Jobs and the Future of Work

Why working too many hours damages your productivity

Joel Peterson
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In Silicon Valley, programmers proudly wear T-shirts that celebrate their workaholic swagger: “90 Hours a Week and Loving It,” the shirts read.

But recently, John Pencavel of Stanford’s economics department challenged this message in a paper, arguing that productivity actually drops dramatically with long hours. In one case he studied, those who toiled away for an extra 14 hours produced exactly nothing more.

We all have the same temporal boundaries – the 24/7 within which we live our lives. So how do some people do so much with this time, while others never make a dent in an ever-expanding “To Do” list, always hovering at the ragged edge of control?

The most common justification for not completing tasks, or for falling into workaholism, is a lack of time. But I’ve found the real problem is that often people have devoted too much of their time to outputs and worrying, and too little to improving their focus.

When you spend too much time on an activity, just as when you have too large a budget, your priorities can become murky. You risk losing the precision and focus that come from having limited resources. In the same way that small, innovative companies disrupt well-capitalized giants, time constraints can be a way to focus energy on what matters most.

As with any shortage, we feel panic when we think we don’t have enough time. Rather than focusing our energies, the panic leads us to squander the time we do have. We bounce from deadline to deadline, priority to priority and task to task.

The most primitive way to manage this anxiety is to reduce the number of claims on us – a tactic that can be costly and unsatisfying in the long run. A better strategy for me has been to shut out phone calls, emails and other interruptions. Indeed, I find that setting aside two or three hours to focus, without interruption, is time-expanding. It has been liberating and time-saving. What I used to think saved me time, simply cost me focus – and thus time. It kept me enervated and prevented me from being “present,” adding, not relieving, pressure.

The choice to focus pays dividends with smaller periods of time, as well. In the free 10 minutes before meetings, I used to squeeze in phone calls or send a few text messages and a couple of emails. But now I block out that time to think about the upcoming conversation, the next meeting, the highest value outcome. This forces me to focus on what’s dead ahead. Freed from interruptions, I’m able to listen and prioritize – to keep my eyes on the prize.

We’ve all gotten more done in a productive hour than in days of procrastinating. But unfortunately for most of us, that experience is a rarity. Our real problem is that we haven’t yet developed the discipline to set priorities – to regularly ask ourselves what our most important task should be today, this week, this month. Without clarity around priorities, the odds are that we’ll wrap up each week exhausted and wondering what we accomplished before heading into a new week feeling behind and overworked.

The key, I find, to feeling energized and excited about getting your work done, is to establish a clear and simple “line of sight” from your many activities to the big goals. With clarity around what’s most important, you’ll find yourself invigorated and with more time than you expected.

To the misguided “90 Hours a Week and Loving It” T-shirt-wearers, Steve Jobs might have invoked the advice he gave in a 1998 Business Week article. “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple,” he said. “But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

This article is published in collaboration with LinkedIn. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Joel Peterson is Chairman, JetBlue Airways.

Image: A trader reacts after the closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

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