How to Accomplish More by Doing Less
Posted on Harvard Business Review: December 13, 2011 7:40 AM
Two people of equal skill work in the same office. For the sake of comparison, let’s say both arrive at work at 9 am each day, and leave at 7 pm.
Bill works essentially without stopping, juggling tasks at his desk and running between meetings all day long. He even eats lunch at his desk. Sound familiar?
Nick, by contrast, works intensely for approximately 90 minutes at a stretch, and then takes a 15 minute break before resuming work. At 12:15, he goes out for lunch for 45 minutes, or works out in a nearby gym. At 3 pm, he closes his eyes at his desk and takes a rest. Sometimes it turns into a 15 or 20 minute nap. Finally, between 4:30 and 5, Nick takes a 15 minute walk outside.
Bill spends 10 hours on the job. He begins work at about 80 percent of his capacity, instinctively pacing himself rather than pushing all out, because he knows he’s got a long day ahead.
By 1 pm, Bill is feeling some fatigue. He’s dropped to 60 percent of his capacity and he’s inexorably losing steam. Between 4 and 7 pm, he’s averaging about 40 percent of his capacity.
It’s called the law of diminishing returns. Bill’s average over 10 hours is 60 percent of his capacity, which means he effectively delivers 6 hours of work.
Nick puts in the same 10 hours. He feels comfortable working at 90 percent of his capacity, because he knows he’s going to have a break before too long. He slows a little as the day wears on, but after a midday lunch or workout, and a midafternoon rest, he’s still at 70 percent during the last three hours of the day.
Nick takes off a total of two hours during his 10 at work, so he only puts in 8 hours. During that time, he’s working at an average of 80 percent of his capacity, so he’s delivering just under 6 ½ hours of work—a half hour more than Bill.
Because Nick is more focused and alert than Bill, he also makes fewer mistakes, and when he returns home at night, he has more energy left for his family.
It’s not just the number of hours we sit at a desk in that determines the value we generate. It’s the energy we bring to the hours we work. Human beings are designed to pulse rhythmically between spending and renewing energy. That’s how we operate at our best. Maintaining a steady reservoir of energy—physically, mentally, emotionally and even spiritually—requires refueling it intermittently.
Work the way Nick does, and you’ll get more done, in less time, at a higher level of quality, more sustainably.
Create a workplace that truly values a balanced relationship between intense work and real renewal, and you’ll not only get greater productivity from employees, but also higher engagement and job satisfaction.
There’s plenty of evidence that increased rest and renewal serve performance.
Consider a study conducted by NASA, in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration, of pilots on long haul flights. One group of pilots was given an opportunity to take 40 minute naps mid-flight, and ended up getting an average of 26 minutes of actual sleep. Their median reaction time improved by 16 percent following their naps.
Non-napping pilots, tested at a similar halfway point in the flight, experienced a 34 percent deterioration in reaction time. They also experienced 22 micro sleeps of 2-10 seconds during the last 30 minutes of the flight. The pilots who took naps experienced none.
Or consider the study that performance expert Anders Ericcson did of violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music. The best of the violinists practiced in sessions no longer than 90 minutes, and took a break in between each one. They almost never practiced more than 4 ½ hours over a day. What they instinctively understood was the law of diminishing returns.
The top violinists also got an average of more than 8 hours of sleep a night, and took a 20-30 minute nap every afternoon. Over a week, they slept 16 hours more than the average American does.
During my 30s and 40s, I wrote three books. I sat at my desk each day from 7 am to 7 pm, struggling to stay focused. Each book took me at least a year to write. For my most recent books, I wrote in a schedule that matched the great violinists—three 90 minute sessions with a renewal break in between each one.
I wrote both those books in six months—investing less than half the number of hours I had for each of my first three books. When I was working, I was truly working. When I was recharging—whether by getting something to eat, or meditating, or taking a run—I was truly refueling.
Stress isn’t the enemy in the workplace. Indeed, stress is the only means by which we can expand capacity. Just think about weightlifting. By stressing your muscles, and then recovering, you gradually build strength. Our real enemy is the absence of intermittent renewal.
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