Does That Really Work?
If you have been in the business world for any period of time, I am sure that you have heard the words “work smart, not hard.” The question is, does using that strategy result in being more productive and more successful?
That depends on the situation and the type of work you or your employees do.
If you could work fewer hours – or fewer days a week – but still do the same amount of work you do now, would you? Most of us, without hesitation, would say “yes.” But it is unlikely that your boss would support that idea. If you are your own boss, then you can make that call, but would you? Can you even measure the amount of work you get done?
Personally, I have always lived by the philosophy that I need to work smart and hard. I’ve always believed that I have to set the example as the hardest worker in the company. I’m old school and believe that time is money, and if you put in the time, you will make more money. However, as I get older and more experienced, I feel that philosophy has its place, but it can also be misguided.
The four-day workweek and four-hour workday can strike us as a rather bold, exotic idea and has a nice ring to it, but is it a good idea?
Let’s step back and talk about science for a minute.
In a high-profile study where the Kiwi investment advisory and estate planning company trialed a four-day workweek over two months, staff worked four eight-hour days but still got paid for five. Company founder Andrew Barnes wanted his team to enjoy a better work-life balance with more downtime, and – to his employees’ delight – the experiment was a huge success.
Before the trial, only 54% of staff felt they could efficiently balance their work and personal lives. This number soared to 78% following the experiment. Scientists gathered data throughout the study and found that stress levels also dropped by 7%, stimulation and commitment were boosted, and overall life satisfaction rose by 5%. And all the work got done.
Studies have also shown that scientists who work 35-hours-per-week are half as efficient as those who work 20-hours-per-week. There’s less room for debate on this topic: working more hours doesn’t guarantee doing more work. So how is it possible to do more work in less time?
This gets into human psychology related to attention span.
But before we get into this, we have to separate work into a couple of different categories. Manual labor, which is not highly taxing on the brain, as opposed to work that requires a lot of thinking and concentration.
As humans, our brains just aren’t equipped for hours and hours of deep work. We can usually manage between four to five hours of meaningful work per day – any more than that, and our brain starts looking for a release: cue mindless social media scrolling. I know that I deal with this problem by switching tasks often throughout the day. I am only able to concentrate on one task for a maximum of about two hours. Even that is a stretch, but I can power through it. But then I need to switch to do something else. I find that starting a new task refreshes me and solves the concentration problem.
I also enjoy doing manual labor, and I can do that all day long as long as my body holds up.
Just because most of us work seven to eight hours a day doesn’t mean we’re immune to this; we just spend the extra hours replying to emails, making calls, or blindly plowing through tasks that make us feel like we’re productive. So essentially, these extra hours are just wasted hours.
Social norms dictate that we should spend most of the day at work, so we can’t just do five hours and leave. But when you have eight hours to fill, there’s no incentive to be speedy or efficient. This is known as Parkinson’s Law, a theory that states that ‘work expands to fill the time available for its completion.’ I see this in my employees all the time. There is no question that they will find a way to fill the time – even if there is only a small amount of work to do. It is rare that someone comes to me and tells me they have nothing to do.
Conversely, when we know we have limited time, we have the impetus to work hard, to push ourselves to do as much as we possibly can. I can say that I often experience this phenomenon, especially when I am getting ready to leave for a trip. I seem to be able to double or triple the amount of work I can get done when I have a deadline approaching.
So if you want to work less but do more, where do you start? The most important thing to do is to gain insight into where your time is really going. You need to understand your own behaviors, workflows, and routines – find out where time is siphoned off from you, where you unconsciously waste it, which tasks get in the way of your real work, and when you’re most productive.
Personally, I have been experimenting with this myself. I do it with to-do lists. Every morning, I establish the list of tasks that I want to get done for the day. Once I’ve completed those tasks, rather than just sit around and waste time until 5 PM, I leave. If the tasks don’t get done, then I stay until 5 PM and push whatever doesn’t get done to the next day’s to-do list. I prioritize the items on my to-do list to the items that have to get done versus those that I would just like to get done.
I have found a greater sense of peace and happiness because the strategy has resulted in more personal time to do things that I really like to do.
As a boss, it’s a little bit different. For those employees who are doing blue-collar work, time really is money. A guy who is packing boxes will pack a lot more boxes if he works twice as long. He might not pack twice as many, but it still will be a significant amount that justifies the time spent. The “work four days and get paid for five days” strategy does not produce the same amount of work with those types of employees.
But for office employees, it’s a different story. I have found that giving employees the flexibility to come and go as they need improves productivity and general happiness. We have not yet taken the leap to the four-day workweek as a whole, but I have a few employees using that schedule, and it has worked out well for them.
In the end, the “work smart, not hard” philosophy does have its place, and if used strategically, it can be an effective strategy. But it’s not the be-all and end-all strategy for all situations.