Productivity 101: Work Less, Produce More
Productivity 101: Work Less, Produce More
June 11, 2013
Winston Wayne Wilson
Don’t use all your quality time to acquire money, use all your money to acquire quality time – W. Wayne Wilson
When I started out my career in public accounting, 22 years ago, it was not uncommon for me to work ninety hours a week during the busy season. On occasion, if I threw in an all-nighter, I would easily crack a hundred hours a week. Pulling an all-nighter to me was a badge of honor. I felt like a soldier on a battlefield, doing whatever it took to get the job done. One year, I received a $3,000 bonus for cracking 3,000 hours. I was proud and, even though I was an accountant, the obvious math, of getting a bonus that was the equivalent of a mere $1 per hour, simply evaded me amidst what seemed like a great prize. More than a prize, actually – it felt like a medal of honor. As with all such maniacal schedules, one eventually burns out. Almost five years into my career, the fire in my belly had flamed out by the blowing wind of exhaustion. By then, my hours were at an all-time high, but my productivity was not. Working 30 extra hours was only giving me 10 to 15 hours of results. How could that be? Well, I was not getting any sleep. I was tired. I was stressed. And I wanted out.
A couple years ago, I read an article by Sue Shellenbarger that was oxymoronically titled, “If You Need to Work Better, Maybe Try Working Less”. In the article, Sue describes a Harvard Business School study that suggested that productivity can be increased by compressing the hours worked and taking more time off. Sue, who had been a chronic seven days a week workaholic, corroborated this scholastic finding with her own experiment, in which her productivity soared once she stopped working weekends. Her experiment was so successful that there was positive contagion within her company and other team members became converts to the religion of working only Monday to Friday and embarking into near radio silence during the weekend.
Sue’s article made me think about the formative years of my career and whether this advice would have given me more longevity. Would it have even been practical to work fewer hours in a culture where he who had the most chargeable hours was king? Besides, I’m not sure that I would have had the courage to attempt such an experiment then. However, at the time that I read the article, I had already been a partner for a number of years and I was the master of my own destiny. Sue’s article was certainly titillating to an overachieving workaholic like me and I decided to try it out because, although I was a partner, I was still clocking the same insane hours reminiscent of my lackey years.
What did I change? A couple key things: Rather than going in to work at 6AM, I started to go in closer to 8AM. Rather than lingering until 9PM or later, I tried to leave closer to 6PM. Rather than stuffing my bag on Fridays, with weekend work, I started to treat Wednesday as if it were Friday and treat Thursday and Friday as if they were Saturday and Sunday, respectively. It was confusing and I unceremoniously fell off the bandwagon more than a couple times; however, over time, the new ritual helped me to better regulate my schedule. More importantly, I began to change how I worked with others. I communicated my new work-life-balance experiment to my executive assistant who organized my schedule to achieve my goals. That meant meetings were generally limited to certain days and times so that I could maximize work and minimize meetings. Few, if any, meetings were booked beyond 3PM to avoid having them spill over into my newly designated “personal time”. I also proactively managed client related issues to assuage potential fires after work or during my weekend respite.
I remember being in a meeting with an HR Manager that was pushing past 5:30PM. It was on a date night, and I simply said to her, “I have to go. I need to honor my commitment and right about now this meeting is costing me because, if I don’t get home in time, I will have to buy jewelry.” We both laughed as I packed my bag and bolted. In a nut shell, during my experiment, I littered my schedule with boundaries that, while uncomfortable and constricting at times, aligned my corporate life with my newfound value of creating and spending quality time with my family and friends. It was also during this experiment that I was able to reallocate some of the newfound time to myself – I was able to work out, write and play the piano more.
OK, so that was the good part. Today, I am an entrepreneur and back to my antiquated habits of having no boundaries between Friday and Saturday, between work and life, and between day and night. And, I am back to using my quality time to acquire money rather than using the money I already have to acquire quality time. So, I am writing this article today as a sermon to myself.
It is estimated that over 85% of men and almost 70% of women work beyond their scheduled hours. For entrepreneurs, who have to kill what they eat on a daily basis, the hours worked are even more frightening. That said, this is my new world. While exciting, the hours do get crazy. In an uncertain economy, everyone is afraid to appear to be slackers. I get that. But, once again, I am not sleeping much and I am tired. So, this week, I am taking a Bill Gates inspired “Think Week” (a concept that I shared with you in my article “Discipline – The Secret Sauce For Success”) so that I can re-orient myself with my values. In particular, I am trying to re-instate the Sue Shellenbarger ritual of working less so that I can work better. As I spend this week trying to whip my schedule back into shape, here are a few tips that I will remind myself of, and hope you find useful, too:
- Productivity is only achieved at work when you efficiently use your time to create results that are aligned with your company. Productivity is in the eyes of the beholder. All companies have metrics that measure productivity or results. You may not like them, you might not think they are fair, but all companies have metrics. Always make sure that you know exactly what your company values and expects of you. If you are going to do 10 things in a day make sure that at least 8 of them are aligned with your company’s expectations.
- Productivity is only achieved at home when you use your money to acquire quality time instead of using all your quality time to acquire money.
- Productivity outside of work is critical. Never let your entire self-esteem be defined by work. Be proud of at least one accomplishment other than something work-related. I have seen an 82-year-old man who refused to retire because he felt that he was going to die if he did not work. In many cases, this mentality turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy when extreme workaholics are eventually forced to retire. This man had built nothing outside of work so retirement for him was a death sentence.
- An important part of productivity is understanding when and how your brain functions best. I had a conversation with Jim Collins, the author of Good To Great and a number of other terrific books, where he talked about his morning brain and his evening brain. His morning brain is creative and his evening brain is critical. He uses that to his advantage by writing in the morning and editing at night. The key to productivity is to concentrate your work hours during the times that your brain is at its peak.
- Productivity is less about working hard and more about working smartly. In corporate cultures, that emphasize chargeable hours, it is even more critical to be productive. Too often, people quickly rack up vacuous hours without getting meaningful work done. You maximize productivity when you work smartly and not, as Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson would say, "try to fix problems by throwing sheer hours at them." Fried and Heinemeier also believe that workaholics are not heroes because "They don't save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done."
- Productivity relies heavily on rest and recovery. In the Harvard Business Review article, “The Making Of A Corporate Athlete”, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz write: “Some executives thrive under pressure. Others will wilt. To bring mind, body, and spirit to peak condition, executives need to learn what world-class athletes already know: recovering energy is as important as expending it.” The article also points out that peak performance is a result of maximizing our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual capacities. Diminishing return will be triggered when these faculties are out of alignment. Finding the line, that bifurcates peak performance from the onset of diminishing return, is the challenge. Typically, your body will tell you, vis-à-vis stress, illness and lack of productivity, when you have crossed the line. I got sick over the weekend, now I know why.
So, my challenge for you today is to rethink your mindset about productivity and how work should be done. Tamper with your schedule a bit. Eventually, you will settle into a schedule that is the right blend between your personal values and your corporate aspirations. Enjoy your day.