Works for two 90-minute periods in the morning and then another hour later in the day. Then calls it a day.
Want to guess whose work routine this is? Not some lazy person's living off her family's wealth... This is how Charles Darwin organised his day. And he is not alone. The famous mathematician Henri Poincaré, Thomas Jefferson, Alice Munro, John le Carré (to name a few) all worked a similar number of hours every day.
Henry Ford is credited with coming up with the 40 hour work week, because he decided to act on the research his company did for years showing that employees working more than 40 hours a week were actually less productive. That was for the widget producing employee. If you're a knowledge worker, the optimal number of hours is even less.
But who is a knowledge worker? If you are sitting in your chair and are staring at a screen all day (most likely producing emails, spreadsheets, reports and powerpoint presentations), then chances are you are a knowledge worker. Studies show that your most productive output is happening within 4 hours of work a day. That's it. Four! (You will actually have to turn facebook off though). Of course, just about everyone at the office will definitely be smirking at you if you pack your bag and leave at 1pm, so the rest of the day can be spent in meetings and doing administrative work that does not bring high value to your work but that still needs to get done. That still means you can leave at 5pm and actually have a life: spend time with your family, go to the gym (you'll no longer have an excuse not to go anymore), meet up with friends, take a wine tasting class just because you want to. All that while being more effective at work, and that too for the long term. It’s no shocker that having a life outside of work is good for our mental state, and we get to go back to work the next day feeling refreshed, rested, and ready to kick some ass. Same thing for the day after that, and on and on it goes, making way for a more sustainably effective work life.
And chances are, your most creative ideas and solutions to your work problems will come to you when you are away from your desk anyway, because that's when you are the most relaxed, which is the optimal condition for getting those creative juices to flow.
So here are three tips on how to work less while producing better work :
Prioritise and plan your day/week
Working insane hours can actually be a sign of laziness. Laziness in the sense of not being willing to do the mentally taxing work of analysing our tasks, prioritising and planning. Instead, we walk into the office and just start doing: because it's easier, because we don't have to discriminate between tasks, and because being busy gives us a false impression of moving closer to our goals. How about just taking 5 quiet minutes in the morning mentally organising the day? That way, we increase our chances of moving big blocks, and at the end of the day or week, things falling through the cracks were probably meant to fall through the cracks anyway. As one of our previous colleagues jokingly said, 'whenever you get an email, just delete it. If it's important you'll get it again'. He was a fun colleague, but also one of the most effective ones. Now we get why.
Turn off distractions
'I have this report to finish, this time I’m focusing on it for real. Is that a whatsapp message that just came through? Let's take a peek. Ok, back to the report. Oh wait, I wonder if Jane has responded to the email I sent out earlier? Let me take a look...'
Is this familiar behaviour? We all do this. In fact, we're all so used to being constantly distracted that we don't even think about it. But all of these tiny, 'meaningless' distractions have a cost. They chip away at our ability to focus and be efficient. Everytime we go back to the work at hand after having succumbed to a distraction, our brain takes time and effort to return to the optimal state where we produce our best work.
Our solution: batch together the work that requires concentration and isolate yourself in a room. Turn off facebook, whatsapp, your phone; and delve into it. When you emerge an hour or so later, not only will you have completed the task that normally takes you twice as long to get done, but you'll realise the business has not come crashing down and you’ve been able to clear that to-do in record time.
This is a tough one. Time is our most precious resource, yet we are so free with it that we allow ourselves to repeatedly squander it. We are all familiar with sitting in endless meetings that add little value to our work, yet we do it all the time. We should be shocked at the time we waste in meetings. How about trying to find creative ways to get out of them? Often times, just asking the person wanting to set up the meeting about its specific reason and agenda leads to a realisation that the matter can be resolved in a 5 minute corridor talk. Other times, saying no demonstrates that you value your time, which will actually lead other people to value your time more as well. This might even signal to your boss that you are confident, know how to prioritise and are in control of your planning (that next work appraisal is looking good !). So please start treating time for what it is: a finite and very precious resource.
Going against an entire company culture of facetime is a massive undertaking. We know: we've been there and put up with bewildered looks on our colleagues' faces as we stood up to leave the office at ... 7pm. But now, we know that we are not required to put in 50+ hours to be doing anything of value. Taking the guilt away from wanting to leave earlier is probably the first step in starting to build a more authentic life. So own your time, work less, be more effective, and enjoy life.