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Feeling Overworked? Try Lying Flat

by Hawi Bekele Bengessa

How one movement in China can help you change the way you work

Three digits of doom

9-9-6. It’s the country code for Kyrgyzstan. 
It’s also the code for a very expensive Porsche. 
In Strong’s Concordance, it comes up as the Hebrew word “bayin,” meaning “an interval” or “space between.”  

But 9-9-6 really doesn’t have that much “space between” work hours. In fact, there are hardly any “intervals” between the weekend and the weekdays. 

That’s because this set of numbers represented a working hour system in China that was the standard for years until just a few months ago when it became the center of a large movement on GitHub (and beyond) called 

9 AM – 9 PM. 
6 days a week. 
72 hours a week. 
= 9-9-6. 

This was the encouraged weekly schedule for many of China’s largest companies. “Encouraged” because it was technically illegal to mandate an employee to work more than 40 hours a week. But this didn’t stop giants like,, and others to build an empire on the back of these intense work environments.

Instead, supporters of the 996 culture claim that “Slackers are not…brothers” and that there’s “no way to “achieve the success [one] want[s] without paying extra effort and time.”

Sounds extreme but….

Before we point elbows and claim that the 9-9-6 culture is a toxic mentality akin to modern-day slavery, let’s take a step back to see how the good ol’ productivity culture might not be too far off in nature. 

After all, isn’t startup life a daily grind of wearing many hats and staying in the office an extra hour (or three) to “catch up on work?” Or how about those late nights auditing for Fortune 500 companies at one of the Big 4 when it’s busy season? Don’t we remember the young investment intern who had passed away from an epileptic seizure after working 72 hours straight? 

Sadly, this cause of death is so familiar in Eastern Asia that it even has a dedicated term, i.e., “karoshi.” You may be thinking “karoshi” is a distant product of overworking that hardly happens in the States. The reality is, it’s already here. 

How many of our relationships and dreams have been buried alive underneath piles of emails, Slack messages, and roadmaps? If we’re truthful with ourselves, the wasting away of our purpose and passions has masked itself as the pursuit of productivity.

The rise of anti-productivity in China

For the 9-9-6 working schedule in China, an extreme response was needed to counter this extreme culture. And thus, the “Lying Flat” movement was birthed. A revolutionary, anti-productivity perspective, the Lying Flat movement rejects the hustle culture that has made China a global leader and promotes its followers to, well, lie flat. 

Now, “lying flat” is a bit like clay. You can pretty much shape it however you want. Some literally lie flat and do nothing all day. Others lie flat by refusing to work for corporations, picking up freelancing jobs that accommodate their own pace instead. 

What would lying flat look like for you? 

Here are a few questions to reflect on to help identify where productivity may need to pump the brakes a bit and lie flat. 

  1. What is driving your ambitions? Are these drivers a need to prove your worth or are they genuinely derived from a healthy place of identity? 
  2. How are you defining “productivity?” Is it based on quantity (how much you get done) or quality (the value of the work done)? 
  3. What happens if you leave work unfinished? Are you staying up at night thinking about it or do you leave work at work? 
  4. How often are you anxious at work and what are the triggers? Are these triggers self-imposed by a need to perform? 
  5. How much of your worth are your deriving from your work? 
  6. How do you feel when you don’t have work to do? Anxious or at rest? 

Anti-productivity is countercultural. On the other hand, this is largely dependent on whether or not you want to conform to culture in the first place. For the thousands of Chinese millennials who have chosen to go against the grain, being a part of the culture was stripping them of a healthy, work-life balance. 

For us, it’s all about perspective. What may seem taxing on the soul to one accountant may be the highlight of the week to another. So long as the need to excel isn’t driven by external expectations, your “Lie Flat” movement could be as simple as logging off exactly at 5 or as extreme as taking a three-month sabbatical in the Himalayas. 

Lying flat is a versatile principle and irrespective of how it’s applied, the concept remains the same: your worth is not in your work.

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