The Myth of Long Work Hours and Productivity, Or, What the Hell Happened to My Life?

If you are typical, many years ago you bought into the myth that working very long days, nights, and weekends was the way to be the most productive. You also believed that it marked you as a committed professional and that it would help you “get ahead” in your career. Depending on how old you are and the kind of organizations you have worked in, you were likely surrounded by like-minded people who believed the same things. In fact, as Dr. Brené Brown notes, exhaustion has bizarrely become a status symbol.

If you are in your forties or older, you have probably intuitively figured out that you were sold a bill of goods.

So, what happened?

Well, the simplest answer is that in most cases, despite conventional organizational wisdom, there actually isn’t a correlation between how many hours you work and how effective or productive you are. And the more your work requires creativity or problem solving or strategic thinking, the less correlation there is between long hours and high quality work. Data collected by Microsoft found that not only was there no correlation between working long hours and effectiveness within the company, but that the more hours worked, the less engaged the employees were and the more likely they were to leave the company. Of particular significance, however, is the finding that the problem is not necessarily the number of hours per se, but how employees are working during those hours. More on this in a minute.

The human brain is simply not capable of doing high quality work for 10 to 14 hours at a time. As noted in Forbes, this culture of overwork has well-known personal consequences. “Working more than 55 hours a week raises the risk of heart attack and stroke. People who work longer hours tend to be more anxious and depressed, and their sleep suffers.” And as for performance, research in the Harvard Business Review reported that people’s IQ actually drops 13 points when they’re in a state of tunnel-vision busyness! In fact, we know from brain research that we are at our highest cognitive abilities for relatively short periods of time and typically need small breaks or distractions after less than an hour or two of focused mental work to maintain our best output. We also know that our brains continue to problem solve AFTER we have stepped away from a given task or project. We often do much higher quality work if we work in short bursts, then come back to a task after an extended break—which can mean working on something else, reading for pleasure, meditating, taking a walk, or in many cases, sleeping a full night. A recent article in Scientific American noted that, “Americans and their brains are preoccupied with work much of the time. Throughout history people have intuited that such puritanical devotion to perpetual busyness does not in fact translate to greater productivity and is not particularly healthy.” The article also cites a growing body of research confirming that, “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life… Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”

Additionally, and this is really important, the notion of productively “multi-tasking” is also a myth. While we can do certain “autonomic” tasks at the same time (chew food and breathe) or rote tasks such as use a turn signal while talking, our brains function as single processors. We can engage in what appear to be multiple activities simultaneously, but for tasks that actually require cognition (thinking) what we are really doing is engaging in multiple separate activities in series, in extremely short periods of time (seconds), while doing all of them much less well than if we were dedicated to each task separately. We know from cognitive research that our ability to remember, solve problems, control emotions, and think clearly are significantly compromised when we are “multi-tasking.” In fact, one recent study found that consistent “multi-media tasking” (engaging in multiple digital media sources at once) can actually decrease gray matter in key areas of the brain!

Our attempts to engage in multiple activities simultaneously actually result in what Linda Stone has coined, “continuous partial attention.” Stone is unique in that she has played important R&D roles at both Microsoft and Apple. In short, her research concludes that not only does continuous partial attention result in degraded mental performance, it actually generates stress and interrupts “flow.” This is a big problem because we are at our most creative and at our highest levels of performance when our brains are so uniquely focused on a given task or activity that we are essentially not conscious of the outside world (or other competing tasks).

Why do many contemporary organizations continue to demand behaviors that are counterproductive? In today’s organizational environments we have confused activity for productivity—and the more stress an organization is feeling, the more frenetic organizational activity tends to be. We have also seriously confused the value of quantity over quality. We see “down time” as anathema and we’ve all been powerfully socialized to avoid any appearance of not being busy. This is not only unproductive, it’s actually damaging to problem solving, innovation, and motivation. Relatedly, it is likely that overt “time management,” is counterproductive. As organizational psychologist Adam Grant notes in the New York Times, a better solution might be “attention management,” which simply means “the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places and at the right moments.” Since we can never actually be done with all of our work, we will be much better off if we get done what matters and do that well–in fewer hours overall.

So, back to the research at Microsoft. Working excessive hours is not only problematic in terms of job satisfaction and burn-out, it is actually dangerous within contemporary organizations because creativity comes from down time, not from filling every available moment with activity. Microsoft found that the core source of employee dissatisfaction was not long hours per se (although long hours did not result in better work), but hours dedicated to tasks that kept them from focus on meaningful problem solving. Our ability to break through intractable problems occurs when we have created space and time between evaluating the problem and solving the problem. This is the basis of the rise of concepts such as the four hour work week and other similar organizational insights. In fact, Tim Ferris notes in Tools of Titans, that what he calls “’deloading blocks’ must be scheduled and defended more strongly than your business commitments. The former can inform and strengthen the latter, but not vice versa.” Unstructured time also facilitates serendipity within organizations, which is essential for cross-fertilization of ideas and highly valuable, but “unplanned” creative breakthroughs. People simply do not experience breakthrough thinking while chained to a computer or churning through meetings for 12 straight hours. The same Scientific American article cited previously added that “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, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.” What did Microsoft do? They encouraged employees to block time in their calendars for “independent concentration”–to treat that time with the same value as they do their managers’ requests and meetings in general.

As I noted in another post on strategic leadership, what differentiates today’s organizations and leaders in a VUCA operating environment is the ability to navigate dynamic challenges in complex and ambiguous contexts, not how many hours you work or how many emails you can answer during a meeting or how closely you manage spending on a given budget line item. Success today is about identifying a purposely limited set of challenges and finding creative, high quality solutions to those few challenges or initiatives. In effect, we must know how to say, “no.” Not so ironically, the same strategy supports work-life balance and real productivity rather than high levels of activity, much of which is ultimately irrelevant. Organizational success in a VUCA environment is about agility and high quality execution on a limited number of critical initiatives; it’s not about mind numbing 12-hour days and quantity of activity.

Millenials, despite their youth, have a remarkably intuitive understanding of “work-life balance” and quality vs. quantity. I suspect this comes largely from having observed their parents pursue a Faustian pact with employers that, in the end, often failed to deliver either professional reward or real financial security. As such, these same Millenials are creating “management challenges” in many organizations because they reject outright the notion of being “owned” by their employers, they want meaning in what they do, and they can’t be bought in the same ways that organizations have historically incentivized workers. As a 28 yr old quoted in a recent NY Times article noted, “That’s how millennials and Gen Z-ers are playing the game — it’s not about jumping up titles, but moving into better work environments, They’re like silent fighters, rewriting policy under the nose of the boomers.” It is quite possible that this generation will alter the nature of work and force employers to rethink what they expect from their employees.

Another fairly insidious effect of overwork cultures in organizations is the unequal effect it has on women. Other research published in HBR noted that, “Women experience a different psychic tension. According to the [false] work/family narrative and broader cultural notions, their commitment to family is primary by nature, so their commitment to work has to be secondary. They are expected to embrace an intensive, “my family is all-important” approach to parenting… But a family-first stance comes at a significant cost to their careers and flies in the face of their professional ambitions.”

So, how do we deal with this irrational focus on activity vs. productivity, on quantity vs. quality? And how do we regain some sense of ownership of our own time and lives?

  1. An initial action is to give up on the notion of multi-tasking as a productive way to work. Focus on one task at a time. Do not answer email while drafting a proposal or preparing for a meeting—do each separately. And never engage in tasks on your smart phone when you have a human being interacting with you in real time. When you are in a meeting, focus on the task at hand in the meeting—put your phone away. If the meeting is not worth paying attention to, you shouldn’t be in the meeting.
  2. Second, monitor your effectiveness when engaged in a given task or project. When you feel your brain flat lining, take a break. Leave the immediate area and read a magazine article or take a walk. Engage a colleague in conversation that has nothing to do with work. If you are really struggling with a work problem, set it aside for a day, then come back to it.
  3. Third, identify a limited number of tasks or initiatives that really matter and do those very well. Do not fill every moment with activity simply to appear busy.
  4. Fourth, exercise discipline about where your work life ends and your personal life begins. Choose days when you do not bring work home with you and/or you do not respond to any work related communications while you are at home or otherwise engaged in “personal” time. If there is an emergency, someone will call you.
  5. Another very interesting tidbit from the Microsoft research suggests that as much as we all decry how many meetings we have to attend (an average of 27 hours per week at Microsoft), the problem is not the meetings themselves, but what they are called to accomplish. Both employees and managers report much higher satisfaction when meetings have less than 10 people and are focused on problem solving for mission critical issues. Meetings with large numbers of attendees, used as reporting sessions, are not only a much less effective use of time, but are often demotivating as well.

Do these things for yourself and ensure that your employees can do the same things for themselves. Model the behavior as a manager and leader. The reality in most organizations is that employees are not, by themselves, able to make the cultural and structural changes that support the elusive work-life balance (see the footnote below). Without a focused effort from the highest levels of leadership, most organizations will simply suck employees and managers dry.

Many of us are in organizations that view work activity through an irrational and empirically disproved lens that rewards activity over productivity—in which individuals are expected to fill every available moment with some kind of action, regardless of its value. Many organizations also mistakenly value and reward multi-tasking as a sign of dedication or professionalism. As such, each of us has to choose the spots where we can create more rational and effective behaviors for ourselves and our employees, or in some cases, choose to move to a different, more enlightened organization.

Lastly, occasionally search out the few places left on earth without cell signals and wi-fi. Short of that, completely turn devices off and leave them off for a prescribed amount of time. For many of us, this will actually be remarkably hard to do initially, but if you find the discipline to do so, it will be liberating while actually making you more productive in your work life and more physically and mentally healthy in the process.

Footnote on Work-Life Balance

As I noted in a previous article about using the Dalai Llama’s guidance to find life balance, a key problem many of us face in this pursuit is that we attempt to use workplace language and techniques to find the balance when that is structurally impossible. By definition, balance is not a function of calendars or schedules or task completion. It is a mental state connected to things like doing what motivates us, finding purpose, engaging with other human beings, gratitude, mindfulness, etc. Of course, working excessive hours is problematic and generally unhealthy regardless, but recent research suggests that achieving balance is more about generating a perspective that says, what I’m doing now is what I want to be doing and is purposeful and rewarding to me personally, rather than compartmentalizing “work” vs. “personal life.” Part of achieving “balance” is simply giving up irrational pursuits—the ones we cannot achieve from the beginning no matter how hard we try. This applies to both our personal and professional lives and crosses both repeatedly. For example, we cannot choose to work until 7 pm and also choose to be at our child’s play or sporting event. We have to determine which outcome is more important—that we want or need more—and choose that outcome. Balance cannot come from always working late or always attending a child’s event. There are times when each choice makes more sense and if we truly want balance, it is essential that we give ourselves guilt-free permission to make that choice.

If you are employed in an organization where this is impossible, then part of achieving more balance may be to change where you work or what you do.

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