We often think we’ll get more work done by putting in more hours, but research shows this could be counter-productive. People who are well-rested and healthy often outperform their over-worked counterparts.
At a certain point, we get diminishing returns in productivity for each additional hour worked. The exact point can vary by profession and individual, but John Pencavel of Stanford University was able to quantify it for munition workers from WWI - a group with a "well-defined and quantifiable output," commented Pencavel. Findings showed that, after working 49 hours a week, output rose at a decreasing rate; by 70 hours output "differed little" from 56 hours. For knowledge workers today, the threshold could fall even below 40 hours given that cognitive power, like willpower, is a limited resource that must be renewed. Going on a run or joining a kickball team may be far more beneficial than putting in long hours.
Whether you’re trying to boost your personal productivity or that of your team, leadership and organisational development expert Tony Schwartz presents an interesting approach: manage your energy, not your time. As Schwartz points out, “time is finite,” but energy can be expanded and renewed.
In a research collaboration with Harvard Business Review, Schwartz’s team found people’s performance improves dramatically - and is better sustained - when four basic needs are met: renewal (physical); value (emotional), focus (mental), and purpose (spiritual). Meeting just one of the four needs led to "a 30 per cent higher capacity to focus, a nearly 50 per cent higher level of engagement, and a 63 per cent greater likelihood to stay at the company," Schwartz explains.
And "the cumulative positive impact rises with each additional need that gets satisfied. For example, when all four needs are met, the effect on engagement rises from 50 per cent for one need, to 125 per cent."
This impact on individual performance is tied directly to the bottom-line. A meta-analysis of 263 research studies involving 192 companies showed that employers with the most engaged workers were 22 per cent more profitable and 21 per cent more productive than those with the least engaged employees. That’s some serious return on investing in your wellbeing.
The evidence is clear: managing your energy, rather than focusing on the time spent on the job, enables you to sustain higher quality work. This is an important but difficult shift in how we work; most of us are so accustomed to equating time and presence to productivity, that it is difficult to let ourselves (or our employees) clock out, even though this mentality actually hurts our output and the bottomline.
Five ways to start working more effectively
1. Take renewal breaks
Taking intermittent renewal breaks between periods of focused work is restorative. Pay attention to your energy throughout the day and notice when it is being depleted. A 15 minute walk or just a two minute breathing meditation can renew our capacity to perform at our best. Tip: mid-day workouts and naps have long been linked to boosting performance.
2. Schedule your work according to your energy
Be aware of how your fluctuating energy, mood, and emotions affect your performance throughout the day, and schedule your work accordingly. For example, cognitive power is typically strongest in the first few hours of the day, so save the mornings for rigorous, creative, or analytical work and take care of meetings or administrative tasks later in the day when mental energy is naturally lower.
3. Focus on one task at a time
Multitasking and task-switching has been shown to hinder productivity multiple times over, so get rid of distractions and focus on only one task for 90 to 120 minutes (followed by a renewal break). According to Schwartz, shifting our attention between tasks - even briefly - increases the amount of time it takes to finish the original task by up to 25 per cent.
4. Sleep no less than seven hours each night - seriously
You’ve probably heard of the many ways that insufficient sleep can kill you prematurely, but in case you’re still thinking "I’ll sleep when I’m dead," know this: sacrificing sleep costs you the ability to have clear, new, and creative thoughts now, diminishing the quality of your many waking hours.
In fact, Dr. Charles Czeisler of Harvard Medical School explains that a week of sleeping four or five hours a night or pulling one all-nighter induces a cognitive impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of .10 per cent, which qualifies as legally drunk. We would never think it is acceptable to come to work intoxicated, yet sleep deprivation - which we now know can be as good as drunk - is often expected and even praised.
5. Follow your biological clock
Equally important to how many hours we sleep is when we get those hours. Oxford University researcher Dr. Paul Kelley argues that the standard nine to five schedule may be suboptimal for many people’s cognitive and creative performance, and even predisposes us to unnecessary illness. According to Dr. Kelley, the 9am start time is misaligned with our biological clock (the Circadian rhythm), which is the cycle of how all the things in our body function, like our cells, hormones, and organs. Kelley explains, "your liver and your heart have different patterns and you're asking them to shift two or three hours. This is an international issue."
Kelley urges for a 10am start-time at work as a global standard to match our natural biological function. One could argue that giving people the flexibility to choose a custom start time that is most productive for them might be even more optimal.
Given that our Circadian rhythm regulates our performance and alertness, we would benefit from designing a daily routine that is aligned with these rhythms. Managing our energy is one way to do that.