re still respected/ accomplished/successful. Good luck!

  12. See myself in you*

    Op, I could be you, biggest difference is that my partner is a stay at home parent and homeschool teacher for our child.
    Something I did not see Alison mention is that there is a possibility that you deliberately seek out positions which allow you the work life balance you want. I am just as qualified as my peers but I deliberately sought out a position that allows me to be much more present in my daughter’s day to day life than many of my peers. It pays a bit less but that’s a trade off I’m willing to make. I’ve had those 70 hour a week positions and as much as the money was good I wasn’t happy.
    I also know many rock stars in my field (and have worked with some). I also see what their lives are like 30 into the career, I don’t want to be them, I wanna to be me. Incidentally the rockstar in my field that I currently work for is totally ok with this, he’s told me that I bring something different to the table than he does but it’s not any less valuable.

  13. Jaybeetee*

    I’m like this as well. I’ve had a few jobs where everyone around me was complaining about how swamped they were, while I tended to have dead time in my day. My reviews were always good, and I eventually realized that a) I’m naturally a quick worker, and as long as I keep my quality reasonable it’s NBD; b) some of the complainers were either perfectionistic or had poor work habits that put them behind, and c) some people just complain they’re overworked because it’s the thing to do, even if they don’t have tons of work.

    I’ve learned if I get into a really good hyperfocus mode, I can do an 8-hour day in about 4. By 6 hours my brain is usually fried and I’m not very productive after that – but my 6 hours I’ve usually done a full day’s work. Also, I aim for “good”, but not necessarily “best”. I’m okay being considered competent, solid, and reliable, even if I’m not a rock star.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      This reminds me of my friends in college. We’d all get assigned the same essay due in two weeks. I’d spend an hour or two doing research and then write the essay. They’d spend one and a half weeks complaining about how they were too busy or couldn’t think of what to do even thought this BIG!ESSAY was due soon, then they’d spend the day before sort of pretending to write it, then they’d declare they’d have to pull a big dramatic all nighter to do the essay, then with great fanfare and exaggerated exhaustion they’d turn in the essay at like 6AM the morning it was due, and then they’d tell the epic story a couple hundred times. It must be … really something … to live like that.

      1. Phoenix from the ashes*

        “It must be … really something … to live like that”

        It is! The improvement in the quality of my life when I learned not to live like that = IMMENSE.

      2. TardyTardis*

        You must be my daughter! She’s a lot better at not crowding her deadlines now, but oh Lord, she sure used to do exactly that kind of last minute routine. Ok, I did too but I got better as well.

  14. Annony*

    It sounds like overall you are happy with your work life balance and ok with the tradeoff of not being the “superstar” employee. There is nothing wrong with that. However, if you are struggling to even fill 40 hours with work, you could offer to help some of your overwhelmed colleagues or ask your boss for more work. If you are bored at work and anxious about whether you are doing enough, it is an easy fix!

    1. Underachieving LW*

      I absolutely do help out my coworkers, but sometimes that still isn’t enough! Although at least in the short term that should change, since I work in an office of less than 10 people and one is about to go on maternity leave. I also have a lot of other optional things I could work on, such as software training, etc, but we work on billable hours and don’t really have the overhead to pay for that, which is part of the reason why I end up dragging out my billable work. It’s a terrible system IMO but I’m not sure what else to do.

  15. Glockness Monster*

    I am the same way and I’m an attorney. I knew that I didn’t want to go to a law firm and break my back for 80 hours every week, so I got a job in-house (which I know is also rare/hard to do) immediately after school. And it’s a tradeoff. I’m sensible with money but I know my peers have been making it hand over fist and I don’t have the extra that they do, and it can be difficult not to feel the pressure to do a lot of CLEs, networking, and the like. Though ultimately I’ve been able to have a bit more breathing room and to shut off my devices at a decent hour without panicking every time I turn them on again in the morning.

    1. Anononon*

      Yup, I would not be able to survive a billable hours law firm. I’m not making the big bucks, but I’m making enough to save a little bit each month, and I usually work closer to 35 hours/week, not even 40.

  16. ReadyNPC3*

    I’m a little confused. A while back, there was a post about how employers shouldn’t settle for employees who do okay work. Isn’t that what the LW is worried about here? Won’t being a “B plus” work mean you should always be worried about being replaced by one of the “A plus” workers down the line?

    1. Glockness Monster*

      The OP incorrectly framed herself as B+ in an A+ world, but Alison pointed out that “You’re highly efficient, work quickly and accurately, respond to people quickly, meet deadlines, have never struggled to find a job or get good references, regularly get good raises, rarely hear negative feedback, and are responsive to critiques of your work. That all … sounds pretty good. I’m not seeing a problem with anything you’ve described!”

      OP seems to be conflating lack of ambition with not doing good work, and that’s just not the case.

    2. irene adler*

      Good point!
      I never wanted the 80+ hour a week job. I knew I’d crumble before too long. So I stuck to my little QC job for decades. It’s in a small company so no promotions either.

      Now I’m job hunting and boy, it’s hard. Why no promotions? Why so long at one company? I don’t have any “how I saved the company” STAR responses. I just took care of business, solved problems, keep product on-track, shipped on time, escalated issues only when necessary. Nothing heroic. Yawn- next candidate please!

      But I will say, this post+ response does give me something to buoy my spirits. Their is a legit place in the working world for the B+s out there. I just have to find the company that values something other than the rock stars.

  17. designbot*

    I am a middle manager in one of these fields, and I’d encourage you to think about this in more specific ways. Right now you’re making a broad comparison to other people’s levels of effort, but not tying it to specific results. If what you want to achieve is to always have an easy time getting a job, to be fairly compensated, and to have a good work/life balance, it sounds to me like you are doing all the right things. If what you want is to be seen as a leader in your field, to achieve a specific job title/level that you haven’t been able to crack, or to get better project opportunities than you currently do, then your approach might want some adjusting. Figure out what it is you really want before you worry about how you might not be getting there.

  18. JJ*

    Umm, did I write this?? I get CONSISTENT feedback that I “work too fast”, not in a “…and it’s resulting in errors” sort of way, but in an “I’m annoyed I have to find more for you to do” or, “I wanted to bill the client more hours for this” sort of way. As an intern, I had someone advise me to slow way down in general! I declined to take up that advice, and no w I can complete my entire workday reliably in 4-6 hours.

    Some people are just fast and efficient and able to make quick, confident choices. Some people need to noodle around for ages, can’t multitask, or whatever else, and so are slower. Others screw around for huge chunks of the day, then stay late to make themselves “look dedicated”. There are many cultures where if you can’t get all your work done in the prescribed workweek, THAT is a problem. Someone working 70 hours in one of those places would probably be put on a PIP, not rewarded like here in America.

    You work at the pace you work, and my (totally biased) opinion is that fast is a great natural pace to have! You can do a lot more, you can be the reliable fire-putter-outer, the one people are confident will never make a project late. Those are all strengths! Hang onto your speed and your healthy work/life balance, and when you breeze through all your work, maybe find other education/enrichment things to pass the time and make you even more valuable.

    1. Underachieving LW*

      I fully agree with you! I had a manager at an internship once who got legitimately angry at me for being too fast. As in, he actually yelled at me because “I wasn’t planning to have to find more work for you to do!” Yeah, that’s a really good motivator to ask for more work or take on my own projects…

      I also agree that working fast and accurately is the best. If I were a manager, that’s what I would want! But it’s confusing because that doesn’t seem to be the case, and I have no idea how to give my managers what they want.

      1. JJ*


        Do you have a decent enough relationship with your manager to be able to be able to broach this proactively? (I’ve also frequently been dinged for getting tired of annoying managers with requests for more work, then I’m NOT PROACTIVE when I take their “I’m annoyed by this, you figure it out” hint and find something else to do instead of ask, so watch out for that. Like, I proactively did all the work and you had nothing more for me so ???)

        I’m a freelancer now so when I’m done I just go swimming or whatever, but if I were still in an office setting I’d probably be like, “Hey manager, I’m finding that my natural working pace has me completing work quicker than scheduled, do you have any evergreen suggestions for what you’d like me to be doing when I wrap up everything hours before EOD?” I would also come armed with “some ideas I have are [new project], [education thing], [cross-training in some other dept you’re interested in].”

        Make sure to document all the quickness and excellence for your annual review, so you could get more money and/or maybe some kind of flex schedule if they really, truly can’t keep you busy. Fast workers are often punished for being fast by being underpaid (i.e. for hourly work) or having to boredly run out the clock in the office, so find a way to highlight your quickness and make the want to reward you for it.

      2. JJ*

        Oh and also, re: “I have no idea how to give my managers what they want’, I always run under the assumption that what everyone wants the most is for life to be as smooth and easy as possible, so if you can present options they can just pick from, instead of “I need you to do more work by finding more work for ME” that will likely help.

        1. Underachieving LW*

          Thank you–this is all good advice.

          And yes, that boss was scary. Luckily it was only a few months :)

  19. LadyByTheLake*

    Corporate attorney here — I have always looked at my peers who are busy busy busy, who even at conferences can’t take time to socialize because they have to work work work, who have to interrupt conversations to take that important phone call . . . and I’ve decided that in large part it is performative. They define their worth by how busy they are, so they “perform” being busy to a level that they really don’t need to or make themselves available 24/7/365 so that they feel important. I am highly successful, make a lot of money, and I don’t do any of that. Now, every now and then I have a project or a deal where I really do need to drop everything and work, or an important call I need to take, but that is not a constant — vacations, weekend and evenings are generally sacrosanct (absent true emergencies) and no one thinks the less of me for it. Now, a 40 hour week in my job would be considered really low — the usual is 8-6, so more like 45-50 hours a week, but that still leaves plenty of time for work-life balance. Now that I’m nearing retirement I have no regrets that I have never pulled an all-nighter and have worked weekends only a handful of times.

    1. Glockness Monster*

      I agree, though I’ve been that person at conferences but it’s because I have had competing priorities. My manager who REALLY REALLY wanted me to go to great half or whole-day CLEs was often the one heaping work on me at the same time, or emailing me while I was in the conference. I was also in a work environment where several people were allowed to give me work and the same manager wasn’t willing to help me set boundaries or priorities and I felt that I had to get it done, period.

      The performative aspect is huge, though. I once heard another female attorney say, “I have a half hour commute and it still feels like my clients can tell I’m not answering emails in that gap.” As her client (in-house counsel) I wasn’t as impressed as I think she wanted me to be. I’ve received several emails from outside counsel that felt rushed, half-assed, or that were obviously just forwards from an associate who didn’t really know what they were doing, or who had written something for firm use only.

      1. LadyByTheLake*

        I should note that I started in BigLaw and there it was ALL about the performance of being busy (along with billing hours that weren’t actually essential). But that’s the way the economics of BigLaw work. Once I went to MediumLaw, and then InHouse, that kind of performance was no longer expected and there were places for people who just do good work efficiently.

        1. ABK*

          Yes, I work in management consulting, and there are huge differences in hours between VERY PRESTIGIOUS firms and PRESTIGIOUS firms. I think OP said many of his peers are at more prestigious firms, where the real and performative sense of busyness is probably simply more intense than where the OP is.

  20. Alex*

    There’s nothing wrong with doing good work and not bending over backwards to be the best, but it is true that if you want the rewards of being excellent (raises, promotions, leadership opportunities) then you”ll likely need to work harder. Maybe not! It really depends on your office culture, and what your workplace values, and what your immediate peers (not just people you know, but people you work with) are doing. But if everyone around you is working for that B+, while you are settling for the B-, then it is likely opportunities and raises will be given to others instead of you. At least, if you work in a place that values and rewards excellent work (and plenty of places don’t! Some places, like where I work, make sure that all raises and promotions are decided without regards to work quality–only seniority matters for promotions, and everyone always gets the same raise regardless!).

    But if you are OK with not being the one picked for promotions and raises and such, and instead enjoy just putting in a medium amount of work and saving your bandwidth for other pursuits, there’s nothing wrong with making that choice.

  21. Anon Lawyer*

    So I am being thrown off by your example (“think corporate law”). Because I think this is good advice, but if you’re actually in corporate law, that might be a different beast. The fact of the matter is that it’s a billable hour profession that runs off of associates billing enough (read a ludicrous number of) hours. If you’re only working 40 hour weeks – and if you’re stretching out projects because you don’t have enough work – that actually isn’t going to be sustainable long term at a big law firm . Associates in that position will eventually be managed out.

    That said, if this is your field, nothing wrong with doing what you’re doing and collecting the big paycheck for a while and then finding something else. PLENTY of law jobs are more reasonable. It’s just hard to see when you’re in corporate law and people act like it’s the be all and end all.

    1. Sandy*

      Yeah as someone who works in a field like this (also “think corporate law”), there is a limit to how long this can work for. The US Foreign Service, for example, has an up-or-out system; you’ll need to know the ins and outs of your particular field to know whether this can work for you long-term.

      If it can, great!

    2. Ominous Adversary*

      It’s best to think of BigLaw as the pie machine from Chicken Run. Associates go in, money comes out.

    3. AnonGoodNurse*

      Yeah, this is interesting to me… law and accounting are the two fields that seem to draw overachievers. A lot of the post resonates with me, but I can also be a major overachiever if the circumstances warrant it.
      When I was in my final year of law school though, I knew I didn’t want the Big Law way of life and was lucky enough to find a job in corporate law instead. (40 hours a week max… it was perfect…) But the reactions of some of my uber competitive classmates were fascinating. I think it was motivated by the fact that I had a job locked up and they didn’t (this was 2008), so they immediately looked for ways to torpedo it. (How much does it pay? What’s the bonus potential?) I remember looking at one girl and saying, “You and I are not in competition for the same kinds of jobs. I don’t want that life.” She was incredulous.
      I have no regrets about the way my career turned out, btw. It’s perfect for me, I’m doing what I want to be doing, I have a fabulous boss and a solid career path. Could I make more elsewhere? Sure, but I do NOT want that life and I am content with my choices. I hope OP can take some comfort in that.

      1. AnonGoodNurse*

        I also want to say, I know the “hero” types… they work 70 hours a week, but I don’t think they get more done than me. They all seem to spend a great deal of time complaining about how much they work. They aren’t particularly efficient (and who would be on 4 hours of sleep a night?) and it seems to take them longer to accomplish the same task. I figure it’s their choice and let them be, but I get the same, if not more, work done in 40 hours, so good for me.

        1. Anon Lawyer*

          I think that’s 100% what the billable hour model relies on. Nobody can bill 60 hours a week while doing their best work, but that’s what the firm gets paid for: time spent, not efficient work.

          Anyway, I don’t consider people heroes for working long hours – I consider people heroes for accomplishing good things, which corporate law firms mostly don’t  Shrug.

    4. delicate&lustrous*

      Yes, some of the advice in this thread really doesn’t make sense if OP is actually in, say, corporate law. If they are in an up-or-out firm, they need to figure out whether they want to step up, or start working on their out, because one of the two is coming. Particularly if they don’t have enough work to fill 40 hours. In some fields, that suggests efficiency and is great! But at a law firm, it’d make me wonder whether they are not meeting business generation goals, or not developing enough relationships with partners to get work assigned to them, or their B- work is not cutting it and partners are turning to A+ associates instead, all of which mean OP has a limited time before they are asked to leave.

  22. Analyst Editor*

    I know the feeling a lot. I was on a “higher track” but, through a general lack of ambition and hustle, fell out of more competitive jobs into regular jobs (e.g. I-banking vs. corporate strategy at a random company); and right now I’m a SAHM (though looking for work again). Most people I went to school with are more successful than me, career-wise (doctors, managers, senior staff, etc.).
    The way I see it, there are several reasons why they seem like they work more than you:
    -Maybe you’re just smarter; you can do something easily which others have to bust their butt to do.
    -People who work 70 hours a week aren’t actually working that hard all those hours; there’s a lot of wastage.
    -Or your friends are more Type-A and organized and conscientious; these people get really good results compared to the disorganized slackers, and more power to them, but you can’t really make yourself be that way if that’s not your nature.
    -You value your free time and lack of stress. Maybe your priorities are different.

    It’s very likely the last two. BUT I will say this – I am not convinced that the people working 70 hours a week and not having time to date are happier. Often I find among my friends, and even with myself, that those who want to find a way, and those who don’t make excuses – this applies to dating, hanging out with friends, and lots of other domains.

  23. Anonymous Capybara*

    I needed to hear this. I’m also not an overachiever and value my work-life balance very much. I have no desire to climb up the corporate ladder and see that balance shift significantly toward more work than life even with the additional compensation to go with it, so this kind of affirmation is helpful to me.

    This Bill Watterson quote sums it up for me: “Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential. As if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.”

  24. Bertha*

    This is fascinating to me because it seems like you are just much more efficient – much BETTER at your job — than other people! But.. due to the fact you are in a billing environment, and because it’s discouraged to have fewer non-billable hours, you stretch out work so that you have less non-billable time. That seems like a failure of the system, not you.

    1. Anon Lawyer*

      Well, unless other people are being given more work. It’s hard to tell from the outside. In a lot of billable law jobs, not getting work is a sign of an issue (not necessarily with your work – sometimes it’s more unfair than that but could still affect you long-term).

      1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

        Yup. I have a strong suspicion that there’s something not-so-great at play behind why OP’s given the kind of work that allows them to be so underworked and consistently efficient.

        1. Underachieving LW*

          Would you care to share what you think that not-so-great something might be? I’d really like to know! Give it to me straight!

    2. Kiki*

      YES. I think in most other environments, LW would be a superstar because they can find ways to be so consistently efficient.

    3. Perpal*

      Hard to say. The others who are working 70 hours/week may be making scads more money (for themselves or for the company) but that may not be what the LW wants. (plus if they are then blowing the money on habits to sustain 70 hr weeks; yeahhhhh so unhealthy!)

    4. Underachieving LW*

      I agree, 100%. If I’m efficient that should be a GOOD thing–but it’s not. And I do want to blame the system, instead of myself. On the other hand: a) this is the system I’ve got, so I need to find a way to work with it, and b) “everyone else” (meaning the colleagues and friends I refer to in the letter) can do it, so why can’t I?

      1. LTL*

        It sounds like you CAN do it, it’s just not enjoyable for you. This is a question of happiness, not capability.

      2. Bertha*

        This is true – perhaps I was projecting because this is the position I’ve been in at two different jobs.. . The difference is I was always nonbillable (even though I was at professional service firms, I was “overhead” and very rarely billed my time). I constantly asked for more work, especially at my last job, and my boss and I would get into strange arguments about my workload. I finally said “I have the capacity to take on more projects” and she said “But you have this project coming up!” I told her “But I’ll still have plenty of capacity” when want I wanted to say was “Yes, I’m bored out of my MIND right now and this next project will maybe take up one day a week, I’ll take anything!” She seemed so disbelieving at how fast I did work — not that she ever complained or anything, but it was like she just didn’t comprehend that someone could be so fast, so she didn’t have more work for me. And when I’d offer to help with tasks below my level — like reception, when we lost our receptionist– she told me she didn’t want me to doing that kind of low level work or I’d always be stuck with it. Fair enough, but the result was.. I never had enough to do.

        Like you, I also had great reviews and got raises- in fact, by the time I left after 6 years, I was making 50% more than when I started. My boss didn’t see me as an underachiever and even if you feel like it, neither does yours.

        I guess my biggest question is — are your actual coworkers working 70 hours a week? Or can some of the difference between you and your friends be explained by company culture?

        Even if it can’t.. I feel like the only thing you can really do is ask for more and more work. That said.. I did that over and over at my last job and it never came. And even if your coworkers DO appear to be Very Busy, you also mentioned somewhere in this thread the fact that it’s much more efficient for them to do their own work rather than delegate. I have to say, there are times at my current job where my boss asks me to delegate because someone else “needs” work, and it slows down my own work substantially.

        I know, not super helpful, but I commisserate, and just know that you’re doing the best you can. I ended up leaving my last job because I was far too bored and it was affecting my mental health (who know not having things to do, and not having people believe you when you say you need more work, would give me so much time to overthink about things…! ;))

  25. diehardfan*

    This is something I struggle with on a regular basis and it can be hard to see people around you who just seem to enjoy working more than you. I love what Alison said here about enjoying life outside of work and that you are prioritizing things that make you happy, as opposed to staying up late and risking burnout from a job you aren’t over the moon for. It often is also the case of experiencing confirmation bias. Like, you have this small feeling of doubt about your work ethic, and then see examples of that everywhere you look. Maybe everyone around you isn’t an overachiever, but you notice only the things about them that confirm this belief. Either way, keep listening to your soul about what you want in life and try not to compare yourself to everyone else <3

    1. allathian*

      LW is padding her hours as it is. Sometimes faster workers, provided they don’t make more errors than slower ones, are penalized. It can be because the company can’t bill for hours that weren’t spent on the project, but want to bill the customer as much as they can get away with.

      That said, managers seem to be happy, because the LW has received raises and good feedback along the way. But clearly, if there’s a need to artificially pad billable hours, that time could be used more efficiently without risking burnout. Sounds like the LW is risking boreout instead.

  26. Faberge Otter*

    I relate so hard to being bored and not having enough work to fill my 40 hours a week :( It seems like my lot in life is to always be “stuck” in jobs that are mostly downtime, and when there is work, I’m so efficient that I blaze through it in a quarter of the time it takes my peers and it’s back to Twitter to kill the remaining hours of the work day. It makes me feel like a terrible employee, but I also feel like it’s not my fault if there isn’t enough work to keep me busy 8 hours a day. (Normalize a 4-day work-week!) I really could have been this LW, so this advice is very encouraging to me!

  27. Bloopmaster*

    I relate to this topic so hard. Until a few years ago, I’d been an overachiever all my life. I’d feel incredibly guilty every time I could have gone above and beyond and chose not to do so. Then at a certain point I had some mild burnout, and my energy just couldn’t keep up. I gently dialed back some of my more go-getter tendencies. And. No. One Noticed.

    I stopped staying late. I created an annual plan with more relaxed metrics for myself. My productivity stayed more or less the same because I’d gotten better and more efficiency at doing tasks, but I stopped raising the bar for myself. And. No. One. Noticed.

    My reviews stayed uniformly good. My supervisors continued to be complementary about my work. But my whole life felt more relaxed. Work was less stressful. I wasn’t drained at the end of the day. My outlook improved in a big way. I realized that most people couldn’t tell the difference between me working my hardest and me working at an adequate level. When I left that job, my boss told me that I was the best employee they’d ever had.

    I’m not an overachiever any more. I’m just an achiever now, and that’s fine with me.

    1. Polar*

      Thank you for sharing this. This is a really interesting perspective I hadn’t considered before. I’ve stayed in previous jobs too long out of a sense of loyalty and “but they won’t survive without me!” and the lesson learned when I left was they they did what they needed to do without me.

      You take it one step farther to where you don’t need to burn yourself out period. Because people will adapt.

    2. GS*

      I’ve had this same experience but hadn’t characterized it this way, thank you for telling the story so clearly.

  28. Ominous Adversary*

    70-hour weeks are called “achievement” when you’re in a white-collar job that pays well and puts a premium on looking busy. They’re not called “achievement” when you’re struggling to patch together minimum-wage jobs just to make enough to pay the rent.

    Your peers are complaining about their hours and the stress of their jobs because they are in a socioeconomic category where being stressed and busy is seen as going hand in hand with achievement and status. Please don’t buy into this lie.

    1. goducks*

      Yes, so much this.
      So often with white-collar jobs these long days are a performative choice. They’re worked because the worker thinks they will look good to others, not because they truly need to be worked. And usually, the worker will continue to be paid a good wage, whether they work a million hours or just 40. There are so many people working long hours because if they don’t, their family loses food or shelter.

  29. LabManagerGuy*

    Yeah, I’m kinda the same. I’m a PhD scientist, and while my department was full of people who were considered failures if they only put in 10 hours on a Sunday (after working 14 hours a day for the other six days), my research group was much more relaxed, and 40-50 hours was considered fine, so long as things were getting done. This worked well for me, and my not feeling guilty about it was strongly helped by having an advisor who encouraged people to find their own balance. I knew that I could never be a 60-hour-a-week kind of person, so I intentionally chose not to pursue an academic career or to seek jobs in extremely high-pressure environments (like pharma). Being around other people with similar education, experience, and job descriptions who also have a reasonable work-life balance in these less overdriven environments continued to help me not feel guilty when talking to other friends who were still grinding full tilt and thought that such a workload was just the norm.

    As a manager now, I also make it explicitly clear to my team that I expect high productivity when required, but that I also wanted everyone to be happy, healthy, and balanced. A new person just joined my group, fresh from a PhD program at my alma mater with a seriously hard-driving professor, and they asked (with admirable directness) what my expectations were for the number of hours per week. I told them that I expected 40 hours worth of productivity, not the 60+ they were used to, and that I didn’t particularly care how much time they actually spent in the lab or at a computer if they were getting plenty of good work done. I could practically feel a wave of relief rolling off of them; I had told them the same thing during the interview, but I don’t think they fully believed me until I confirmed it. I think adjusting to having a reasonable work-life balance will take some time for them.

    1. JustaTech*

      It’s interesting that you didn’t go into industry for the work-life balance; I’ve always felt that industry (in the life sciences) had a better work-life balance than academia, because the presence of non-lab folks showed an example of how to *not* work every weekend.

      I’ve felt some guilt at taking the “easy” job of industry where I work ~40 hours a week and am well paid, compared to my college peers who got PhDs and work insane hours for little pay. Then again, I’ve thought hard about applying to jobs at startups where I knew they were asking crazy hours of people (but then heard that people were also stretching out their work to fill all the hours the boss wanted).

      I know I *can* do the crazy work, I did it in college, and I did a master’s while working full time, but at the end of the day, I don’t *want* to work that much. Working all those extra hours doesn’t make me any happier, and I would have to work mountains of extra hours for it to result in some kind of major promotion or raise.

      1. LabManagerGuy*

        I actually looked at several industrial jobs, and some looked good and well-balanced, while others looked very high-pressure. I ended up in government research at institutions with generally good balance and working environments.

  30. blink14*

    OP – you are me. I’m efficient and can get my work done in half the time, but I do often stretch things out to fill my day. We are living in a society that has been conditioned to think that working 70-80 hours a week = big achiever while working standard hours = just average. That’s just not the case. Yes, there are many jobs that require a heavy workload, but on the flip side there are many jobs that don’t and people who work those hours in that kind of job aren’t working efficiently or are under terrible management.

    If you are doing your job well, getting good feedback and raises, you are like many people in that a job is a job, its not your life. There is NOTHING wrong with that. My job pays my bills, affords me excellent healthcare and generous PTO. Could I transfer to a different department or a different institution by applying for a higher level job? Probably. Is the average salary bump and unequal raise in work hours worth it to me right now? No, it’s not.

    With all that being said – you may just be bored with what you are doing, and that’s OK too. Take some time to evaluate with you like and don’t like about your job, and you may see that a different position or industry may be more interesting to you. Or, you may find that where you are right now is perfectly fine, either option is normal.

  31. RA*

    Wow are you me? I am also in my late 20s working in a “brutal” career track with a “B+ is fine” kind of attitude, and a regular 45 hour workweek. Unlike my colleagues, I’m not going for adderall or lots of coffee to meet my billable hours requirements either, but I won’t fly as high. I’ve found the best way to combat the “how do I fill the workweek” problem is to take a modest member of those non billable training tasks (ie new software, licensure maintenance credits etc) every week, and also to be clear with my boss that I can take on a bit more when I see my colleagues getting overloaded. Other than that….I seek joy outside my job, I invest in my hobbies, my family, my partner, and my community. Work doesn’t need to be who you are to be done well. Most of my graduating cohort is wildly overachieving, working 70 hours a week at manhattan firms or taking big ambitious roles on a government level. It’s ok to be “just above the curve” instead of breaking it. And it’s a lot less stressful. I do good work for our clients and am responsive to my team, and it sounds like you are too. That’s fine!

  32. Artemesia*

    There are people who work long hours, spend 70 a week in the lab etc who are enormously productive and real stars. I have known a few including my late BIL who achieved great things. BUT I have known many more people who fuss and fluster and are in the office all evening and carry home briefcases and work all weekend who actually are less productive than people like you who are not neurotic about work and just get it done.
    Some of these people seem to be avoid going home whether it is about family duties they want to avoid or empty lives that they don’t how to meaningfully fill. They hang around chatting and cruise the internet and just generally screw around a lot and then ‘have to work late’ — and some of these people fool the bosses who are impressed with butts in seats, and a lot of scurry and hustle and drama of hard work. While competent people are just grinding away and getting it done without fuss.

    If you want to do leadership development, let the boss know and meanwhile think about some ways to signal your productivity. Maybe if you are getting it done fast — talk to the boss about taking on some more work (that you would actually like to do, maybe something that helps you build more skills).

    I have told the anecdote — but my daughter in college was on the school paper and one evening she and Sally laid out the paper for printing. My daughter laid out 6 pages and went home at 6 — Sally was there till 2. The next day the editor reamed my daughter because ‘you left early and stuck Sally with the work and she was there all night’. My daughter then calmly pointed out that she had laid out 6 pages; Sally had laid out 2. Being efficient and effective sometimes doesn’t get rewarded when making a show of work is valued more than the work.

    So figure out how to let the bosses know of your productivity. It can be done informally when you run into them at the coffee pot etc. When I was a teacher, I would have little anecdotes about my student’s accomplishments and then when I ran into the Dean would tell her about how terrific our students were — why a team from my class had just created an evaluation plan for the hospitals new training program yadda yadda. Of course when she walked away, she knew we were visible on campus, our students were being engaged in interesting real world application — and that I was a good teacher. What are you proud of — work it into the conversation.

    1. Artemesia*

      another anecdote. My evaluation grad students once ended up getting a program dropped when their questions about the goals for staff outcomes for the training they were to evaluate made the program director realize the training program they had in the works was pretty useless for their staff and so halted it. This didn’t please the feckless HR training department but pleased the program director.

    2. Diahann Carroll*

      I had the same issue on my school’s newspaper when I was in high school. I used class time to lay out my section of the paper (Entertainment), and only had to stay until 4 pm one day to finish. The next day, my newspaper advisor said that the rest of the editors had been there until 9 pm, and I should have stayed behind to help them work. I laughed in her face and said, “absolutely not” because these same people spent our entire hour and a half class time talking and messing around – they could have gotten to work during work hours and then finished around the same time I did. I’m not staying late on a school night to help out slackers! I didn’t even drive, so my mother would have had to come pick me up. I wasn’t inconveniencing her because the other editors wanted to screw around all night.

  33. womanaroundtown*

    I feel like I could have written this. I’m a lawyer in a very niche field and am pretty content to work 35 hour workdays. I constantly feel strange comparing myself to other lawyer friends, because we just don’t work that way. It is mostly concerning because I worry about what will happen if I want to switch jobs, but for now… I’m okay myself, but always feel odd when talking to other lawyers, like I just don’t have the right ambitions by being comfortable with working hard at a job that just doesn’t require all that much.

    1. Artemesia*

      My husband and his law partners in a small firm that did a lot of fairly complex work all had a commitment to work/life balance. My husband sang in the opera and symphony choruses, his partner was a Boy Scout leader and avid outdoorsman, the other partner was a tennis player. They managed their firm so they could be fathers and husbands and enjoy their life as well as make a good but not fabulous living. They were happy; their wives and kids were happy. they all had a great life.

      1. Womanaroundtown*

        Haha, I definitely meant weeks and not days! I feel like over the past week or so my brain has slowly started to glitch. I took a three day vacation and now I’m mixing up all kinds of word.

  34. pug life*

    I am exactly like this! I’ve always felt bad for “not reaching my full potential” or whatever, but I’m starting to get to a point where it’s a relief not to. I’m around your age, and I also work very fast, am conscientious, have a high attention to detail… and sometimes spread out when I deliver projects so it looks like I spent more time on them than I did.

    Contrary to your situation, however, I work in an office filled with “regular” people – I literally dont have enough work because I work so much faster than they expect me to. Stuff that takes my coworkers full days to do will take me a morning.

    With us working remotely right now, it’s easier to just hit my deadlines and use my extra free time for learning (which I can justify because it’s programs I can/will conceivably use in the course of my work).

    And it’s really, really nice to just check out at 5 pm and do something totally different! You’re not broken, OP, or a slacker – you’re just surrounded by a lot of people who share the same uncommon dedication to the workplace. As long as you hit your deadlines, you’re fine.

  35. Will I.T. Blend*

    Talk of overachieving brings to mind one of my partner’s favorite sayings: “Heroes only become necessary when something has gone wrong.” There’s no need to be a hero in a situation that doesn’t require one. And, ideally, we’d live in a world where our broken systems didn’t need to be offset by personal heroics.

  36. S*

    I work in an industry that prizes long hours and all the “meritocratic” BS you speak of. And I have seen my colleagues deal with major illnesses, go on half-time, and be laid off. So please, reframe your approach not as “underachieving” but as “healthy and sustainable.”

  37. Sans Serif*

    This is my “pet peeve” topic. My whole career (almost 40 years) I have deliberately not gone for the overachiever path. I tried being a manager and didn’t like it. I like what I do and I will always tell my supervisor that I want to grow within my role but am not interested in becoming a manager, VP, etc. I tell them I like what I do and see no reason to purposely “stretch” to do something I don’t like or am not as good at. So far, so good. I make a reasonable wage, I stay away from the high profile positions that fill me with dread just thinking about them, and I’m going to retire in 5 years. Who am I trying to impress by going for some higher level position because I “should” be doing that? No one. I’m trying to have a decent, balanced life. I’m glad there are people who want to do those high profile, high pressure jobs, but I’m not one of them.

  38. Aitch Arr*

    OP, I am what I like to refer to as a B+ Personality.

    My average was a B+ in academics and I’ve been strong and solid individual contributor in HR for over 20 years. I step up for development opportunities that interest me and I do go above and beyond when needed, but I also prioritize my mental health and limits.

    Don’t compare yourself to others.

  39. Nicki Name*

    LW, you are succeeding at life in a way that your “overachiever” peers are not. 70+ hour workweeks aren’t anything to be proud of, they’re a sign that something is seriously wrong!

    1. Underachieving LW*

      Their lives sound honestly horrible to me, but they’re happy for the most part, so good for them, I guess. For a long time, I thought we just had different personalities and personal values (I value relationships, they value achievement, etc.), but then I started to fear that it was worse than that. It seems like Alison’s response and the general feedback I’m getting here is that nope, it’s just different personalities and personal values. So that’s reassuring!

      1. LTL*

        People get to choose their values but (and I may be biased here, as someone who heavily values work-life balance) spending all your time on your career can have unpleasant consequences down the line, both in terms of relationships and health.

        I only know two people that seemingly dropped dead out of nowhere (one via heart attack, the other via brain aneurysm). Perfectly healthy people in their 40s/50s. One was my ex-husband’s mother and another was a woman who was a few levels above my dad at his job. I never met either of them but both were known for how much they worked.

        1. allathian*

          Yeah. In addition, there are plenty of stories about people who on their deathbed regret that they didn’t spend more time with their families. I’ve literally never, ever heard of anyone on their deathbed wishing they’d spent more time at the office.

  40. Donna Noble*

    I needed this today! I am a rockstar career administrative assistant. Just in 18 months since joining my current agency (federal gov’t), I have had 20% salary growth, am regularly given formal and informal recognition, and frequently told I should be in a leadership role. But I don’t want to be in leadership! I recently promoted from being the office manager for our main department to the equivalent of supporting the VPs and honestly, it’s a lot. I am very good friends with a new department head who regularly works 60+ hours a week, no personal time etc. and I started asking myself these same questions. Even more so now that I considering transferring to a different office, as office manager for a supporting department. It’s a stall in my “career trajectory” but works SO MUCH better for my personal life.

  41. Moose*

    I’m in a similar position, especially since I went to the best school in my field. I see my friends from college climb the ranks. I’m 30 and have never been promoted within a position (though I have moved up with job moves – I haven’t been in the same role for more than 3 years, but I see people get promoted in 2!).

    I’m chugging along, making a salary I’m happy with, doing work I’m happy with. Whether it’s less talent or less ambition or whatnot than my friends – or some combination – I’m in a fine spot. Doesn’t need to be a competition.

  42. ellex42*

    LW, this was like reading about myself. I’m not an overachiever, but I prize working efficiently. I’ll spend a bit of extra time and effort on something that will make it easier to do my job (I often write or rewrite instructions, look-up charts, and “tip lists”…and then I become the person everyone else goes to with questions because they know I can find the answer quickly. I also share these as much as possible), with the aim of working smarter, not harder.

    But I’ve worked with a lot of overachievers, and found that they’re much more likely to work harder rather than smarter. They’ll put in a lot of time and effort getting as much work done as they can, but don’t look for ways to make that work easier and faster, or more efficient.

    As long as you’re getting your work done, getting it done accurately and on time, and none of your supervisors are complaining…you’re probably fine.

  43. 867-5309*

    I have this conversation often with my peers – we’re all executive level in marketing and related fields. Recently two of us were talking and my friend said she felt it was time to move on to something more challenging with better pay, but when we dug deeper, she was quite happy to make good money at a job where she has flexibility because she’s built up good will over many years of working at the same place. Sometimes we feel like we should be climbing the ladder when really, we’ll already on the rooftop we want.

  44. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    There is a wonderful book I suggest for your to read: Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz. While it concerns college students rather than working adults, it describes the type of people you’re talking about and the endless competition they put themselves through. It’s not written in academese, either; Deresiewicz is a good writer, and presents his research well.

  45. Aria*

    Oh I could have written this. I’m also in my mid-late 20s in a crazy busy industry. I never pulled an allnighter in school, and couldn’t have cared less if I got a lower grade because of it. I definitely never have and never will pull an allnighter at work – human beings need sleep and recreation and the chance to eat proper food not from a vending machine to function.

    I have really internalized that idea of my goals are not the same as other peoples goals, and I should ask accordingly. I also don’t really think I have missed out on a lot of opportunities by not being an A+ type, although the pressure if definitely there. I do think I do work faster than other people, and its accurate and good work, so that plays into it too.

  46. Intelligently Relaxed*

    “Overall, you should focus on what you want your measures of success to be. It doesn’t sound like those are “work in a high-pressure, high-prestige job.” My guess is that they’re more like “do work that I feel reasonably good about, be a good colleague, earn a wage I’m happy with, and have time outside of work for the rest of my life.” By those measures, you’re succeeding wildly, no?”

    WOW – 100% THIS! I needed to hear this. My ex-husband was the type who was always pushing me to do more, work longer hours, earn more prestige, go back for more schooling, and so forth. I worked 60-hour weeks, had no personal time by the time I finished all of my “adulting” outside of work, and was generally miserable while he told me I need to do MORE, MORE, MORE. Yes, I’m intelligent. No, I don’t think that should mean that I have to seek these outlets to “meet my potential” or that I’m “settling” if I just do work I enjoy instead of the high-level work I’m capable of doing but that takes over my life.

    Now that he’s an EX-husband, I’ve moved into a much more casual job in a completely new field and I LOVE IT! My environment is relaxed, I enjoy my work and colleagues, and if I get a text from the owner outside of business hours I know it’s just a funny meme. BLISS!

    1. Ginger Baker*

      Oh mannnnnnn did you just remind me HARD of a conversation right at the beginning of my marriage when my exhusband was super not in agreement with me that “must go-go-go, career ambition is most important” was not (to me) actually my top priority value-wise. I prized at the time work-life balance with a decent salary. I adore my exhusband – he is one of my best friends now – but I definitely also had some serious schadenfreude over the years as my not-overly-ambitious-self made usually 3x as much money as him every year (while he busted his ass for many many years and still does, he’s an artist and it took him MANY years to get to a point where he made more than minimum wage [and he makes a decent amount of money now as a muralist and I could not be prouder of him!]). Funnily, I am now looking to make a career switch in about 5 or 6 years to something way more intense, but that’s because the reason for my “definitely limit my hours” approach are both in high school now :-)

  47. That Girl from Quinn's House*

    My experience is that a lot of employers will take advantage and exploit A workers. They will give them more and more work, and more and more expectations, and more and more responsibility, but they will not provide advancement, promotion, or compensation to go with it. They will treat A workers like some lowly office garbage cleaner who just has to do one more thing to prove themselves, and then when they reach a point where it’s time to give that person recognition, they will turn on them and list all the things they did to earn that recognition as reasons why they aren’t fit for it.

    Check back in on those overachievers in 10 years, most of them will have gotten nowhere.

  48. Not a Blossom*

    I think the OP should consider asking her manager if there is more work she could do. I don’t think she should be killing herself like a lot of her peers, but if she’s anxious about her performance AND bored because she’s stretching out tasks, maybe there is more work she can take on to fully fill out those 40 hours per week. If nothing else, it will keep her from being bored; however, I also think it will help resolve at least some of those underachiever feelings because she’ll be getting more done and can compare it to what others are doing in the same amount of time.

    Again, I am NOT saying ask for more than 40 hours per week, because as I’ve learned, once you get in, it’s hard to get out. But if she has, say, an extra hour or two per day, maybe there is a side project or growth opportunity to explore.

  49. Perpal*

    OP, only “problem” it seems like you are mentioning is not having enough work to fill your alloted 40 hrs? I guess the question is, is it because you are not getting enough work, or are you passing on work and deliberately stretching out the work you have?
    I wouldn’t deliberately go slower just so you have less work; that could possibly lead to trouble down the road, especially if it becomes obvious that you take more time / produce less [whatever value units you have] than similar peers. If it’s just that there’s not more work available so you stretch out what you have to fill the time, well, that’s not too bad though perhaps you could start asking to take on more things or something!
    But no, just because other people work hellish hours, you are not doing it wrong; I might even say perhaps they are doing it wrong if they are complaining about it, it doesn’t sound like something they truly enjoy.

    1. Underachieving LW*

      Hi, I’m definitely not passing on any work; to me, that really would be laziness. It’s more of not having enough work to do and spending less time on the work I get than my managers expect.

  50. ElizabethJane*

    I also think that sometimes people use “overly emotionally invested” in place of “high performer”. I just don’t get that invested in my work. I do a good job. I care about doing a good job, but ultimately I’m here to earn a paycheck and since I’m not in a life-changing field (I’m arguably in a luxury industry that could cease to exist and have 0 negative impact on anyone) so it just doesn’t matter that much.

    The best example I can think of is my coworker Jane and I. Let’s say our biggest customer didn’t get their shipment of ultra luxury sleeping masks (which make up about 1.5% of their sales – we’re not a big category) and we find out at 5:30 PM. I will spend the next 30 minutes drafting an email to our warehouse and shipper and making sure I have a list of the people I need to contact. I’ll find out what time the required parties will be available (what time does the warehouse open? What time does the shipping office open?) for the next morning and make sure my schedule is clear and then I’m going to sign off for the night, make dinner, and watch a movie.

    Jane will tell everyone she didn’t sleep because she was just so worried about it. She may send the same emails as me but she’s sick over the entire thing. There’s exactly nothing she can do to resolve the situation but she’s so emotionally invested it actually impacts her life. And Jane is regularly labeled an “overachiever” because of her commitment to the job. She’s not any more committed than I am and we’ll both get the same results but because I don’t actually lose sleep over it (or honestly care that much – it’s a problem to be solved and I will solve it because it’s my job but I don’t consider it a black mark against my soul when a problem exists in the first place) I’ve been told people sometimes think I’m somewhat robotic in my approach to work.

    1. allathian*

      You sound a lot like me, too. I will go above and beyond when the situation calls for it, but I don’t lose sleep over practical problems. I have lost sleep because of things that happened at work in the past and not too far in the past at that. When it happened, I was overloaded with work to the point of near-burnout. I did learn my lesson then and now I’m much more likely to discuss workload with my current boss. At the time, I was also overly invested in our work product, to the point that I did’t take enough advantage of the ability to outsource when we’re overloaded. This was a quality issue, the outsourced work didn’t match my quality requirements. Since then I’ve learned to let it go, if my managers are satisfied with a work product, I should be, too. (I’m not always, but I’ve learned not to worry as long as I don’t see the outsourced work product, out of sight, out of mind.) Needless to say, I’m much happier at work now that I’m not overly emotionally invested in it!

  51. Llellayena*

    Sounds a lot like me. I’m in a field that is known for overtime (and passion so you should WANT to do overtime), but I’ve found a spot where I can get all my work done an roughly the standard 40, barring the occasional tight deadline. However, if you are stretching your work to fill that 40 hours and you WANT to fit a little more in, it doesn’t hurt to go to your boss and say “I’ve got about 4 extra hours in the week that I could use for something, anything I can pick up to fill that time?” Be specific about how much extra time you have so you don’t get loaded with too much though.

  52. AlphabetSoupCity*

    The type of career here is pretty much absolutely the kind I aspire to. Like you I am surround by so-called “high achievers” who find themselves substance dependent, forgoing their hobbies and loved ones, to chase “perfection”, titles, and absurd salaries. That’s not what interests me. It may be what interests some people, but not me.
    I want a reasonable work week, an interesting job where I feel like I’m doing some good, and a decent salary. I want time for my life. I want to leave work at work. In my book, you’re high achieving.

  53. animaniactoo*

    OP, the only thing I see happening that I think *might* impact you, is that you’re stretching projects in order to make them seem like they take longer than they do.

    That can lead you into some bad habits in terms of how you approach work in general (believe me, I have fallen down this well). So my main question is: Are you stretching because you want your boss to believe that the available workload is sufficient to justify your ongoing employment, or because you don’t want to take on any more of what’s available?

    If it’s the former, understandable – but I would suggest a little less padding and a little more looking to what you can usefully do, and suggesting that. Is there any kind of infrastructure stuff you can do? Research stuff into something you don’t know well right now but could take on X if you knew Y better? Or if Y would help you be more efficient than you are now? Stuff like that. If you’ve already been down that path and there’s no meat there, then there isn’t – but it’s always worth keeping an eye out for. And that kind of initiative does tend to be seen as “go-getter” even when you’re sticking within your 40 hours a week.

    If it’s the latter… well, I’d still want to go the former path, but I’d be careful to figure out and discuss why taking on more of what’s available isn’t for you. Unless it’s the same kind of stuff that you’re currently doing and you just don’t want the heavier workload even if it you could successfully fit it into your current time without too much strain. That latter piece is the only place that I would look at you and say “Yeah, underachiever, and you’re going to need to get past that if you want to progress.”

    But – I would also say. Just like you don’t want the B+ if it comes with a side of 2 allnighters? Once you have the B+, what does it take to maintain it? Take a look at the career ladder and those higher positions and what they actually take in order to do them well. Does it look like a reasonable workload to you? Or does it look like 60 hour weeks (instead of 70) and a caffeine addiction? If you’re looking higher, make sure that what’s up there is something you actually *want* to do… rather than would enjoy if you can do it in the way that you’re working now.

    1. Underachieving LW*

      Thanks, this is giving me some stuff to think about.

      I will say, since a couple of commenters here have asked–I’m not refusing (or choosing not) to take on work that I know is out there. It’s more an issue of there not being enough work for me. Or, there may technically be enough work for me, but my coworkers have their hands in it so deep that it’s more efficient for them to just do it themselves than to explain the background information to me.

      But your comment is making me wonder if maybe there is more stuff out there that I’m not seeing. Something to think about!

      1. animaniactoo*

        Is there any cross-training you could do to become a useful backup in case of need? Maybe they pass some portion of it to you now so that you’re involved enough to be able to pick the rest of it up without a lot of issue in case you need to? Is there someone who frequently ends up a bit crunched with their workload? Relieving some of that would be the kind of targeted suggestion that could be useful all around.

  54. Type A not better, different*

    You are doing just fine. I am type A, go getter. When I had a job that was just the day hours, I did freelance work on the side. I have very little work life balance. Yes, I am a leader in my field, but so what- is that what you want?
    I have a colleague, who works her hours, leaves work at work. Completes what she needs to and sounds like you except that she is confident that she does enough.
    I enjoy my work and probably have vocational awe that many speak of.

    Also do not compare your insides with others outsides.
    I have observed that many people who are bragging about late hours etc are screwing around during the day.
    You might just be working more smartly and efficiently.

  55. Keymaster of Gozer*

    A long time ago, when I was letting my job take over my life and my health, my psychiatric specialist told me to stop worrying so much about being the ‘brightest and biggest star in the night sky’ because invariably those stars burn out quicker.

    Learning that your niche is the constantly reliable performer who can keep going is worth a thousand supernovas. Although it’s hard to feel comfortable in a constellation surrounded by bright pulsars, supermassive stars or gargantuan black holes when you’re a main sequence.

    In the end, it was better for my mental health to stop trying to shape myself into a fast burning star. I’m the one you can drop in at the deep end, fix your issues, but who won’t work past 5pm and doesn’t take work home. It actually got me better performance reviews (company award one year) to be who I was, not trying to be someone else.

    There’s an idea, a toxic one, that you have to be the biggest star to get anywhere in a career. It’s even more prevalent if you’re a member of a marginalised group, the notion of the ‘good role model’ has burnt out a lot of people. It’s not true. I’d rather pay more for someone I can rely on.

  56. Wintergreen*

    OMG, there is so much here that I relate to!

    I never stressed about grades at school and was perfectly happy with my approx. 3.5 average (high school thru college my gpa stayed about the same). The closest I ever came to an overnighter was staying up until 11:30 to finish a paper for class the next day in college. (Then again, I do NOT handle lack of sleep well, even when high school age I needed at least 7 hours to function. Staying up all night studying would have been counterproductive anyway.)

    At work, it has always been very similar. I have always struggled to fill 40 hours with only a handful of exceptions that have been few and far between. My very first professional job, within a week, while still in training, I had the second highest output in my 7 person department. Within a month, the highest output (with the greatest accuracy). And, no, it wasn’t because the more experienced were taking the more complex, time-consuming jobs. All jobs were put in the queue based on when they came in and when you finished one job, you took the next on the list. I was so paranoid and sure that I was doing something wrong or incorrect because I just couldn’t understand why it was taking others with so much more experience so long to get thru jobs they were working on. It has been that way with almost every job I’ve had. Right now, I’m struggling with some health issues, workplace politics issues, a desperate need for a job change, literally spend half my week on the internet, and still get comments about the about how much work I put out.

    The only thing I can’t relate to is the finding of new jobs. I am HORRIBLE at self promotion. And my brain truly doesn’t comprehend accomplishments. (Probably a learned thing because my entire immediate family is that way and of no help.) For example, for years I’ve struggled with trying to come up with things I’ve done that would be noteworthy. In a conversation with a newer friend we were talking about a similar topic and she looked at me really strange and pointed out that I could be proud of the fact that I was the first in my family to graduate college. A fact that had never occurred to me in the over 10 years since graduation.

    Trying to come up with accomplishments for my resume is enough to send me into tears of frustration. Complicated by a fact that I work in a niche industry, would like to get out of said niche industry, and the things I am most proud of sound simple and/or stupid when you don’t have the historic context behind them. Like the spreadsheets I’ve created at each position that have then been adopted by the department because they increased accuracy and efficiency. It just looks basic and borderline silly on my resume. But I am truly proud of those spreadsheets!

    1. Ginger Baker*

      Oh nooooo! Please maybe post this Friday and we can help you brainstorm? Because helping people figure out how to showcase their work (on resumes and in interview stories) is one of my top favorite things, and the “simple” things like creating spreadsheets can be *powerful* examples.

  57. Heffalump*

    I never pulled an all-nighter in college. My take was that at that point, I knew the material or I didn’t, and the way to assure the best possible exam grade was to get a good night’s sleep.

    1. allathian*

      Same here. I only did this once in college. There was a crucial exam and we had a textbook to read. I literally could not get my hands on it. All the library copies were out and our college bookstore was out of stock. The college reference library did have a copy, and they had a policy that you could borrow reference books overnight. So that’s what I did. I read about 800 pages overnight (I’m a fast reader) and got a decent enough grade on the exam the next day. Our exams were usually on Saturdays, so there was no lecture or workshop to go to afterwards. I went back home, slept for a few hours and when I woke up again, I had absolutely no recollection of the textbook or the exam. I knew I’d done it, but that’s it.

  58. windsofwintergreen*

    I feel this letter a lot. I was always academically gifted. I graduated second in my high school class, finished undergrad in three years. I know this sounds braggy but I’m making an actual point. I was always used to being very good at what I was “supposed” to be doing (ie, school). When I started working, I felt a lot of pressure to be the best and “live up to my potential”. I watched a lot of my classmates getting prestigious (and grueling) jobs and felt like something was terribly wrong with me. Like the OP, I was content to settle for a decent job that provided me a good wage and plenty of free time to enjoy my life. But I also felt *bad* for being content. Very weird space to be in. I have finally come to accept that I’m okay with not constantly striving to be the best. I’m perfectly content with average, and I am now content with being content. I just want a job with good hours and a decent wage that allows me to enjoy life outside of work. That’s not to say I don’t take pride in producing good work. I do. I want to be a good employee. I am reliable and efficient. That’s good enough for me. I think a lot of societal messaging (at least in the US, where I am located) discourages people from striving just for “good enough”. It’s the hustle culture that makes everyone feel like any minute spent not generating income or prestige is a minute wasted. I reject all that. OP, just let go and enjoy your life! It sounds like you are a perfectly capable employee that your managers generally like having around. Let that be enough! Revel in the free time and hobbies that your peers lack. Valuing different things from them doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong.

  59. Giant Squid*

    People died for 40 hour workweeks. People died for us to have weekends. One-third of your waking life toward making people richer is more than enough.

    If you’re getting paid more for those 70 hours, or you work in a meaningful industry/non-profit, fine. But I try to be very strict about (averaging) 40 hours a week. Sure, sometimes I work 45, the next week I’ll work 35. I think it’s important to avoid inflating things.

    If you want to work more than 40 hours, work for yourself, freelance, work overtime, whatever. But never work over 40 hours “just because” or to advance.

  60. BigRedGum*

    Hello fellow underachiever! I too only work 40 hours a week. I can get all my work done in that time, and that’s all i get paid for. There is no glory in going to your death bed early because you worked 70+ hours a week. A job/career is JUST a job/career. Sure, it pays the bills, but there are lots of jobs out there. I’d rather enjoy my life. I have all my animals, my family, my hobbies, etc. Work is just a way to pay for it.

    Whem my own coworkers (who get paid about the same i do) tell me they worked all weekend, i just feel sorry for them. The work will still be there on Monday.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      It’s also amusing to me that in America working 40 hours every week, probably with what, two weeks of vacation that we actually take in a year, is “underachieving.” There are countries – wealthy countries with a high quality of life – that just don’t think like this.

      1. allathian*

        Yup, I’m in one. Sure, there are A-type people here as well, but it’s much more acceptable to be content with your lot here than I suspect it is in the US.

        To be fair, compared to the US, we have very high taxes with a steep progression. If you earn 120K a year, you’re paying more than half of that in various kinds of taxes. If you get a 20K raise, you’ll end up with an additional income of maybe 2K because your tax rate goes up. So it’s much more common for people to feel that high salaries are nothing to strive for because you won’t get to enjoy that money anyway. To be fair, we also get a lot of benefits for the taxes we pay, including single-payer health insurance, tuition-free education up to and including a Master’s degree, long parental leave paid for by social security, etc.

  61. Matt*

    Very interesting email, and great answer.

    I think there may be two elements that may be underscored when it comes to career over-achievers, especially ones in the earlier stages of their careers. One being that over-achievers typically talk about their work and the long hours much more than an “average” person does, so it gives a false impression of how much one should be working in a given career field.

    The other element that I find interesting, and this is completely anecdotal, is that many people in work environments often go so out of their way to overwork that their management assumes that’s their normal pace. It’s a unique case in which an employee takes on more projects than they should be are always willing to take on more, creating a cyclical pattern of never having a moment to relax.

  62. Fabulous*

    OP you sound like me! I also deliberately slow down my work a lot of the time (oftentimes by reading this blog and others!) but I do have my reasoning. I am a very efficient and accurate worker as well and if I did things at a “normal” pace for me, first, I probably wouldn’t be as accurate, and second, I’d probably run out of work to do!

    I can certainly turn it up when I need to if there’s a quick deadline or whatnot, but let your boss be impressed by your speed then. They don’t need to know you spend X minutes a day exercising your mind instead of working. A bit of distraction can be nice too, especially in these times!

  63. pretzelgirl*

    I for sure could have written this letter myself. I am not a big stressor about work, and tend to leave it at the door when I leave. I do work hard, complete stuff on time and timely in my responses to people. But to me I have a life, family, kids, friends and interests. I am simply not interested in spending 12 hour days at work. OR worrying about it when I leave. I like spending my weekends with my kids and husband. It is what it is I suppose.

    In some ways this may have impacted my earning potential because I def don’t feel like I am making what other people in their mid-30s do. But then again I don’t have the stress they do.

    1. pretzelgirl*

      Also my Father In Law has worked 80 hours a week since I met my husband in 2003. He has missed many family occasions. Missed stuff with his grandkids, missed family vacations because “he just can’t take off”. I don’t know his boss, but I do know he kills himself at work. To me its just not worth the money, to miss making my kids dinner, tuck them in at night and be present for after school activities

  64. CamJansen*

    Sheesh. This post resonates with me so much. I’ve worked in my field for almost a decade, and I’ve never had trouble managing my workload when my peers with similar workloads struggled to meet deadlines. I finally realized by my early thirties that I’m just a really efficient person, and tasks take different people different amounts of time. It’s even in the small things that add to efficiency – having a great documentation/filing process that doesn’t backlog you, keeping on top of correspondence, and even excellent typing skills. For example – if you type about 90wpm give or take, but others are in the 50wpm range…Both ranges get the job done! But one range is going to take longer than the other, and those minutes add up. (Granted a lot of my job focuses on process improvement and that permeates to my personal life which I’m sure drives everyone around me bonkers so take that with a grain of salt).

    You keep getting good feedback, you’re staying engaged, you’re just efficient! That’s a good thing. Don’t let yourself frame this as underachieving, or you’ll lose confidence in your work super fast!

  65. Sloan Kittering*

    I live in DC and it’s easy to fall pray to this. SO many people here have that live-to-work attitude, and they will be the first to tell you how busy and important they are, how vital to the company, etc etc. They are often doing it to themselves. It’s a city that attracts a lot of go-getters and has a lot of “prestige” jobs that pay in reputation more than money, which brings this out in people. I felt like I must be a total failure for a while, with my middle-of-the-road ambitions.

    It’s a great city to live in once you just accept that about the people though :D

  66. SusanB*

    I just finished reading Radical Candor earlier this summer for work and in that book she talks about how every team needs both Superstars and Rockstars. Superstars are the ones who want to go higher and higher, up and up. All about the next level. All about achievment. Rockstars are those who want to buckle down and stay where they are. They have institutional knowledge and experience. A team needs both. If your entire team is looking for the next challenge, no one is doing the work that needs to get done right now. However, if the entire team is totally satisfied with the status quo, nothing ever improves or gets better. So you need a good mix. And she even mentions that you can jump between the two throughout your job. When I first started working, I was a superstar. I had my first kid and I was a rockstar. I needed to stay put and not take on new challenges.

    So I think it’s fine to be a rockstar for a while.

  67. Butterfly Counter*

    I was a huge overachiever in college. I even went on to get my Ph.D. And then it was 2008/2009 and the bottom fell out of the economy. Even with my pristine grades, research, and record, I couldn’t get ANY job in academia and resorted to temping at minimum wage. I thought, why had I worked so hard to literally be doing the same job as I had when I was 19 after my first year of college?

    So I decided to conserve my energy. I had been flirting with burnout and overwork in college, so I just let myself be good enough at my job and kept up a pretty great personal life outside. And once I started getting interviews in academia again, I found that I couldn’t bring myself to work as hard as would be required for a tenure track position, so I made the move to lecturer. It had some benefits because I LOVE teaching and the breakneck work of publishing research wasn’t required. Win-win (except for the lack of job security).

    Jobs don’t love you back, even when you pour your whole soul into them. Good enough is good enough. You’ve found a track that works for you.

    1. babblemouth*

      I once got the advice “don’t set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm” and it was the best career tip of my entire life.

  68. The Spinning Arrow*

    Hi OP! Based on a quick scroll through this comment section, it sounds like you hopefully see that there are a ton of people out there just like you (I’m another one of them!) who would much rather work their 40, complete their tasks well, and then do other things with the rest of their time. My boss actually just announced she’s leaving her position, and I spent a solid week debating whether I wanted to apply for her position and only did so after several conversations with her and her bosses about the after hours and on-call expectations. I would 100% have turned down the option to apply if I had heard anything other than “No, except in rare cases of emergency you’re never expected to do work after hours or constantly be near your laptop,” because that isn’t the type of life I want.

    And truth be told, every person I asked about that time commitment told me they admire the fact that I’m so good about my work/life boundaries. The number of times I have been told, “That’s so great, I really should get better about stepping away and taking time for myself,” is actually incredible. So I’m seconding Alison (and the other 100+ folks above my post) – if you’re happy with the work you’re doing and the life balance you have, you’re doing great. Let others have their own goals and keep your eyes on your own goal posts, not theirs – you’ll be much happier! (That last sentence is as much a reminder to myself as to you. ;) Best of luck, OP!)

    1. Ginger Baker*

      So glad your conversations went well! As someone who strongly advocates to others that for lots of job roles, you do not in fact have to be 24/7 on email, I am always happy to hear others laying down boundaries. (And as a career admin, I always tell people “just because someone emails YOU are 8pm does not mean they expect a *response from you* then; it can wait” – my main boss knows he can email me whenever and if he TRULY needs something, he can text me, but the number of times that has happened I can count on one hand in 6 years, and otherwise I handle his emails when I clock back in [even though personally I like being able to check email on my phone so I can see what’s coming up, but that’s just me])

  69. lazy intellectual*

    You sound pretty normal to me. Not everyone wants their job to be at the center of their life. I like my job, but I like having work life balance and being able to log off on the weekends. It’s good for my mental health. I was an overachiever in high school and I think I’m still suffering from the ramifications of it (like poor sleep habits).

    Honestly, OP you sound healthy to me! Some people become overachievers because they rely on school/job achievements as markers of self-worth, which is something we have normalized in our society but should NOT be encouraged.

  70. AnotherSarah*

    This sounds like me! I’m in a profession known for imposter syndrome and overwork (and also for performatively telling everyone how much work you have and how many hours you worked on the weekend). When I was still in training I realized that I preferred to do good, solid work that was sometimes great, not great work that was Nobel prize-winning. It’s hard! A colleague looked at me suspiciously once and said that I had too much fun. But honestly? I really value the rest of my life. I’d love to say “oh, everyone who overachieves is also addicted to coke” or “their home life must be a mess” but over time I’ve mostly come to terms with the fact that my record shows that I’m good at what I do and that this is just my style. All that is to say, it’s not just you!! (And I agree with Alison; it sounds like your norms are skewed by who you know.)

  71. Sister Michael*

    I loved this question, because the answer made me feel really good about my own career plans. I’m of a generation that, growing up, had a lot of pressure to load on the extracurriculars and be the best at everything. Not enough to play in the school band- you had to be in the top band, marching band, and trying out to be section leader. No point in joining a sport if you weren’t going to play varsity. And certainly no dropping something you didn’t enjoy anymore, because colleges don’t like quitters and colleges don’t care if you have a school/life balance, and without all the stuff, you won’t get into whatever “a good school” means to the adult currently lecturing you. (Me? Bitter? Irritated? Mostly not, but sometimes…)

    So now, I have a full time job in an office and I like my work, but I don’t have any great ambitions there and sometimes I worry about that, because I’m not out of the mindset that there’s some great competition and I can somehow win or lose at my job. My ambition, really, is to be solidly competent and to earn a reputation as a reliable team member who’s good at what I do. I’d like to do occasional continuing education or training classes, which we have lots of. I want to work when I’m at work and leave work behind when I leave. Maybe someday I’ll lead a small team of three or four people, but right now, I really like just doing my thing and leaving the organizing and politics to other people.

    It’s nice to hear from a source I respect that this is an okay career plan! the idea of it makes me a lot happier than the idea of striving constantly for the next thing.

  72. I love dead end roads*

    “Dead end career” has such a negative connotation but, OP, what if you reframe that. All careers have an end point eventually, after which you no longer “progress” into new roles. The only way this is a problem is if your progress is cut short sooner than you want it to be. The assumption that all employees should be forever trying to “climb the ladder” isn’t realistic or healthy, and loads of people end up promoted past the point where they are competent and fulfilled and end up miserable. Rather than worrying about a dead end, focus on where you do want to be and what you are willing to do to get there. Even if it is true that only the overachievers will reach the top rung of the ladder (which may well not be true) that dosent mean your own career will be unfulfilling or a failure. You can choose to still have a good job you enjoy while still having a life outside of work and other responsibilities and enjoyments that your peers don’t have time for.

    In short, so what if your job reaches a dead end? Maybe it will be a dead end at the end of a lovely country lane with a beautiful old house and garden that you’ll be happy to spend the rest of your career in. That’s not something to be ashamed of; it’s something to celebrate!

  73. OverworkisDiscriminatory*

    I just want to flag that these cultures of working extreme hours per week are inherently discriminatory. They discriminate against people with care-giving responsibilities. They discriminate against people with longer commutes or travel times to the office. They discriminate against people with chronic illness or disability. They make it difficult for people to be paid for the actual hours they work, whether they are full time or part time, which is damaging for everyone. They breed toxic office cultures that are not based on work quality but on appearances and presenteeism. Don’t buy into it! This is what we need the next generation to help continue to dismantle. You sound like you are doing great. (If you don’t have quite enough work to do, ask for a bit more though, being bored is the worst!)

    Any time these myths about needing to work long hours to be productive or to be an achiever are rearing their heads, we need to be trying to correct them.

    I have been promoted to management level while working part-time due to a chronic illness, and on the whole trying to limit my working hours to those that I am paid for (with some degree of flexibility about when those hours are worked). On the whole, I have probably worked more hours than paid for but not to an extreme amount and certainly not for sustained periods of time. Having to reduce my work hours to manage my chronic illness made me even more productive in my work as it cut out the naturally less productive part of my day (late afternoons), and it made me more selective about what meetings or engagements were needed and which ones weren’t. Some people will show up at any meeting they even hear a whisper about, and it is completely bizarre to me. What a huge waste of time, be strategic!

    I am fortunate to be in a team that looks at work produced and managerial skills rather than physical presence in the office in considering promotion. It hasn’t always been easy to balance the limits of my illness with my career goals, but it can be done, and we should all be working to shift these kinds of messed up expectations around what productivity looks like and how it is valued and measured.

  74. babblemouth*

    I have a new colleague whose overachieving ways made me doubt myself, so I know where you’re coming from. Emails sent at midnight, status meetings in which he lists 10 projects, requests from our manager to we assign the interns to work with him because he has too much on… Except that half of it is BS, and half of it is self inflicted. the interns we re-assigned to him? He never gave them any work, because he’s incapable of delegating. The 10 projects he’s on? 2 of them he inserted himself but is just one more cook in a busy kitchen; 3 others are actually on hold but he’s making busy work, and on the 5 others he’s delivering at a level of details that is completely unnecessary for our industry and company. Once you remove all this, our workloads are similar, I’m just a bit more efficient. These kind of things get seen in the long run. In ten years we’ll be in the same place, and he’ll have worked himself into the ground and no social life or hobbies.
    Keep doing what you’re doing. The glorification of over-achievement is a plague on our society. It makes no one happy, it is partially linked to a mental health crisis, and it doesn’t do much for the actual overachievers.
    You sound like a great person to work with, to be honest.

  75. BringValue*

    It is absolutely okay to have this achiever but not over-achiever attitude. However this comment is off putting: […] but the older I get, the more I find myself deliberately stretching out how long I spend on assignments to make it seem like they’re taking me more time than they really are.

    That means someone may be able to do it quicker or more efficiently or not as stretched out. I would never suggest striving as part of your job to make tasks seem like they’re taking longer than they should. We have a guy on our team that does the same and every time he’s on vacation the person that covers him does his daily processes in about an hour or two. And right now with Covid impacting our bottom lines, he’s in the list of people we can do without as his 40-hours can be covered by a few people with minimal impact to their day.

  76. Underachieving LW*

    Hi–thanks, Alison, for answering my question, and to everyone who’s commented and left feedback. I was honestly really surprised my question got answered but I’m glad! (Also, for those who have been speculating–I’m an architect.)

    Even though a lot of the comments here have been really supportive, I was actually left feeling pretty down and sad after reading them, along with Alison’s answer. A lot of the comments have been to the effect of “there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to advance,” which I think is a misunderstanding–I DO want to advance, or at least I thought I did! I think this has given me a lot to think about in terms of whether or not my work habits are supporting my career goals, as well as reevaluating what those career goals actually are. If commenters on a blog are getting the impression that I don’t want to move forward in my career, my coworkers probably are, too. Not good.

    I had a long talk with my partner last night about all of this, and he pointed out that I might be feeling this way partly because of Covid. Although this has been an ongoing problem, I actually was doing much better at managing my time and taking initiative, until Covid hit and one of my two projects was put on hold. He also suggested that I try talking to my boss about what she would like to see me do when I run out of work to do in general, rather than waiting until it happens to see what she says.

    Finally, and Alison did mention this a bit in her response, I think a lot of this is anxiety driven. I have generalized anxiety disorder and that can make it very difficult to see things clearly. If anyone reading here feels confused about the situation, that’s probably because I do, too, but some of the things commenters have said are helping me achieve clarity. Thank you for that! I’m definitely going to take a lot of this to heart and do some reflection.

    1. Noys*

      I didn’t necessarily get that impression from your letter – rather, that you have some clarity on what you will and won’t do in order to progress, especially in relatively small amounts. And I do think it’s a good idea to be really clear with your boss about what, exactly, would need to happen in order for you to progress – there’s a difference between knowing that working an extra 10 hrs a week or taking on additional duties is exactly what fits your org’s criteria for promotion, and assuming that if you toil away you’ll be rewarded with promotions only to find out years later that it didn’t matter.

    2. Moose*

      Note that advancement isn’t binary. Do you want to advance just as quickly as your coworkers, and is that worth working 70hrs/wk? Do you want to advance to the same level as your coworkers?

      I know, for instance, that I’m interested in advancing, but if it takes me a year longer to get a promotion compared to others… that’s fine. I know that I want to advance 3-4 levels above my current level in the company hierarchy, but I’d be fine stopping there – whereas other people might want to manage other people, become a VP or CEO, etc.

      Figure out what you want your life to look like *first*, then figure out how to get there.

    3. lazy intellectual*

      I mean…there are definitely jobs where you don’t have to work overtime to advance. Idk if your current job is one of those, but you can seek them out.

  77. Angela*

    I feel like I could have written this. In my field, many of my peers that started when I did are now in highly lucrative positions or have transitioned to consulting. I’m happy completing my tasks and contributing to the big picture, all while being very efficient and not worrying about the hours I do or don’t work. In a few years I’ll probably move up as my boss retires. Occasionally I think what if I pushed myself and overachieved – then I go on vacation and forget about it

  78. KH*

    This exactly describes me. I think I’m undiagnosed ADHD. I know for sure I’m working less than those around me (I goof off a lot when I should be working and procrastinate like no other) but I get above average raises and as far as I know, nobody is complaining about my performance.

    I’ve been doing this for 6 years now… at this point, I’ve started assuming everyone else (who is not a 70hr/week overachiever) is doing the same thing!

  79. Fellow Underachiever*

    Alison, this post made me feel so validated! I could have been this OP – I got a job right out of college doing what I thought I had wanted to do my whole college career. I ended up absolutely hating that job because of the 80-hour weeks expected of us and the expectation that we would never have any true downtime where we weren’t checking emails or in meetings in the evenings and weekends.

    I ended up leaving that job and getting a “lowly” job (waiting tables) and am SO MUCH HAPPIER. I can basically choose my schedule week to week, love my coworkers, work WAY less hours, and I even make more money to boot! I occasionally do feel bad about myself when I see posts from my college peers about their jobs that require extreme overtime and commitment, but I remind myself that I have all the free time in the world and could most likely pretty easily match (most) of their salaries with my “lowly” job – and they would probably kill for half the free time I have!

  80. RB*

    I love this letter and Alison’s response. I’ve come back to it a couple times because I think it illustrates a common misperception among us peons that keeps us from being happier in our jobs and our station in life. I think if you’re decently paid, and there are no big shortcomings (sucky boss, sucky co-workers, extremely long commute, sucky benefits) then there’s nothing wrong with being a person who is not intent on quickly advancing through the ranks. And why would you want to be that person if it means you’re giving up your life to do that? You’re allowed to value a work-life balance more than those people.

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