If you want to make the most of your career, you need to put in the long hours, right?

That belief is pervasive in many industries — especially high tech, and especially at startups.

If you’re looking for a job in a field that celebrates the 80-hour workweek, it can be tricky to figure out which offer is for the job of a lifetime and which is an invitation to burn out.

It gets even more complicated when you consider the research. Research shows that overwork does not lead to better results for companies or employees. On the contrary, according to studies from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, relentless work schedules can result in health problems from depression to heart disease. Meanwhile, a classic study in Great Britain in the ‘80s showed that cognitive function — and by extension, work quality — drops as workers’ hours increase.

I spoke with Mercedes De Luca, chief operating officer of software company Basecamp, about strategies job seekers can use to tell the difference between paying their dues and paying too high a price for the startup experience. During her 20-year career in tech, De Luca has served as CEO at MyShape, vice president of global information technology at Yahoo!, and vice president and general manager of internet commerce for Sears. These are her tips for job seekers who want to build their careers without signing on for 16-hour workdays:

4 ways to choose a job that won’t take over your lifeClick To Tweet

1. Combine what you do with what you love

If you focus on meaningful work and don’t get distracted by email, meetings and unnecessary tasks, you can produce more in a 40-hour workweek than someone who puts in twice the time but spends it on reactionary tasks. However, even 40 hours can seem like too many if you’re not doing what’s right for you.

Before you start your job hunt, think about which roles will combine the things you care about with the things you’re good at. For example, if your background is accounting and you love to travel, a position at a hospitality company could be perfect.

2. Sign on for the people

In an interview, you need to show what you can do for the company, but you also want to learn how working at the company will further your career. People are key here, and respect for employee time starts at the top. Is the hiring manager likely to be a great coach or mentor? Does he or she seem to work relentlessly?

Evaluate the communications you’ve had with this person. If the manager asks you to interview on a Saturday morning, or emails you late at night, there are a few conclusions you can draw. Perhaps the manager is admirably committed to hiring, but this behavior could also indicate a company culture where work cannot wait — even at night and on weekends.

3. Ask the right questions about culture

Speaking of culture, there are questions you can ask during the hiring process to reveal how work gets done — and that can tell you a lot about whether it can get done in a reasonable workweek. Ask questions like:

  • What’s the decision-making process at this company?
  • What do you do when stakeholders disagree?
  • What is a great project your team recently finished?
  • How many people worked on it, and how long did it take?
  • Which outcomes will I be accountable for, and how will my success be measured?

That final question is critical. Keeping your work hours in check demands that you focus on the work that truly matters. You can’t do that at a company that can’t identify what success should look like.

Keeping your work hours in check demands that you focus on the work that truly matters.Click To Tweet

4. Set the right tone after you take the job

In an effort to impress, a lot of people start a new job by working nonstop. Resist that instinct. Set your boundaries for sane work hours, and let your team know they shouldn’t call you on nights or weekends unless something is legitimately urgent. Likewise, you’ll honor their time.

Then, use your work time wisely. Identify the most important tasks for each day, schedule blocks on your calendar to prioritize that work, and resist distractions — that includes answering non-urgent emails or scheduling meetings where no work actually gets done.

Identify the most important tasks for each day, schedule blocks on your calendar to prioritize that work, and resist distractionsClick To Tweet

There are times when work can wait. Protecting non-work time starts with choosing the right role at the right company, led by the right people. Employees have responsibility in this effort, too. When you make your hours on the job more meaningful, you’ll find that your work life can support both reasonable hours and success.

“Extreme work schedules don’t work for companies or for employees,” said De Luca. “We all have a role to play in changing the culture of workaholism. For job seekers, that can and should start before even accepting a position.”

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