One would hope that as we rethink and improve technology in the 21st century, we would also reevaluate how we manage our productivity. Most companies still place higher value on people who appear to work more hours than others. There are surprisingly few recognized studies in this area, but those that exist confirm that productivity suffers from overtime.
I've worked with start-ups, small and medium companies (100 – 5,000 employees), and large private and government organizations. I am still waiting to see the global cultural shift to a culture that values output versus perceived effort.
I did my share of overtime work over the years that ranged from 60-hour spurts over 3 days to 80- and 100-hour weeks. Most of that was on the East Coast where I had a great reputation not only because of the results I had produced, but also because of the effort I had put into my work. Some of the overtime was necessary. We worked with limited lab assets so when they were available we had to take advantage of the opportunity, ignoring however many hours we had already put in on other tasks. Many of our systems had to be manually tested and documented, which made the actual work much longer. I wanted the issues to be fixed right away, so I did not mind the additional hours. I did notice that it took me longer to write up reports after 12-hour days, but I wanted them out the same day, so I persevered and never questioned my productivity.
I am no longer a hamster in a wheel, measuring productivity by the number of hours I spend running in place. I try to accomplish one task at a time to eliminate multitasking. I use the Pomodoro Technique to work in short bursts (thanks to Mike Plotz for suggesting the method). I set timers to switch to different tasks or take short meditation breaks. As a result I am now more focused, creative, and productive.
It is easy to fall into the trap of working long hours. We think higher of ourselves because businesses depend on our contribution. We need to be there for longer hours or things would fail, making us feel important. There are too many things to be done which we consider necessary, and which cannot all be accomplished in normal hours, so we stay late. Yet, it is a false premise. Everyone who has ever managed a project or even procrastinated has already faced Parkinson's law.
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If we give ourselves or our employees more time to do the job, then that job will take longer. If we allow ourselves or others to work overtime then we will not push ourselves as hard, knowing that if we are unable to accomplish the task in normal hours, we can stay later. This does not mean that people are lazy or that we can accomplish unlimited amount of work.
We need to be aware that our energy is limited and we should focus it on the most important tasks. Remember the Pareto principle which has held up through the ages – 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. As a consultant in Silicon Valley I help tech companies determine which of their proposed projects fall into the 20% category and should be pursued. This way, people can work normal hours and produce better results.
As business owners or managers we want ourselves and our teams to function at our best. This means having employees who have little stress, get enough sleep, and ideally some exercise too. We cannot guarantee how the employees spend their personal time, but we can strive for an environment that does not require employees to spend all their time in the office to the detriment of their performance. If we expect our employees to be reachable at all hours, then we are forcing them to be aware of their job at all times, limiting their ability to recover and return to peak performance. As someone who has spent years working on nuclear submarines, I can tell you that there are very few true emergencies when you need an immediate response.
Forcing employees to work long hours does have some benefits. It can bring team members closer and make people feel better about themselves and their roles in the company. It can make employees value their company more, because they think that they work harder than their competitors. It can improve employee retention, because employees are too worn out to look for better opportunities. Suffering also creates value for people until we resolve it. When we suffer we always think it is for a great cause, thus raising the company's value in our eyes. But wouldn't be better if employees never considered leaving, not because they were too stressed out to think about their future, but because they were passionate about the company and its products?
Let's be smart and productive so that nobody (including ourselves) would ever ask us this question: