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How To Figure Out Your Optimal Workload

Adopt Goldilocks’ philosophy when planning your workweek: make it not too long, not too short.

How To Figure Out Your Optimal Workload
[Photo: Flickr user Evan Blaser]

Of all the productivity strategies out there, one of the most important is figuring out how long your optimum workweek should be.

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Up until a certain point, putting in a little extra time can boost your career, just as a runner might see benefits from adding a few drills. Past that point, you experience diminishing returns–sometimes as painful as a runner who goes 10 miles too far and winds up with shin splints. It’s good to get this number right.

But what exactly is it? “Every individual is different,” says Dr. David Ballard, head of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence. “The level at which you function best is going to be different from other people.”

I’ve tracked my time for many weeks over the years, and I find I do best at 49 hours per week. If I spend less time in work mode, I fall behind. If I work more, then I spend the next week goofing off.

To figure out your optimum, try tracking your time for a week. Refer to Fast Company’s list of 10 time-tracking apps, or just use a spreadsheet. Tally up your hours spent working. Then get introspective.

How To Tell If You’re Over Your Limit

The first sign? Other people don’t want to be around you. Burnout often manifests itself as “feeling more cynical, and getting in more conflicts with coworkers and family and friends,” says Ballard.

Intriguingly, your work quality may also be suffering. People who work too much “often get caught by somewhat minor mistakes that aren’t career ending, but that can be a wake-up call for them,” says Rachael Ellison, a strategy consultant and executive coach who specializes in work and life transitions.

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Or perhaps you no longer find your work intrinsically motivating. “Can you stop yourself and say: ‘I’m really enjoying this?’ Can you find the positive side, or are you too exhausted to lift your head up?” Ellison asks. Burnout often shows up as fatigue, or other symptoms like anxiety that makes it hard to concentrate.

If this describes you, then the first thing to do is take real breaks. “You need time when you’re not working and not thinking about work,” says Ballard. Try scheduling in a demanding leisure-time activity–like an exercise class, or trying out a complicated new recipe–that will absorb most of your mental capacity. As a bonus, if you’ve got a 6 p.m. spin class on your calendar, chances are you will leave work by 5:30, which can help with burnout right there. Take care of yourself in other ways. Getting enough sleep and eating right go a long way toward boosting energy levels.

Second, reconsider what your most important contribution to your organization is. Ellison says many of her clients pride themselves on being worker bees. But the honest truth is anyone can work the longest hours, she adds. It’s not a defensible identity, and it’s probably not the most strategic way to climb the ladder, either.

Ask yourself: “What are your strengths beyond being an endurance worker?” Figure out what you do best, then look at your time log and see what proportion of your hours is spent on these activities, and what is spent on other tasks. Cancel or delegate until you’ve gotten the latter category into something more reasonable.

How To Tell If You’re Under Your Limit

Are you still reading? You may think there’s no way a busy person such as yourself could be working less than the optimum number of hours. But don’t be so sure.

Productivity coach Chris Bailey runs the website A Life of Productivity. He spent big chunks of the past two years testing out techniques for getting more done. As one experiment, he alternated working 90-hour weeks and 20-hour weeks. He accomplished similar amounts in both, suggesting that massive overwork doesn’t work.

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He says he believes 35 hours is roughly ideal. But that’s 35 real hours, not including the hours of web surfing and other low-value activities work days often contain. “If you took out all the BS tasks that people do through the course of the week, most people would do about 20-30 hours of real work every week,” says Bailey.

That’s probably under the point of diminishing returns. If you work 20 hours, then you’ll power through what must get done immediately. But 20 hours “doesn’t leave you any time or attention for things that are important but not necessarily urgent,” says Bailey. You likely won’t send a how-are-you note to a client you haven’t spoken with in a while. You won’t take an hour to mentor an employee and talk about his or her career aspirations.

Long term, that’s not the best approach. So make a list of high-value things you’d like to spend more time on. Look at your schedule and see if you can swap in these tasks for a low-value meeting. If that’s not possible, maybe you can get to work a little earlier or work at night after the kids go to bed.

“Even putting in an extra half an hour a day thinking about the people you manage and how you can help them be more effective–I think people underestimate that,” says Ellison. Investing in high-value tasks makes you feel like your career is moving forward, and progress is highly motivational. You’ll enjoy work more–even if you’re working more hours.

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at www.lauravanderkam.com.

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