Or, how working less, not more is the key to better productivity.

Excuse the vernacular with the word “knackered”, but at least I’ve caught your attention. Why? Because you’re busy. As a leader or senior manager in your organisation, it’s likely that you’re juggling many, many proverbial plates, and not unlike said crockery, some of them may be a little precarious. Your To-Do list stretches away into next week. So, you work hard. In fact, to deal with your in-tray, you could be working long hours, even at weekends.

Equally, your team’s efforts match yours.

It’s 6.30pm. Despite their early arrival, all bright-eyed at 8.00am this morning, nobody feels they can switch off their computers and head off home. Your overwork has simply spilled over and cascaded down to others.

Well, I have news for you:

Our attention spans wane, along with the quality of our decision-making, and all the other tasks that form part of your role in senior leadership.

Here’s the thing:

You may feel obliged to put in a 12-hour day, and even that it’s expected of you (for more information on this topic, look out for our next article about company culture).

The Pandemic Pressure

Remote working. How fabulous, roll out of bed; start later, finish early, stay in your comfortable clothes all day. Except that for many, the dream flexibility delivered by WFH has been a bit of a nightmare. It may even have contributed to the problem, rather than alleviating it.

In my role as an executive and team coach, I’m saddened by the 9.00am to 7.00pm Zoom calls working day structure. It sounds extreme, but it does happen. For some organisations it’s almost standard.

In my view, we’re compensating.

We’re not in the office so we tend to start early, and finish later. There may be myriad further reasons for this: job security anxiety, guilt, a sense of duty, pride in what we do, ambition, even a need to prove to all and sundry that we’re important – look at how hard I work, for surely, this organisation will cease to function without me.

Here’s the Thing:

The truth is, you’re not getting as much actual work done as you think you are. This lacks “crunchy” science to back it up, but those in-the-know organisational productivity gurus sing from the same hymn sheet: however committed you may be to your job, really, deep intensive work can only happen within a 4–5-hour window. And, I believe it.

Yes, let’s let that sink in. It’s not long, is it?

Work a 12-hour day, every day and your output will be less, not more. You’re just too mentally and physically tired to maintain momentum. To be fair, we’re all different, so this period may be longer for you. Equally, it could be shorter.

Plus, bear in mind that not all of your work may need a laser-like 100% concentration focus all of the time. But, there are likely to be compromises across the board. Besides which, your body, mind and soul – not to mention your personal and family life – will suffer if you’re “present” in your organisation most of the time. The results could be damaging, and something’s got to give: impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, impaired memory and judgement; I could go on.

As it sounds, there’s a word for this approach: presenteeism. Literally being there or being available a lot of the time, even when you shouldn’t.

Working too hard makes leading exceedingly difficult. You need to make complex decisions, negotiate risk, and navigate uncertainty. How are you today? Feeling on top of your game?

Overwork isn’t Working

Therefore, what IS working? Well, I would like your main take aways from this article are:

  • Exhausted people are not productive.
  • Successful productivity is about managing your energy, and not your time.

This means, understanding when and how you are most dynamic and creative.  Likewise, consciously organising your day and your week so that

  1. You gain energy by what you are doing, and
  2. You benefit from periods of re-charge all the way through.

When is YOUR most productive time?

Everyone has one. It could be early in the morning, say, with a slump after lunch. Try scheduling easier-to-manage emails for the downtime, with “harder” work to start your day. Importantly – tell others that you are doing this.

Work in Chunks

Check out your own version of the Pomodoro technique. This method enables you to work for blocks of time, then take scheduled breaks during which you switch off your brain from the task in question. Then, go back to it.

Plan Your Down Time

And stick to it. Putting spaces in your diary to go for a walk, head out for lunch, even to dust off your trainers for a run around the park may seem like you’re slacking. But you’re not. You’re taking time out for you,. When you come back to what you were doing previously, you’ll have a brand-new perspective on it.

Set Boundaries

An extension of the above point, you must set personal boundaries. YOU are important. Thus, if you stop responding to work emails and phone calls during the evening and at weekends, believe it or not, people will stop contacting you at these times.

Keep an Eye on Your Productivity

What did you really do today? This could be painful, but it’s worth it. Making a note about exactly how you’ve spent your morning, or your afternoon is a useful exercise; you may be surprised at how you were busy, even on mundane tasks, rather than productive.

As a leader, there may be an organisational assumption of long hours, but in my view, this could harm the company you work for where it really hurts: its balance sheet. Teams can lose sight of the bigger picture, progressively working on projects that dissolve into meaninglessness, along with their energy and concentration.

You’re a leader. You can make changes.

Finally, not to put too fine a point on it, just leaving this one here:

Do you really want to look back at your life and think, “I wish I’d spent more time at work”?

So, are you unproductive, or just completely knackered? Be honest with yourself and move forward from there.

If you liked this, you might like my posts on compassion.

You might also like this post on Forbes.


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