When I wrote a post about The Myth of Productivity on The Harvard Business Review six months ago, a number of commentators argued productivity has gone up not because employees are running scared, but rather because companies have finally laid off the slackers who were dragging productivity down.
There are surely plenty of low performers who got the ax, but there are also many committed high performers among the millions of people who have lost their jobs over the past two years. There are also many high performing survivors at these companies who are being pushed to work in ways that aren’t sustainable.
The way we’re working isn’t working–for employees or for their employers. There is a better way to fuel productivity and high performance. The first key to changing the way we work is recognizing that the value of those you manage isn’t generated by the number of hours they work, but rather by how much value they produce during the hours we are working. Working longer hours, juggling more tasks and answering more emails isn’t the solution.
As every great athlete understands, the highest performance occurs when we balance work and effort with rest and renewal. The human body is hard-wired to pulse, and requires renewal at regular intervals not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally.
Unfortunately, rest and renewal get no respect in the organizational world. Instead, most managers instinctively view those who seem to need time for rest and renewal as slackers.
But what are the costs of working continuously? Do we think as clearly, creatively and strategically, or work as effectively with colleagues and clients, in the 10th or 12th or 14th hour of a workday devoid of real breaks, as you do in the 2nd or the 4th?
Of course not. And that’s because human beings aren’t wired to operate like computers.
More than 50 years ago, the pioneering sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman discovered something he named the “basic rest-activity cycle”–the 90 minute periods at night during which we move progressively through five stages of sleep, from light to deep, and then out again.
While it’s much less well known, Kleitman also observed that our bodies operate by the same 90 minute rhythm during the day. When we’re awake, we move from higher to lower alertness every 90 minutes. Other researchers have called this our “ultradian rhythm.”
Our bodies sends us clear signals when we need a break, including fidgetiness, hunger, drowsiness and loss of focus. But mostly, we override them. Instead, we find artificial ways to pump up our energy: caffeine, foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates, and our body’s own stress hormones–adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol.
After working at high intensity for more than 90 minutes, we begin to draw on these emergency reserves to keep us going. In the process, we move from parasympathetic to a sympathetic arousal–a physiological state more commonly known as “fight or flight.”
One consequence of relying on stress hormones for energy is that the prefrontal cortex begins to shut down. We become more reactive and less capable of thinking clearly and reflectively, or seeing the big picture.
In the renowned 1993 study of young violinists, performance researcher Anders Ericsson found that the best ones all practiced the same way: in the morning, in three increments of no more than 90 minutes each, with a break between each one. Ericcson found the same pattern among other musicians, athletes, chess players and writers.
For the first several books I wrote, I typically sat at my desk for 10 or even 12 hours at a time. I never finished a book in less than a year. For my new book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, I wrote without interruptions for three 90 minute periods, and took a break between each one. I had breakfast after the first session, went for a run after the second, and had lunch after the third. I wrote no more than 4 1/2 hours a day, and finished the book in less than six months. By limiting each writing cycle to 90 minutes and building in periods of renewal, I was able to focus far more intensely and get more done in far less time.
The counterintuitive secret to sustainable great performance is to live like a sprinter. In practice, that means working at your highest intensity in the mornings, for no more than 90 minutes at a time before taking a true break. And getting those who work for you to do the same.
Obviously, it’s not possible for every employee to work in multiple uninterrupted 90-minute sprints, given the range of demands they face. It is possible for you as a leader and managers to make a shift in the way you manage your energy, and to better model this new way of working yourself. Make it a high priority to find at least one time a day–preferably in the morning–to focus single-mindedly on your most challenging and important task for 60 to 90 minutes. Encourage those who work for you to do the same.
In addition, encourage your employees to take true renewal breaks intermittently through the day. It’s possible to get a great deal of renewal in a very short time. Try this technique, for example:
Build a more rhythmic pulse into your workdays and you’ll increase your own effectiveness and your satisfaction. Support this way of working among those you manage and you’ll fuel both loyalty and huge competitive advantage.
Reprinted from TheEnergyProject.com
Tony Schwartz is President and CEO of The Energy Project, a company that helps individuals and organizations fuel energy, engagement, focus, and productivity by harnessing the science of high performance. Tony’s most recent book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance, was published in May 2010 and became an immediate The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Follow him on Twitter @TonySchwartz.