The first lesson I learnt in 2012 was, never try to outsmart jet lag.
Wanting to make the most out of a recent Christmas trip back home, I jumped on a red-eye flight back to London on the very last day of the holiday break, timing my arrival down to the last minute. Touch down, shower, roll into office fresh as a daisy.
Jet lag be damned, I told myself. I'd just set my watch to the right time and have copious amounts of coffee to last the day.
I ended up slumped at my office table on Tuesday afternoon, bloated from one too many ineffective cuppas and counting down the hours before I could crawl into bed - and die.
'Why didn't you take another day off,' asked a bewildered colleague as I yawned for the umpteenth time.
'A day off right after the new year?' I slurred. 'My Singaporean work ethic won't allow it.'
'Ah yes,' she replied, rolling her eyes. 'Your legendary Singaporean work ethic. No rest for the wicked then.'
Like many Singaporeans plying their trade in the outside world, I like to think that my industriousness is my calling card. After all, if there is anything that we as a people are known for, wouldn't 'hardworking' and 'uber-efficient' sit right on top of the list, together with the ever popular 'can't chew gum' and 'death penalty for drug trafficking'?
Hey, our work ethic is one of the few things we can even be snobbish about, a victory to lord over our northern neighbours, for example. Workaholics 1, Rest of the World 0. (Okay, I realise our propensity for hard graft might also make us appear vaguely soulless, but at least we're the kind of zombies who can get the job done.)
So I was surprised to learn via a recent Internet meme that in 2010, Singaporeans worked the most hours among developed countries - but were among the least productive. The US Bureau of Statistics found that Singaporeans clocked 2,409 hours annually but had the fourth-lowest gross domestic product. Conversely, Norwegians worked the least - putting in 1,414 hours - but scored the highest GDP.
In other words, the study found that Singaporeans, for all our blustering, are all about the 'wayang'. Seeing this as an affront to our nationhood, I decided to embark on my own quack analysis of this claim. Why, despite the appearance of expeditiousness, have we fared so poorly in the productivity stakes?
'You know all those hours that you spend in the office,' I asked a Singaporean accountant friend who works past 8pm every day. 'What exactly are you busy with?' 'Well, I work of course,' he began. 'But sometimes, I don't want to leave before my boss does. You know, I don't want to look like I'm not pulling my weight.'
Of course. The longer we stay at work for no good reason, the less productive we become when we eventually take output divided by effort.
In Singapore, so many of us worker bees wear overtime - be it to impress the boss by being a kiasu bootlicker, indulge in pointless water-cooler conversation or just to go on Facebook - like a badge of honour.
Funnily enough, the reverse is true where I work now. A person who habitually stays late is more likely to be labelled slow and inefficient than dedicated and diligent. (Interestingly, the United Kingdom is four spots above Singapore in the US Bureau of Statistics productivity rankings, despite its workforce putting in 1,647 hours compared to our 2,409.)
Another cross-cultural observation I've made is that the amount of time wasted in the work day is often proportionately related to the value society places on lunch.
In food-crazy Singapore, lunch is an epic affair that requires extensive research (Googling eating places at about 11am), organisation (using instant messaging to round up the troops) and execution (an hour's worth of pigging out). In my experience, this usually accounts for about two to three hours of procrastination.
Over here, lunch is a non-event. A sandwich and Diet Coke are gobbled down in 10 minutes, allowing work to be completed and for employees to knock off on time for drinks at the pub.
'Work is work,' said an English friend of mine when I asked her how she managed to get out of the office at 5.30pm every day. 'Why on earth would I want to mess around with lunch and Facebook and gossip? It'll only prolong the daily ordeal.'
'The secret to productivity,' she added, 'is to want to get the heck out of there. That way, you'll tear through your work with no distractions. Maybe Singaporeans just love their jobs too much. They work there and play there as well, and so that skews the statistics.'
Could that be it? All those man hours spent in the office doing nothing are perhaps due to a lack of boundaries between work and leisure? I much prefer that to the suggestion that we've become uncompetitive and lazy.
After all, this is the Singaporean work ethic we're talking about. Legendary, okay.