Jul 19, 2022
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It’s easy to convince yourself that in order to get more done you need to work longer hours. But forcing yourself to do work past your body’s capacity can actually cause you to be less productive. Working more intensely for shorter periods of time with extended periods of rest and recovery is actually a better strategy.
In this article we’ll be looking at how, counterintuitively, you can get more done whilst working less.
Sacrificing your mind, body, and soul for your work has become lauded as what you need to do if you want to reach the top. Whilst working hard is certainly a prerequisite to doing great things, it’s actually more important to work smart.
Media portrayal of the work ethic of millionaires and billionaires has created a false narrative that you need to work yourself to the brink of exhaustion if you want to get ahead.
However, although it might seem like a contradiction, it’s not the people who work the hardest or the longest that are most productive. Sometimes pushing yourself beyond your limit is required to make progress, but it won’t help you if you push yourself past the point of no return.
Infact, research shows that working intensely for 90 minutes, and then resting your 10 - 20 minutes is actually a lot better for your productivity. This is known as your ultradian rhythm.
When you know you are going to work for a long period of time without a break you instinctively work at a lower intensity because you know you have to sustain your energy. If you know you will take breaks to restore your energy you will work at a higher intensity.
It’s not the number of hours of work that has the biggest impact, it’s the energy that you invest that matters most. If you work with regular periods of rest and recovery, you will be able to work with a higher intensity. This means you will not only get more done in less time, but you will also be able to do it sustainability without burning out.
Working intensely for shorter periods of time fits with the natural ultradian rhythm that is at the core of how our minds and bodies have evolved over millions of years of evolution. The periods of intense activity pushes you to do your best work. Working intensely is the only way we can expand our capacity and stamina to do good work.
However, most people do the complete opposite of this. They get caught in the middle ground. Instead of short periods of intense work followed by periods of recovery, we work long hours at a lower level of intensity without the rest we require to hit peak performance.
Instead of feeling guilty about working shorter hours, you should make sure you are putting 100% of your effort into tight, focused periods of work, and then spending the appropriate time to disconnect, rest and recover for your next period of intense work.
Working less whilst achieving more is an attractive idea, but to really see the benefit it’s good to look at a practical example.
Let’s imagine two colleagues, John and Jane. Both start and finish work at the same time each day, working in an office for 8 hours.
John works all day to the point of exhaustion. He rarely leaves the office, and usually eats his lunch at his desk whilst replying to emails or typing up notes. John is stuck in the routine of long hours without a break and so unconsciously paces himself for another long day. He is effectively only working at 60% of his potential because he knows he has to sustain his energy.
John works for 8 hours at an intensity of 60% for an effective total of 4.88 hours.
Jane on the other hand works a lot smarter. She works in 4 periods of 90 minutes with a 15 minute break in between. She also takes a long lunch to go for a walk with friends, and has an extra break in the afternoon. Jane works for 6 hours with 2 hours of rest interspersed in between. However, because Jane knows she will get long periods of rest in between work, she is able to work at an intensity of 90% during her shorter periods of focused work
Jane works for 6 hours at an intensity of 90% for an effective total of 5.4 hours.
So as you can see, not only does Jane actually contribute more to the organisation, she is also able to sustain this effort and stave off burnout. John on the other hand returns home every evening exhausted and ready to quit. Furthermore, Jane is able to maintain her concentration and make fewer mistakes, whilst John is unable to focus on his work.