If I were a magical fairy and granted you 10 additional hours a week of free time, what would you do with it? Just picture the first thing that pops into your mind.
Let me guess… You would spend it with your family, work out, do some household projects, volunteer, write, read, travel, sit at a café with a friend… or something similar. What probably did not pop up as an option? Doing more work. (And if that was the first thing you thought of, we should probably talk.)
My next question for you: What would that time be worth to you? If you could cut down the number of hours you worked in order to carve out those 10 hours, would you do it?
I’ve now put this question to a number of people, and the answer often goes something like this. “Well, I’d like to work less, but I just can’t afford it. Even if I could afford it, I’m worried about the perception others would have of me working fewer hours at my job. I would be less likely to get that promotion. I would be perceived as not as loyal or hardworking as my colleagues who work 40 hours or more a week.”
I totally understand this argument. And for most of my career, you would have heard me say exactly the same thing. For a long time, I couldn’t justify a pay cut and the prospect of not getting promoted because, as one of my bosses put it, “At our firm, you must be present to win.”
One day, however, after working 60-80 hours a week for months on end, I finally decided that the risk of cutting my hours was worth my sanity. My husband and I worked through the finances and found a way for me to have a 30-hour-per-week schedule. I’ve kept this arrangement going for a couple of years now, and I feel like the time I’ve “captured back” has been worth every penny.
But the value is more than just my mental health. Working less has actually made me more productive! I have been more prolific as a writer than ever, my work is better quality, and I’m able to regularly bring innovations to my practice—all because I’m really focused when I’m working but have permission to “let go” and work on non-work initiatives after hours.
When I try to explain this to other moms, dads, Millennials, and even Baby Boomers who are interested in an alternative work schedule, I get skeptical looks and accusations that I’ve watched too many Hallmark Channel movies. “Um, that might work for your firm, but in my company, my industry, my specific job, it’s really frowned upon. I look like I’m not ‘one of the team’ when I skip out early.”
I understand that those of us in America, and lots of other places in the world, pride ourselves in how hard we work. But I’d like to offer an alternative view. How about we start working smart?
There is an emerging body of evidence showing that after a certain number of hours worked, we lose our effectiveness. John Pencavel of Stanford University has done some of this research and claims our output falls per hour dramatically after working 50 hours a week and even more so after 55 hours per week.
Recent research by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research found that while working up to 30 hours a week is good for cognitive function when you are over 40 years old, any more than that causes deterioration of performance. Since many of the leaders in organizations today are over 40, I think this study is of particular interest!
For about a year, nurses at the Svartedalens retirement home in Sweden have worked six-hour days on an eight-hour salary. They’re part of an experiment funded by the Swedish government to see if a shorter workday can increase productivity. The study found that 68 nurses who worked six-hour days took half as much sick time as those in the control group, they were 2.8 times less likely to take any time off in a two-week period, they were 20 percent happier, and they had more energy at work and in their spare time. One of the research productivity metrics—the way the researchers proved the shorter hours increased productivity—was the number of activities the nurses engaged in with elder residents. The nurses increased these activities by 64 percent.
What could you do if you were 64% more productive?
Remember those activities you picked for your extra 10 hours? They are exactly the kinds of behaviors that relax the brain and get those creative juices flowing. Daniel Goleman, renowned psychologist and author of The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights, suggests that the best way to get creative insights is, “first to concentrate intently on the goal or problem, and then relax… The converse of letting go—trying to force an insight—can inadvertently stifle creative breakthrough. If you’re thinking and thinking about it, you may just be getting more tense and not coming up with fresh ways of seeing things, let alone a truly creative insight.”
In short, when we are intensely focused on a task, we are less likely to have an insight. This may seem counterintuitive because most of us tend to hunker down and increase our focus when we are trying to work through a difficult problem. In reality, a “clenched state of mind” inhibits the connections in the brain that lead to creative breakthroughs. Getting out of the office and thinking about something besides work is a good thing for coming up with new ideas. Given the nature of knowledge work and the emphasis on innovation, getting away turns out to be good for business.
Companies such as Amazon have started piloting shorter work weeks for some of their staff, which, aside from being a great press move, is also an opportunity to shift their “work hard” culture. With everyone working the same number of hours, there is no stigma attached to those who need a little personal time to recharge, take care of family, or to engage in non-work related commitments. This level-setting helps retain staff who might be concerned about being penalized for working less and at the same time helps recruit those highly desired Millennials, a large portion of whom are having children right now and could use some flexibility in their schedules. Others might benefit from more time to serve as caregivers to elderly parents. The need for some “slack” in our schedules is universal.
I realize there are a number of factors at play when it comes to employees working fewer hours. And it will take more than a good business case to change our collective bias toward working crazy hours to prove our “worthiness.” But I believe those organizations that figure out how to provide more flexible hours and work options for staff, that recognize that we all need to reboot and refresh on a regular basis, will have a real competitive advantage over those that don’t.