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I used to say, “No one is going to outwork me,” with pride. After years as an entrepreneur, I was burnt out, disconnected and not an effective leader or happy person. After an especially difficult period, I knew something needed to change. I started working fewer hours, but I worked those hours with more intention. Surprisingly, I learned that I was not only happier — but I was also more effective, and my business was doing better.
In her memoir, Bronnie Ware described the most common themes of regret in her experiences caring for dying patients. Not surprisingly, no one ever said, “I wish I had spent more of my time working.” In fact, working too hard was the second-most-common regret.
Yet many leaders glorify working excessive hours, sacrificing personal time and avoiding breaks in the relentless pursuit of success. Even though most modern studies find working too hard to be subject to the law of diminishing returns, hustle culture today is still pervasive.
The hustle is hurting you and your business, but not in the way you might think. To prevent this, we need to rally against the hustle culture, set boundaries and do the work to not do the work.
Related: Why Hustle Culture Might Be Toxic To Your Business
The data does not bode well for hustlers
At first, all founders can feel like they need to hustle — working nights, weekends and 10-hour days. Resist that unsustainable urge. Overworked individuals struggle with making good judgments, communicating and managing emotional reactions; they are more likely to make mistakes. The resulting stress and exhaustion from overwork can cause impaired sleep, diminished memory, depression, excessive substance use and worse — diabetes and heart disease. These effects can lead to absenteeism, high turnover and rising health insurance costs.
For founders, we often frame this as a burnout problem. In truth, that is merely the tip of the iceberg: Overwork means operating at a diminished capacity, which happens well before burnout even hits. They think they can outwork every problem, but six weeks down the line, everything supporting their life balance start to crumble — they eat poorly and have no time to invest in their health or relationships.
Stuck in this hustle mindset, leaders can never truly be thinking about the greater needs of the business. They push themselves beyond reasonable limits to focus exclusively on work while closing themselves off to the rest of the world, losing perspective, exposure to outside voices and creativity. For founders, burnout is just a discrete event that happens at the end of the evisceration of their business and loss of self.
Related: Health Is Wealth: How To Move Away From Hustle Culture
Hustle culture feeds a need, not a business
If the data is clear that hustling is not a winning strategy, why is it so pervasive? I would argue that the triple threat of ego, identity and managing uncertainty is a big driver.
Some entrepreneurs cannot sit by and do nothing in the face of uncertainty, so they hustle because action is the easiest way to fight it. When running a business, there is always one more task to do, and it can be hard to just sit with that knowledge and not act on it. In the same way that no one opens up TikTok planning to waste 55 minutes, it can be so easy for startup founders to fall into the same blind rhythm with emails and Slack. They gain a sense of security by putting in more hours, but by giving in to that comfort, they can get lost in a never-ending workload.
Some conflate their whole worth and identity with their ability to work long hours. I know I did. Founders from older generations might see the rally against the hustle as laziness, but only because they take it as an attack on their identity and choices. If the hustle was a waste of time, they have to face all the missed birthdays, lost milestones and family trips that the data says they should have prioritized instead.
Related: Here’s Why Hustle Culture Is a Big Lie
Put in the work to not do work
If hustling is the easy route through uncertainty, then we need to choose to do the hard work of setting boundaries. As entrepreneurs, we are not typically good at this — our businesses and lives are inextricably linked. Stuck in the hustle lifestyle, stopping can be as hard as keeping it up.
On a recent phone call with a brilliant founder who works insane hours, I made them promise: “When you finish working on Friday at 6 p.m., turn off the computer and leave it off until Monday morning.” It takes hard work to not always depend on just doing the work, but by investing that energy into such discipline, we unlock new potential.
Setting boundaries starts with intention. Founders often make passive choices in how they spend their time: By not actively choosing, they just move on to the next thing ad infinitum, permanently working. Instead, they should review and reflect on what they want to accomplish and why, so they can analyze how much time they spend working, the quality of the decisions that come out of each session and how much of that work was meaningful. We must also ask ourselves, What did I give up to work those hours, and how much of that work time could have been avoided?
Related: Stop Splitting Yourself In Half: Seek Out Work-Life Boundaries, Not Balance
The nonstop hustle of working day and night may sound like a good idea for greater productivity, but hustle culture strips away efficiency at the end of the day. It makes us less creative, relatable, likable and unable to recruit and make good decisions. Instead, we can increase our efforts to work as hard as possible for 40 hours a week and then clock out to come back fresh and rested with a clear head and a better perspective.