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. Continue reading

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How I Got Less Busy (and More Happy)

Stephen Covey tells a variation of an old parable to introduce the final chapter of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

A man out for a stroll, upon seeing his neighbor furiously sawing away at an old tree, stops to ask what he’s doing. Sweating profusely, the neighbor replies, “I’m cutting down this tree.”

“How long have you been at it?” the man inquires. “You look exhausted.”

“Yeah, I’ll say,” responds the neighbor. “I’ve been out here over two hours.”

“Why don’t you take a rest and sharpen your saw?”

Exasperated now, the neighbor snaps back, “I don’t have time to sharpen my saw! Can’t you see how busy I am cutting down this tree?”

I used to be the neighbor with the ever dulling saw. Truth be told, some days I still am.

sharp sawBut now, when I find myself toiling away and making what seems like no progress on the task at hand, I stop, at least for a moment. But often for longer. I may take a 20-minute break or go for walk. Sometimes I spend a few minutes doing nothing but taking deep breaths and counting each inhale and exhale.

Just a couple minutes ago, after staring blankly at my screen for a while, I dropped down on my elbows next to my desk and held a plank until I collapsed to the floor. I’m a bit dizzy now from getting back up too quickly. My heart’s racing and my abdomen is trembling palpably. I feel good. And I’m looking at my work with fresh eyes and the words feel like they’re flowing.

I have “sharpened my saw.”

Covey’s 7th habit is not necessarily about getting “ un-stuck” in the completion of specific task or project (though I have found that its components do wonders for that). It is about continuous self-renewal, life long learning and growth. It targets four basic areas in which self-improvement can be highly leveraged to enhance, often dramatically, our experience of and performance in every other area our lives. Here are the areas Covey describes:

Physical: Beneficial eating, exercising, and resting
Social/Emotional: Making social and meaningful connections with others
Mental: Learning, reading, writing, and teaching
Spiritual: Spending time in nature, expanding spiritual self through meditation, music, art, prayer, or service

My approach has been to implement and maintain a daily practice that I adapted from James Altucher’s take on this idea (“How to Be THE LUCKIEST GUY ON THE PLANET in 4 Easy Steps”). I’m sure I’ll flesh out a few of these further in the future, but here is what that looks like for me:

Do some pushups, squats, or a plank, walk instead of drive to the library or the local Starbucks, replace some sitting time with standing time, cold showers, get 8 hours of sleep, avoid foods with added sugar
Write to/call a dear friend or loved one, reconnect with an old colleague/client/professional contact, have a coffee/drink/meal with a close friend, wrestle with my daughters, watch standup comedy, minimize or eliminate contact with people whose negative energy regularly drains my own
Read, write, play brain games on Lumosity, exercise my “idea muscle” (see James’ post, linked above)
Go outdoors, sit quietly, do a guided meditation (from YouTube, iTunes, Headspace, you name it)

When I do at least one of the things in each of these areas on a daily basis (and yes, it’s often just one), my mind is clearer, my work is more focused and I feel happier.

I also am a hell of a lot nicer to be around. Just ask my wife.

  • From which of the four areas for self-renewal could you gain the most?
  • What fun, calming or energizing activity have you put off in the spirit of getting through your to-do list?
  • How might your work improve if that activity was the “to-do” item you did first each day?

Leave me a comment, below, and for help creating and implementing a daily practice tailored just for you, shoot me a note to

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The Dirtiest Four-Letter Word

I am in favor of profanity. There are no bad words, I tell my kids, only bad intent. The catharsis of a well-placed expletive is often worth the risk of offense. But language does matter. The words we choose do not just reflect the state of our minds. They have the power to change it.

This is why I am convinced that “busy” is the dirtiest word in the English language. It is the modern signifier of the “quiet desperation” that Thoreau observed was a defining trait of many people’s lives. And, just like with other four-letter words, its corrosive effect on our psyches is found in the intention with which we tend to use it. As humorist Tim Kreider writes in his essay, Lazy: A Manifesto, “It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.”

I’m SO busy…
I can’t. I’m swamped…
My clients keep emailing me…
Too busy. Haven’t had the time…

juggle-1543897Indeed, many of us wear our busy-ness like a red badge of courage. We are strangely proud of it and even Continue reading

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Doing Hard Things

I have been somewhat obsessed these last two weeks with the idea that initiating action, however small, can reliably produce surprisingly positive results.

In his tragic masterpiece, Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe captures this truth as beautifully as anyone:

Are you in earnest? seize this very minute—
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated—
Begin it, and then the work will be completed.

(John Alster, Translator)

But what to do when, despite initial efforts, the work is not magically completed? What if the work is hard? Continue reading

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