Work Hard, Not Much

It turns out that productivity may actually decline as workers put in longer and longer hours. So say many recent articles and studies addressing the relationship between the hours worked by an employee and the output she can be expected to produce.

A former recruiting candidate of mine shared just such an article from the Wall Street Journal this week titled, “Radical Idea at the Office: A 40-Hour Workweek.” This particular piece focuses on the benefits of a fixed and capped work week to both the company (its ability to attract high-caliber applicants, pay lower compensation) and employees (clear expectations and work-life balance) and, like most recent articles on the topic, quotes John Pencavel, a labor economics professor at Stanford University, whose research indicates that increases in productivity from additional working hours decline above a certain threshold (read his study here).

secretary-1506166These are not new ideas. That they seem new is further evidence of our growing obsession with being “busy.” And our resulting inability (or disinclination) to truly disconnect from work is causing us to confuse working a lot with working hard.

Working hard is not (necessarily) working fast. It is not running a manic, unceasing race to stay ahead of an ever-expanding inbox. It is not responding to every ring or buzz of a phone at any time of day. It is not even within the capabilities of one who feels beholden to and at the effect of everyone’s agenda but her own.

The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk… Those who work much do not work hard.

-Henry David Thoreau

Working hard evokes a focused attention and energy directed toward a specific project, task or goal, often one that is intellectually or physically challenging. And, as Thoreau seems to chide us, such an effort practically requires that the worker in question be given a limited amount time each day (or week) to achieve a worthy goal.

The modern demands of business may never allow most of us the time to “saunter” to our tasks, but if we are serious about doing great work and serving our clients optimally, we will at least aim to separate working hard from working much.

If you are an employee or an entrepreneur, what is one small change you could make to your workday to work harder instead of more? If you are a manager or executive, how might you incentivize your teams to emphasize the quality of their work product over the quantity of their time they spend in the office and on their smartphones?

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