Why working less can help you to get ahead and get in control of your work
Control your Work Flow
In many organizations, there is a culture in which people brag about how many hours they work. Working so hard that you can barely keep your head above water is a badge of honor in those cultures. “How have you been?” is often followed with a confident and proud “Busy! I haven’t had a minute to catch my breath …” As women climb the ladders of success, this pressure to always work can get out of control. Many women also feel pressed to outdo their male counterparts, just to be competitive with them, making the problem even worse.
However, women do themselves a disservice by competing on sheer numbers of hours put in. On one level, it may be unhealthy – a recent study published in the Lancet shows working more than 55 hours a week is associated with a 1/3rd increased risk of stroke. On another level, working that long is actually counterproductive.
Working non-stop is a relic from the days when work needed far less creative and cognitive capacity. Working around the clock is based on a misguided attempt to maximize efficiency. If you’re dealing with a factory assembly line, you can increase output by eliminating any downtime – by making it more efficient. But human beings don’t work the same way. Eliminating downtime actually makes us less productive. Govt Jobs in India.
However, human beings can do something that machines can’t – we can have brief periods of fantastic productivity, when we set up the right mental and physiological conditions for it. In those brief times, just a couple of hours of excellent focus, we can get more of the truly important work done than if we had been wearing ourselves out by working around the clock.
Here are three of the science-based ways you can set up those conditions for brief periods of fantastic productivity, and in the process regain work-life balance:
• There are times to skip something on your to-do list. Suppose you have a big client meeting in the afternoon and you have to win them over. You know that when you’re at your best, you’re in control and nothing can stop you. However, when you got to work this morning, there was a fire to put out, a ton of back emails, and a goals report due. So you stayed at your desk for hours getting it all out of the way before heading to your client meeting. It may have felt like an efficient use of time, but every time we make decisions – even unimportant ones – we fatigue our brain’s decision-making resources. So after a morning like this, you’re likely to walk into that client meeting unable to make quick decisions, and struggling to think about ideas that would be clear and easy for you, had you focused on refreshing your mental energy right before the meeting. Actually skipping something on your morning list, to give you 20 minutes of mental downtime right before the meeting can help you succeed at what actually matters, the client meeting.
• The best way to stay focused for long periods is actually to let your mind wander when it needs to. Our brains’ attention systems are not designed for continual uninterrupted focus, but instead to tell us what’s changing. This is adaptive, and if your mind drifts every 15 or 20 minutes, that means everything is working as it should be. However, what you do when your mind drifts can have a big effect on how quickly you get back to work and how effective you are when you do. One option is to fight it. That will only backfire because you’re drifting for a reason, and it will keep happening. Most people will aim to take a break – something “useful” like checking email, or something fun like checking facebook or shopping. Doing so harms productivity in two ways. One is the obvious one, that it’s easy to get sucked in and lose a half hour or more. The other is counter-intuitive. All that information tracking blocks important background processes that can help us be more effective when we return to work. Rather than switching to something fun or useful, like shopping or email, when you let your mind wander – e.g. staring out the window, and wondering about the lives of people walking by – you create a mental scenario in which the brain can shift away from what it was focusing on, but in which there is not so much new information coming in that it takes too many cognitive resources. Mind wandering has been shown to improve creative problem solving for whatever you were working on before wandering, to help us sort out future plans, and to help us find ways to delay gratification. Just a few minutes of staring out the window can help your mind wander. And because it is somewhat boring, we tend to snap out of it after a few minutes. So you can get back to work far quicker than if you had gone online, and also be more effective when you return. So when your mind wants to wander, let it, and you’ll be back to work in minutes ready to stay focused and get through the work that matters most.
• Use exercise as a productivity strategy. Most of the exercise advice out there is about the long-term benefits: look better, live longer, and so on. Those are nice things to have, but there’s no immediate reliable effect. It’s more of a long-term game. However, there is a totally different side to exercise that is seldom talked about, but for which there is a great deal of research. This is the short-term consequences. Moderate exercise (working up a little sweat, maybe 20 minutes on the treadmill) is a highly reliable way to reduce anxiety for the next few hours. If you need a reset in the middle of the day, there’s nothing like it to get you back into a mental space where it is easy to concentrate and easy to let the small stuff go that doesn’t matter. If you have an important and tough project, make moderate exercise part of your preparation for that project. You’ll be able to take a project that could have dragged on, and instead be far more present so you can bring your best mental energy to it.
Rather than simply aiming to put in as many hours as you can, you can get a leg up on the competition by setting yourself up for brief bursts of peak productivity.
I describe these and other science-based strategies to regain control of your work while increasing work-life balance in my new book, Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done.