The Secret to Productivity? Work Less
Both employers and employees are continually looking at how to improve productivity. I often hear from many clients that there “are simply not enough hours in the day to get the work done”. This was confirmed again when I recently spoke at a conference and asked the audience of about 300 how many feel they need more time to do their jobs? More than half the room raised their hands.
The thought of needing more time is not foreign to most and is one of the reasons many bring work home, get up early, and work on weekends. It is also leading to longer workweeks and has Americans leading the pack on the number of hours worked each week.
But what if this was the wrong approach? What if we had it backward?
What if instead of piling on more hours and cramming more work into our already hectic schedules, we actually worked less (hours) and in so doing were able to accomplish more? What would it look like if we reduced our workday from 8 hours (the average American works far more) to say 5 or six hours? Could we actually accomplish the same if not more, with better quality and enhanced efficiency?
While proponents of the hustle way of working would scoff at this idea, I believe corporate leaders and workers should give this idea some thought and here are three reasons why.
We Are Lousy Time Managers
Depending on what study you read, the average American works 8.8 hours per weekday (this does not account for work after hours or on weekends). However, nearly 50-65% of that time is actually spent not working and in a state of distraction.
From the high pitched ding we receive from a text, email alerts, our social media feeds keeping us up to date on our likes, phone calls to friends, runs to the break room, and the obsession with our smartphones which we only check on average 2,617 times each day according to a 2016 study by dscout, we live in a constant state of distraction. With this being the case, it is no wonder we are less productive and feel like we do not have enough time in a given day to accomplish the tasks at hand.
If companies and professionals want to improve work productivity and quality, there must be a conscious effort to reduce distractions and this can be done with some simple time management techniques.
I know many, and I myself have specific times of day where I will check email, respond to calls, post to social media and at the same time have very clear times when I am solely focused on work deliverables. These clear lines of demarcation have allowed me to get more done in a shorter period of time because I am not continually distracted, but rather focused.
Additionally, we can limit our alerts, silence our phones and reduce the noise around us to allow for a better focus.
Adding this structure into your day will help boost the output and more importantly better aligns with how our brains are wired.
Aligning To Our Hardcore Wiring
It’s 2:00 on a weekday afternoon and after a day of plugging along, eating lunch at your desk to maximize your time you feel it, the afternoon work coma. Your eyes get heavy, the idea of a nap sounds amazing and all of the energy and vigor you felt earlier in the day is gone and 3-4 more hours at the office seems insurmountable.
This scenario is lived by many each and every day and it is not a result of laziness or eating too many carbs at lunch, it is actually our brains telling us they have had enough.
Over the course of the last few years, I adopted a pattern of work of what I call sprints. I work for 90-120 minutes and then take a break. The break could be for 15-20 minutes or last longer so I could head to the gym. The results have been surprising to me as I have consistent energy throughout the day, get more completed and have seen my creativity and work quality improve dramatically.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was actually working in concert with my Ultradian Rhythm, which is a cycle that we as humans have in both our waking and sleeping hours. The ultradian rhythm is the “ebb and flow” of how our body works and like any living organism, times of rest and replenishment are needed.
When writing about these rhythms for Experience Life magazine, Pilar Gersimo and Dallas Hartwig both health and wellness experts state the following:
Your body is wired up to operate in ebb-and-flow mode: During the active “up” periods of ultradian cycles (typically 90 to 120 minutes long)
The stress and fatigue stress and fatigue you experience are signals your body and brain have become overloaded. They need some downtime.
When you don’t take the breaks your body demands, it responds by ratcheting down the available energy stores and reducing your cognitive capacity. You may experience a case of the blahs along with rising frustration and irritation.
As you fight your body’s need for ultradian-rhythm breaks, it might look like you’re hard at work, but you’ll actually experience diminishing returns.
So while many support the idea that more hours allow for higher output, the science shows quite the opposite. Those who are in tune with the natural flow of their bodies will be those who are most productive even though they may put in fewer hours.
Our Work Can Expand . . . and Contract
Most are very aware of Parkinson’s Law, which states “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” While this is often the case for procrastinators it is a law that is lived out every day in the offices and meeting rooms of Corporate America.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we rarely jump on a task if we are given two weeks to complete it. Instead, we spend time thinking and talking about it and then race to the finish to get it complete.
At the same time, managers have been known to set unrealistic timelines to initiatives that force workers into a state of being overextended and at risk of poor quality in their work.
Rather than just set a deadline, the most effective method I have seen in working with teams and individuals is the development of a work plan. The plan includes smaller milestones that are to be completed within the full scope of the program. This allows for the potential enormity of the project or task to be reduced and for the team or individual to see success along the way as each milestone is reached.
Proper planning will eliminate the expansion and contraction of work and allow employees to work at a better and healthier pace.
While employers and employees will continually look at how they can maximize their productivity, the idea that more will equal more is false. As the most worked nation in the world, it is time we take a hard look both corporately and individually at how we work and understand that less will lead to more.
This article was originally published on CEOWorld Magazine on October 17, 2019.