The Antidote to Workplace Hustle Culture

If your workplace insists that everything is a priority, vacation days are for the weak, and a moment not grinding out work is a moment wasted, then you're likely living in hustle culture. Modern Mentor shares her advice on why—and how—to dial back the hustle.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #676
The Quick And Dirty

Three strategies you can use to begin dialing back the hustle in your culture are:

  1. Ask better questions
  2. Check on the people around you
  3. Tell stories of white-space wins
Last week I got on a coaching call with a client. 2 minutes in, she began crying. 47 minutes later, she was still crying. She was burned out... to a crisp. 
At minute 52, we got a deep breath into her, and she began listing her priorities for me. And there were many. “I know we’re supposed to be setting boundaries and doing the self-care thing,” she told me, “but I can’t afford to spend my days meditating and taking walks. I have a big job to do!”
And that was the moment when I almost started crying. She had articulated something I realize so many are struggling with right now: this toxic belief that we’re either succeeding or chanting in a warm bath.
This unwillingness to believe that we can succeed while caring for ourselves and our teams is the epitome of hustle culture. It’s the mentality that a minute not spent grinding out work is a minute wasted, that more is always better, and that rest and relaxation are for the weak. 
Unlike toxic productivity—which is driven by an internal need to always be busy—hustle culture is a bundle of awfulness perpetuated by a whole organization or team.

What signals might you spot in an organization suffering from the hustle?

  • Items are only added to to-do lists, never subtracted
  • Lunch breaks are comedy—everyone laughs at them 
  • There is always discussion of the next thing, with no pause to recognize or celebrate what’s already been achieved
  • No one has asked about your boundaries
  • Vacation days are to be collected but rarely spent
Do any of these feel familiar? If so, what can you do to begin to make a change at your workplace?  
The antidote to hustle culture isn’t doing less work. It’s doing work more mindfully with more purpose, intention, and focus on impact over activity. Here are some practices you can use to start to muzzle the hustle.

1. Ask better questions 

Hustle culture values quantity while anti-hustle strives for impact.
When a new project or initiative pops up within a hustle culture, project owners tend to ask questions like:
  • When do you need it completed?
  • What’s my budget?
  • What are the key performance indicators to track?
These are the type of questions my sobbing client would typically ask her boss. But these all presume that of course she’s going to get it done—she just needs some basic facts to start with.
But in an anti-hustle culture, we’d be asking better questions like:
  • What’s the outcome you need to achieve, and might there be a simpler path to achieving it?
  • Has someone inside our company done something similar that we might use rather than reinventing the wheel?
  • What do you suggest we deprioritize so that we have the time, space, and resources to do this project justice?
  • What would be the cost of our not doing this project, or doing it in a month when we’ve freed up some resources?
These anti-hustle questions allow us to slow down, to consider the cost of doing—but also not doing—the work, and to recognize that our resources (which include our emotional and creative energy) are limited and we must spend them thoughtfully. Often they lead us to the same or better outcomes, but with less effort exerted. 
My sobbing client agreed to give these a try. I’ll keep you posted on how they serve her.

2. Check on the people around you

Hustle cultures value results at all costs while anti-hustle prioritizes human wellness with an understanding that wellness is a driver of creativity and better results.
To drive an anti-hustle culture, stay in touch with people around you. See how everyone is doing. These are the moments in which your EQ (emotional quotient) really matters!
How are your colleagues or team members doing, really? 
Make it a habit of just checking in with people around you. Focus on those whom you suspect may be dealing with loneliness or overwhelm; those who are new to the team and haven’t met anyone in person yet; or just those you’d just like to get to know a little better.
Your job isn’t to be anyone’s savior—loneliness and overwhelm aren’t yours to solve or cure. But just creating the space in which these concerns can be raised begins to dial back the hustle. The conversation helps normalize our complex human experiences. 
Give people’s realities airtime, and watch them breathe just a tiny bit more deeply.

3. Tell stories of white-space wins 

Hustle culture loves the grind, while anti-hustle appreciates the power of space in which the mind can roam and explore.
Hustle culture puts execution on a pedestal. Always be grinding, crushing, smashing... it’s a little violent when you start speaking its language!
But so often, the greatest insights—the moments of inspiration, creativity, innovation—come when we’re taking a pause from the grind.
There’s a great urban legend that goes like this: A senior executive was walking the halls of his tech company one day when he came across a man sitting at his desk just staring out the window.
When the executive asked that team’s leader why this gentleman hadn’t been fired, the team leader said “Sir, that’s the employee who developed the idea for our most profitable product of the decade.” The next day that employee came into work only to discover his window had been tripled in size overnight.
Did this really happen? I have no idea. But it’s a powerful story of what can happen when we give our minds the time and grace for wandering—letting connections happen in the space between the grinding and the crushing.
Small moments like this are happening in your workplace. Coffee dates, walking meetings, moments of silence or learning or reading or listening to podcasts... can all yield small ideas that improve customer service or tweak a product or alter an old process.
Proactively finding these moments—and highlighting them through stories—is an excellent way to dial back your hustle.
So how are you feeling about the state of the culture at your workplace? Do you have some hustling to do in dialing back that hustle culture? Give one of these suggestions a try. And if you’ve got your own ideas, I’d love to hear them. Shoot me an email at modernmentor@quickanddirtytips.com and let me know how you’ve managed to turn back the dial.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.