Memo to Capitol Hill Staff: Work Fewer Hours

Brigid Schulte is late. She apologizes when she shows up. “Ironic, isn’t it?” she asks, given her recent bestselling book on time management, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.” But Schulte is instantly forgiven; she may not realize I’d have gladly waited all day. We’re meeting at Peet’s Coffee & Tea a block from the Washington Post office, where Schulte reports on social issues (though she is currently on book leave as she travels across the country, talking about why even those in high power jobs would benefit from a better work life balance.) I write about work-life issues for Roll Call — whose audience includes the highly energized, super busy, power-wielding Capitol Hill staffers — and achieving that balance among work, love and play might fall relatively low on the priority list. Schulte agrees. “Hill staffers wear ‘long hours’ like a badge of honor. The more tired you are, the more important you are,” she says. “And everyone else is doing it, like lemmings, until they just drop from exhaustion.” Her sage advice for Capitol Hill staffers? Work less. “We perform best when we have a balance, when we get adequate sleep and take time for ourselves,” she says. Those vacation days? Take them. Those long hours? Whenever possible, cut back. And leisure? Make time for it. It’s “leisure” that may not resonate so much for staffers, who are often reminded they work for “taxpayer dollars” in competitive offices with slashed budgets. Schulte, an award-winning reporter juggling two teenage children, understands the initial hesitancy to embrace leisure. Schulte recalls her embarrassment at the New America Foundation, where she served as a Schwartz fellow, admitting to one of the board members that she studied leisure. “I've really had to come a long way before I began to think differently — and not wear my long work hours, my busyness, my super humanly crammed calendar as a badge of honor, and take time off, away, to rest and even play,” Schulte says. But Capitol Hill staffers aren’t the run-of-the-mill go-getters, many of whom would scoff at the idea of begging off work early to go kayak on the Potomac. I list off the perennial excuses for putting in long hours on the Hill: a demanding boss, unpredictable vote schedule, “recess” weeks that include exhausting trips to the district. If there were time for leisure on Capitol Hill, it could come in August, when Congress breaks for its monthlong recess. But this is an election year, when many opt into district and state events to glad-hand the electorate. So, how can anyone — particularly someone hoping for a promotion and expanded responsibilities — with a smartphone and demanding boss find time for leisure? Define the mission of your job, change the narrative and “watch out for sludge,” Schulte says. Sludge is the judgment in how others spend their time. It’s the sly smirk from a co-worker if you leave while they’re still clacking away on the keyboard, or the trill in your voice announcing you were the first one to arrive. In environments that prioritize face time, such as Capitol Hill offices, sludge can be rampant. Schulte advocates “sludge eradication sessions,” layman-speak for "focusing on your own work," and less time on judging the perceived dedication of others. And excessive face time, Schulte argues, can be counterproductive. Back in 1914, Henry Ford realized that after eight hours of work, the typical laborer was spent: Productivity went down and mistakes went up. Capitol Hill staffers, like others in government, are considered “knowledge workers” who spend their day working with information, rather than tools. Schulte cites research that found that knowledge workers have about six hours a day of hard mental labor before their work product suffers. Staffers burning the midnight oil on a regular basis are more likely to make mistakes and then spend additional time going back to fix them. “Sometimes there is an element of proving yourself, but you can do it without being there a million hours,” she says. “People tend to work to what the boss does and that culture can be hard to change. But if the Pentagon can do it, so can Congress. Look at Michéle Flournoy.” Flournoy, who served as under secretary of defense for policy and created an alternative work schedule at the Pentagon, is one of the “bright spots” in Schulte’s book. Managers gave employees more control over how and when work got done. Colleagues shared portfolios, so no one would be missed if he or she was out of the office. Performance reviews evaluated output, not face time. The quality of work went up dramatically and so did morale. Congress, like the Pentagon, has a job to do, Schulte says, and it needs to be as clear-headed as possible. “These are people who are creating our policies," she says. "If more people on Capitol Hill got sleep, think of what that would mean." There are ways to work more efficiently, which include “chunking” time by working in blocks. Schulte wrote her book in 30 minute increments, which she gradually increased until she achieved 90 minute blocks. After each block, she would take a break and get a latte (decaf skim, FYI), go for a run or read something for fun. Neuroscience has found humans work best “pulsing” between periods of intense concentration and then taking a break. Impressed, I tried this technique when writing this article. I set a timer on my iPhone. When it dinged that time was up, I took a break, walked around the newsroom, got coffee or folded laundry if I was writing at home. (Flextime – control over where and how work gets done – is another point of Schulte’s that she argues leads to larger overall satisfaction in the workplace. Duly noted). “Meaningful work is important in life. But people confuse dedication with overwork at the exclusion of everything else. There’s a superhero mindset. This needs to happen by midnight; it’s the can-do American spirit. Then you rush to get it done and you’re spent, then get up and do it the next day, and this happens over and over again.” But isn’t that part of the thrill of working on Capitol Hill, where every day has a new drama to unfold? “A lot of Capitol Hill staffers are in their 20s, where the work is very exhilarating. This is where your friends are, this is the culture,” Schulte said. “But you’re closing yourself off from novel experiences.” Those experiences are what Schulte says are needed to grow. Forget busyness, try novelty. “Start by becoming aware. Find a network of support. And look for the bright spots,” she tells me, and I’ve come to realize what she means. This isn’t a reference to the good days vs. bad days, or the nice bosses who give paternity leave vs. the ones who scowl at vacation days. This is about finding an instance where work-life balance can be achieved in small, incremental ways, even for workplaces that place a high value on face time and staffers are accustomed to putting work before everything else. In a town like Washington, D.C., where the first question is often, “Whom do you work for?” Schulte is offering something novel, almost counter-intuitive — a way of eating dessert before dinner. Take time for oneself. For leisure. And doing so will make you a smarter, happier, more effective, staffer. And with that, our coffee date is over.