Change Agent - Issue 47

"There is no correlation at all between success and hours worked."

Situation report: Profits are off. The Dow can't decide if it should have five digits or four. The best and the brightest — as well as the slowest and the lamest — are announcing layoffs more frequently than LaGuardia announces landings.

My recommendation: Relax. Don't work so hard. Take a little time off. Chill out!

To understand why this is the best advice for bosses and workers alike, you need to hear about the Kalihi-Palama Public Library in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The Kalihi-Palama Public Library is open until 5 PM most days. Years ago, when the only way to research stuff was by asking people (as opposed to using the Web), this was a vitally important fact to me and to many people on the East Coast. Why? Because in those days, if you happened to find yourself working away on a proposal at 10 PM New York time, the library in Hawaii was still open. You could give them a call, and a librarian would happily answer your question, regardless of how obscure it was.

One of the least savory by-products of the new economy has been an almost complete disregard for sleep, family, and personal time. Macho companies marching toward IPOs pride themselves on the army of their totally committed employees, who are all too happy to endure sleepless nights and to take showers at the office.

When I was working on my first product launch about 15 years ago, a team of 40 of us stayed in the office all night and all day for about a month. We slept on the floor (when we slept at all) and only left the office for an occasional shower. And if I remember correctly, the showers were pretty occasional.

We made our deadline (just barely — we had to bribe the ups man with champagne in order to get the last 100 units off of the assembly line) and saved the company. I remember the perverse pride we all took in our insane dedication. The camaraderie that we developed during those late nights lasts to this day.

But it almost cost me my girlfriend (I ended up marrying her, which is definitely the good news here), and it definitely cost me my health: I was sick for six months afterward.

If you're shaking your head in understanding or agreement, then we need to talk. There is no correlation at all between success and hours worked. People who run huge corporations, superpower governments, and insanely profitable, tiny proprietorships are all working fewer hours than you are. It's time to stop the madness and reset your internal clock.

I think the sleeplessness started when we moved off the farm. Sure, there are a few weeks a year of really long hours on a farm, when you had better get the crops in or they'll die. But there's a limited amount of stuff to harvest, and bringing in more sharecroppers and putting in longer hours isn't really going to pay off. Sooner or later, you run out of corn.

It wasn't that way in factories or in mines, however. That kind of grunt work-brunt work had a simple mantra: Work more, get more. You lived off the sweat of your brow, and the more your brow sweat, the more you got. Even better, getting your employees to work longer hours made you more money — without the sweat (at least not yours).

Understandably, the workers of the world united. They realized that while management got more, they really didn't. Hence, the 40-hour workweek.

Suddenly, in came the new economy, entrepreneurs, freelancers, free agents, speed to market, first-mover advantage, IPOs, and cutthroat competition in a winner-take-all world. The workers got their wish: They got to feel like owners, and all bets were off.

File this part of the new economy under the lesson, Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. Check your email. There are people sending you messages at midnight or at 4 AM. One of my closest friends regularly calls me from work at 9 AM my time, here in New York — which would be fine, except that she lives in California. The original Macintosh team may have gotten the finest massages and the best catering, but they worked like dogs for more than a year.

One company in Silicon Valley often schedules important strategy meetings at 6 PM. Of course, by that time, most people are running late, so the meetings start at 7:30 or 8 PM. That accomplishes a few things: First, only the really dedicated hard-liners show up. The folks who don't really care are at home hanging out with their family, cooking dinner. The true loyalists — at least, according to company culture — are at work. Second, everyone is tired and punchy, which ensures that crisp, analytical thinking will be in pretty short supply. And third and most important, even the diehards are beginning to think about going home, so there won't be much dissent unless the decision about to be made is really dumb or really important!

Of course, even if you're not at work, you stay in touch. You use your PDA to check your email in a taxi. You make sure that your cell phone has a headset so you can talk while you're driving the family to the Grand Canyon for vacation.

For a while, it seemed as if all of this made sense. It seemed as if working longer hours made your company move faster and that moving faster made your company win.

Well, now that the NASDAQ has cooled off and we've seen that maybe, just maybe, the new economy is not a speed-to-market, first-mover advantage, IPO, winner-take-all world, it's time to reevaluate this work-ethic mind-set. But ironically, instead of getting us to challenge the myth of the grindstone, the NASDAQ hiccup has a lot of people too scared to act smart.

What's smart? The fact is, the companies that made good decisions a year ago or even five years ago are thriving today. Their stock may be down, but the companies are still on course.

Alas, among those that failed to make the right decisions, the strategy is apparently not to step back and start making the best decisions. Instead, the approach seems to be to work even harder, ignoring the fact that companies may be working hard on the wrong things!

Some folks think their boss, their boss's boss, or Wall Street wants to hear, "Well, we'll just keep our heads down and work even harder." Wrong! I think what's missing is people saying, "We learned from that mistake. Here are the smart decisions that are going to take us where we want to go now."

There's a huge difference between working in a mine or a factory and doing what you do for a living. In the old days, people made stuff. You don't make stuff. You make decisions.

And the thing about making decisions is that you don't make better decisions when you work longer hours. You don't write better code when you work longer hours. You don't create better business-development deals, make better sales pitches, or invent cooler interfaces when you work longer hours either.

Let's face it: The marathon culture of "I work harder than you do" is nothing but an excuse to avoid making the hard decisions.

Think about the last time you faced a deadline at work. Odds are, you made the deadline — but just barely. Now imagine that the deadline had been one day further away. You still would have made the deadline. Your work would have been just as good. And the words "just barely" would still be associated with the project.

It's an old saw, but it's still true in the new economy: Work expands to fill the time allotted for it.

If you allot 12 hours to work every day, you'll spend 12 hours. But are you going to make more decisions? Better decisions?

Let's do a little history exercise. Imagine five success stories of the past decade. Think of companies such as Cisco, Palm, Yahoo!, Starbucks, and JetBlue.

Now list the six decisions that each company made that turned it into a success. Are there six things that each one decided to do that transformed it from an ordinary company into an extraordinary success? There might even be fewer than six things.

Everything else these companies did around those decisions is just commentary. Yes, there were important operations happening to make those decisions valid. But those operations weren't the key to those companies' successes. As strategist Gary Hamel says, in the future, business-model innovation will be a key success factor.

And it's not just fancy corporate-strategy stuff. Great programmers know that 80% of software project's success or failure is determined by the decisions made during the first four weeks of systems architecture. Get that part right, and you won't be fighting an uphill battle for the rest of the project.

Talk to any truly successful lawyer — the kind with great clients, a great reputation, and plenty of cash. You'll find that the secret of her success isn't pulling an all-nighter the night before a client meeting or a big trial. The secret is understanding the key issues and making decisions about how to act on them. Nobody ever hired a law firm because he was impressed with how well stapled the memos were.

Now think about your company. Are people so busy implementing, defending, building, and pulling all-nighters that they are shortchanging the time that they ought to be spending making decisions?

Take a look at the future. When you write your company's history two years from now, which decisions will have really mattered? What were the key moments that led you to create such a success?

Write them down. Post them on the wall. And work on them!

That's what you should spend your time on. Getting those decisions right is far more important than answering your 103rd email message or hacking that last piece of code.

Situation report: At Reader's Digest in the 1950s, Lila Wallace used to walk from office to office and say, "It's a beautiful day. Turn off the lights and go home." And it was 4 — PM! Maybe if you left the office once a week at 4 PM, the decisions that you would make the next day would be a lot better. Go home. Have dinner with your family. You'll be glad you did.

My recommendation: If your current job environment is one where the only way to avoid getting fired is to work all the time, then hey, get fired. The unemployment rate is still only 4%, and if you're smart enough to be reading this magazine, well, there are plenty of jobs out there that reward you for being smart — not for digging the most coal.

Seth Godin (sgodin@fastcompany.com) is the author of Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends, and Friends Into Customers (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and Unleashing the Ideavirus (Do you zoom inc., 2000). Get his latest book for free on the Web (www.ideavirus.com).

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