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You just might be more productive if you work less

Sometimes, working fewer hours means you can get more done.

You just might be more productive if you work less
[Photo: Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels]

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how to know whether you’re working too many hours. But, thinking about working too many hours conjures up images of arriving at the office early and staying late. Certainly, it means something more than the standard 40-hour workweek.

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So, are there situations in which it might actually be more productive for you to work fewer hours? How can you figure out what is the ideal workday or workweek for you?

What is your task mix?

The roots of the workweek emerged from manufacturing, where the longer you spend on a shift, the more products you help to build. For people doing knowledge work, there is a less direct relationship between time spent at work and productivity.

In general, there are five main types of work people do:

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  • Transmitting information within the organization (meetings, email, calls)
  • Engaging with customers and clients
  • Developing work products (reports, orders, coding, analysis)
  • Ideation
  • Enhancing knowledge and skills

The proportion of time people have been spending on the first of these elements (meetings and emails, in particular) has been growing substantially, given the rise of email and team messaging apps.

This shift has three drawbacks. It reduces the time available for more future-focused activities, like generating ideas and learning new things. Emails and other text-based communications are always available, and so they invite a continuous workday. They also create an illusion of progress, in which a lot of time is spent passing information around, rather than generating new business.

It’s worthwhile to consider what your optimal mix of tasks would be if you could choose. Focus on creating a good mix of communication, focus on current business and development of future opportunities. Find ways to cut back on aspects of your work that do not enhance the quality of your work.

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Where are your biggest challenges?

There are some work challenges that are best met by putting your nose to the grindstone and pushing forward. Popular approaches like Angela Duckworth’s Grit tend to focus on cases like this. For example, after having an insight about how to build a vacuum cleaner that didn’t need a bag, James Dyson spent five years developing prototypes. He knew he had a good idea. He just had to find a specific configuration that worked well enough to be used in a reliable product.

Other work challenges are unlikely to yield long hours alone. When the problems you solve routinely require a creative extension of current work, then just sitting at your desk waiting for inspiration to strike may not be the best path. Get out of the office. Exercise. Walk away from the problem for a while. Read in areas unrelated to the specific problem you need to solve.

This time away from the problem can be transformative. You will describe the problem differently when you return to it than you did before, which can lead you down new paths. The paradox is that when you have to be creative as a significant part of your job, then time away from your work can make you more productive.

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What is your source of growth?

No matter how many years you have been working, you should always be focused on your future growth. The business world changes rapidly, and you will need new knowledge and skills to adapt. But, much of what you will need to know (and know how to do) goes beyond what is directly relevant to your job as it is set up now.

Indeed, there are times when things that you think of as hobbies right now can feed back on your professional life. For example, I took up the saxophone in my mid-thirties because I had always been interested in learning to play the instrument. Clearly, this was not related to my job as a psychology professor; yet, there were a number of lessons I have taken away from my experiences playing jazz that have fed back into the way I write and talk about the psychology of leadership and careers. Had I not taken the time away from work to pick up this new skill, I would never have found these parallels.

The fact is, you never know where your next great idea is going to come from. You’ll only know that you needed expertise in area after you discovered it was relevant to a project you’re working on. Working long hours has an opportunity cost. Some of that time could be spent on other experiences that may very well feed back into your future productivity.

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