There’s a common misconception that everything in life comes down to time.
The 10,000 hour rule for mastering a skill.
The ‘standard’ 40 hour work week.
Every day I find myself slipping into these same statements:
If only I had more time.
I just need a few extra minutes.
A couple hours of work. That’s all.
We believe that everything we want can be achieved if only we had more time.
We mistakenly believe that our issues are ones of quantity.
Yet Americans already work some of the longest hours in the Western World.
So is more time really the answer?
The shackles of freedom
From our earliest days we’re taught the importance of a daily structure based on time.
School days are 8 hours long, with classes structured around slots of time, rather than what can be completed. We’re taught that what matters is ‘putting in the time’, not necessarily finishing the work.
Yet more and more, we’re moving away from this standard practice.
More and more people are working remotely, or in non-standard ways as part-timers, contractors, or shift workers. The 8-hour day has been edged out. But is this really the release from structure that we hoped it would be?
The freedom to do our work whenever ostensibly gives us the freedom to create our own schedule—whether that means 9–5, 7–2, 2–10, 1–4 or whatever works for you.
It also means we’re free to spend as much (or as little) time at work as long as the job gets finished. Yet, research shows that those with the freedom to work less, end up working significantly more.
A comprehensive study on hours worked and productivity by the International Labour Organization found that the average worker who had the freedom to set their own hours worked 54 hours per week, versus 37 hours a week by those with set schedules.
That’s 17 extra working hours a week, just from the ‘freedom’ to choose your own hours.
Even worse, those extra hours don’t lead to quality, productive work.
When the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development looked at the effect of longer hours on productivity in 18 European countries over a 60 year period, they found that our per-hour productivity during an increase in working time always diminishes. Not only that, but the returns diminish more rapidly for longer working times.
The more we work, the less efficient we become.
And once we pass a certain threshold it only gets worse.
Which means more hours spent working the next day to catch up and fix the mistakes we’ve made. Which means more hours worked in total. Which means even lower productivity. And on and on and on.
So why do we do it?
I know we’ve all faced those moments where we feel braindead yet continue to slog through the work, only to redo most of it when we’re fresh and rested.
Maybe it’s pride. Or a sense of responsibility.
One answer, which seems to make the most sense to me, is Parkinson’s Law:
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
This ‘law’ was coined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson as part of a humorous essay in The Economist.
As one example, Parkinson explains how:
“An elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and despatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.”
The more time we give a task, the more time we spend on it.
And, the more time we spend on a task, the worse of a job we do.
We can’t fire on all cylinders for hours at a time. Motivation, willpower, and focus are all limited resources that we need to use sparingly throughout the day.
Spending more time only kills motivation and weakens the work we’re doing.
So if we work less, we’ll be happier and more productive?
I’ve always felt that I just didn’t have enough time to see friends, keep up relationships, and do the things that I wanted that would keep me happy.
Even though spending time with my friends and family is one of my core personal values, I still saw the issue as one of quantity. I just didn’t have enough time to make it all work.
Working less opens up more time for socializing are doing things that help with our personal well-being. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Spend less time working and have more time for leisure and visiting with the ones we love.
Yet it doesn’t quite work that way.
A study by Cristobal Young and Chaeyoon Lim from Stanford University, found that among 500,000 workers, our general levels of happiness closely follow the workweek. We’re happiest on the weekends, and are the least happy on Monday–Thursday. Obvious, no?
What was surprising was that the study also found this same pattern in unemployed people.
Even those without the requirement to be somewhere during the week were less happy during the work week.
Young and Lim tie this to the idea of network good—that connecting with others is more important for our well-being than just time to ourselves.
You simply can’t get ‘more weekend’ just by taking an extra day off yourself.
Choose to make time for the work that matters
So we can’t work more hours to be better at our job, and we can’t spend more time off to be happier. So what choice do we have?
The goal is to focus on efficiency, rather than output.
There’s a trap we fall into of justifying the work by the time and resources put in.
“I’ve spent 60 hours/4 months/8 years on this. I deserve it to be a success.”
The modern workplace adage is that it’s not about the hours, it’s about the work. Yet for many remote workers or those working non-standard hours, this means completion no matter the cost.
But to celebrate spending X amount of hours on a task vs. 10X that time is ridiculous.
If we’re to measure only what gets done, negating the context of how long it took to complete the task and how efficient someone is, we’re missing the whole picture.
As Lynn Wu, an information management professor at the Wharton School explains, it simply doesn’t work to measure productivity by output.
Productivity isn’t just about what you get done. It’s how efficient you are at getting those tasks completed.
A recent study by Julian Birkinshaw of the London School of Business found that most knowledge workers–engineers, writers, and those who ‘think for a living’—spend on average 41% of our time on jobs we could easily pass off to others.
Instinctively, we cling to tasks that keep us ‘busy’ (and thus, important). We feel good with a full schedule and a get-out-of-jail-free card for all of our lives responsibilities. Paradoxically, as we all strive for more time, we hold onto the things that take up the majority of our time.
So vanity, again, is a reason we lose productivity. The need to appear busy and important.
Yet working towards becoming more efficient is something that is incredibly hard to track.
Upfront investment in skills, planning, or training others to take overalways leads to long-term efficiency, opening up the time you have for the work that matters. Not the busy tasks.
Re-imagining how we work and live
In all aspects of our lives—whether it’s work or personal—quantity is almost never the issue.
Time spent working is a vanity metric.
And time to ourselves without connecting to friends and family is almost meaningless.
The problem of quantity is one we can’t change. There just is no way to get more time in your day. And the compound effects of working long hours and late nights means that you always come out on the bottom.
So it’s a matter of quality. Efficiency. Choosing how much time to spend working and deciding what’s the best way to spend that time.
When we choose, we stop thinking of time as the only measurement to our day.
Here’s a few ways to help you choose how to spend your time that came up during my research for this article. Each one can be used as filter to decide whether you’re working efficiently or not.
Schedule for tasks, not time
In his essay on maker time versus manager time, essayist Paul Graham suggests that workers such as writers and programmers work in units of half a day at least, rather than the hourly or half-hourly chunks of a managers schedule.
Personally, the best work I do comes when the tasks that I have to do aren’t ones that require a strict timeline or schedule. Reading, writing, editing… all of these work best for me when I don’t have to stretch or stress to fit into the allotment on my schedule.
Working a task to completion gives you a measurement of success—something you can use to answer: am I working efficiently?
When you find value, keep working
Motivation and energy are limited resources, and wasting them up ruins our chances or completing meaningful work.
In Dr. Steel’s experiments on procrastination and motivation, he found that value is one of the most important aspects for maintaining our motivation. When the work we’re doing has value to us, we’re more motivated to continue working. Then why stop?
Meetings can be pushed, flow can’t be easily replicated.
Focus on being better. Faster. Stronger.
As Henry David Thoreau wrote:
“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”
As creative business coach Mark McGuiness explains, we need to focus on the one big thing each day that will make us feel accomplished.
Don’t sit at your desk just to be there and pat yourself on the back. Focus on completing your days work and feeling good about it. Then walk away.
The only way we can change how we work is by changing our mindset about how we work.
Ask for help
Oftentimes we get so wrapped up in busywork that we forget we can ask for help. Especially in small teams where you know everyone’s plate is full, the idea of stepping into someone’s else’s workday and interrupting them is one that few of us actually want to do. But that quick question or short conversation could be the difference between spending an hour or 5 minutes on a task.
Use the knowledge of the people around you so when you do work, you work efficiently.
You don’t need more time. You need better time.
And that only comes through approaching your work and life with the understanding that long hours spent working ≠ good work. As Seth Godin so aptly puts it:
“You don’t need more time
…you just need to decide.”
Time is almost always an issue of quality, not quantity. So decide on what matters, and then get it done.