When project deadlines loom and workloads increase, many of us make the decision to increase working hours. Maybe it’s not more time you need, but a re-focus of your energy.
If we look at a typical workday by the numbers, studies show that 28% of office hours are spent on email with another third in meetings. It takes about 10 minutes of focus to get your mind engaged on a task. With each interruption, that 10 minute focus time needs to re-start. With an average of 87 interruptions per day, it’s no wonder that it can be difficult to feel productive and focused at work. Turns out, that unfocused time might be more beneficial than it seems.
The key to increased productivity may lie in working less hours, taking more breaks and re-focusing how we prioritize our time. Below is an excerpt from “Why you should manage your energy, not your time” by Madeline Dore. (Dore, Madeline. “Why you should manage your energy, not your time.” BBC.com, 13 June 2017.) Click here to read the full article.
Why you should manage your energy, not your time.
For ten years, Lisa Congdon’s days were packed like a “can of sardines.” Juggling between five and 20 projects at any one time, the artist and author, based in Portland, Oregon in the US, tried to squeeze as much into her daily work schedule as she could.
Finally, in the tenth year of her career, she started to have physical symptoms as a result of the stress – chronic back pain, upper neck pain and headaches.
“I was waking up with anxiety, feeling a sense of tension in the pit of my stomach, and I had trouble sleeping,” she says.
What if working less were the key to getting more done?
Many of us will have had that sense of there just not being enough hours in the day to do everything we need to do. Tasks that should take only a few minutes can stretch into hours, all while other work mounts up.
For most, the solution is to work later into the evening or even over the weekend, which leaves many of us feeling exhausted, stressed and burned out. But what if working less were the key to getting more done?
The time management myth
Previously, Congdon would often work from eight in the morning until seven at night without a break.
It’s an easy trap to fall into – it’s drilled into us that working solidly for eight or more hours will increase our output and impress our colleagues and managers. But in reality, even the traditional nine-to-five workday is not conducive to productivity.
A workplace study found an average working professional experiences 87 interruptions per day, making it difficult to remain productive and focused for a full day.
Knowing something had to give, Congdon began to adjust her approach to work and restructured her day to achieve the same amount of output, without working around the clock. She decided to split her day into fewer 45-minute segments, and aimed to maximize her productivity within those strict time sessions.
The key to maintaining focus and energy in shorter bursts was to apply flexibility to those segments – she could use some for exercise, some for meditation, some for work. Getting rest within her workday helped lower stress levels and therefore achieve better results within the allotted time for working, Congdon found.
This makes sense in the light of research that has found our productivity has less to do with the amount of hours we squeeze out of the working day, and more to do with the rest we have.
In 2014, the social networking company The Draugiem Group used a time-tracking productivity app to study what habits set their most productive employees apart.
Surprisingly, the top 10% of employees with the highest productivity didn’t put in longer hours than anyone else – often they didn’t even work eight-hour days. Instead, the key to their productivity was that for every 52 minutes of focused work, they took a 17-minute break.
While our culture may be pushing us towards working 24/7, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Silcon Valley consultant and author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, believes this is not helping us to be more productive or to come up with creative solutions.
The research instead points towards the importance of rest, he says.
“Generally, short bursts of long hours do lead to increases in productivity, but over time those gains disappear,” says Pang. “The odds of costly mistakes rise, and as a result the gains that come from working longer hours disappear.
One study from Illinois Institute of Technology by Raymond Van Zelst and Willard Kerr in 1951 found that scientists who spent 25 hours per week in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent just five.
In fact, as few as one to three hours of concentrated work could serve to be as effective as a traditional workday. For Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, this is because being busy is simply a proxy for productivity.
“In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner,” says Newport.
Working for show, it seems, is also futile. A study of consultants by Boston University’s School of Business found that managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to.
In order to make the most of our focus and energy, we also need to embrace downtime, or as Newport suggests, “be lazy.”
“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body… [idleness] is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done,” he argues.
Srini Pillay, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, believes this counterintuitive link between downtime and productivity may be due to the way our brains operate. When our brains toggle between being focused and unfocused on a task, they tend to be more efficient.
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