How We Work

(This piece is a first in a three-part series on “Working Less“.)

As a work culture, we’re obsessed with spending long hours at work and less on results and relationships. Most of us tend to work like machines — long, continuous hours. You see this everywhere in companies and small businesses — employees and entrepreneurs are working longer hours.

It is a fallacy that spending more hours on work equates to getting more work done. This couldn’t be further from the truth. We work longer hours (we spend more time at work), but accomplish less. We work longer hours today than our ancestors ever did, but just because we spend more time working doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re doing better work. We’re not.

We fail to recognize our limited capacity and repeatedly let the demand of our work exceed our capacity only to find ourselves suffering from burnout and stress. Even the breaks we take are not enough in terms of quality and/or quantity. We work like machines, and then eventually come to a grinding halt in terms of physical and mental health problems. Besides, the organizations that we work for are concerned more with attendance and giving time to do busy-work rather than focusing on getting actual results.

Working longer hours is not a badge of honor as it is made out to be by some of us. It only goes to show our inability to manage ourselves effectively in the time we have. It’s akin to sleeping less in that sense.

There are a few reasons why working longer hours doesn’t work for us:

  • First, it’s not about the hours we spend at work, but what we accomplish in those hours.

  • Unlike machines, we’re not designed to work for long, continuous hours. We’re designed to work in sprints.

  • Working long, continuous hours doesn’t produce the results we want; it only undermines it. Spending more hours at work (ironically) produces fewer results. The fact is that we all have our personal threshold for how much we can reasonably work in a typical 40-hour work week (Monday through Friday). Working an extra hour only leads to diminishing returns in getting actual work done.

  • Working most of the time leaves almost zero time for Play. There will always be more work to do than you can possibly do. Does that mean that all you do is work? Of course not. That would surely lead to burnout and stress. When we don’t work and play well, it undermines the quality of our work and life in terms of results and relationships.

  • Working all of the time defeats the point of working. Working is just a means to an end. The point of working is not the work in itself, but to have as much discretionary time as possible to do the things you want (such as spending time with your loved ones). That discretionary time is the real currency. Work is just a means to achieve that discretionary time. It’s not about working longer hours; it’s about working smarter so you can have as much discretionary time as possible with those you love. Any average Joe with a decent white-collar job can make money working longer hours. That’s not the point. The question is, can you make the same money working fewer hours by working smarter? That’s what it’s all about: results and relationships.

  • One reason we spend more hours at work is that we think we can do it all. We can’t. We take on more work than we can possibly do. Either we accept too much work in the time we have, or we spend less (not enough) time getting work done.

We forget that we can do anything, but not everything. Two things here: first, we must accept that we can’t do it all, so we must explore, evaluate, and execute to figure out what really matters to us. Second, we must realize that we tend to overestimate what we can do in the short term (day/week/month) and underestimate what we can do in the long term (years).

The hours that we spend at work are not all productive; they remain unfocused for the most part. When we’re at work, we think about what we need to do when we should be ready to just do the work. We use the most productive time of our day (mornings) to figure out what we need to do. When we do show up at work, we don’t have a process to work better, so we end up doing a poor job of managing our attention in the time we have.

Showing up ready to do the work is only possible when we have taken the time to think about and define our work in advance. This is not to say that you won’t have ad hoc work (work as it shows up). Sure you will. Try and keep that to a minimum. Of course, doing predefined work requires having (and using) a Trusted System in the first place. We also tend to work reactively when we should live proactively.

When we’re at work, we tend to “multitask” — we try to do many things at the same time, which never works. This reduces our attention span and is not conducive to the way we work. Doing one thing is a challenge for most of us, but it’s also a huge competitive advantage if we can do it.

When we’re at work, we often plan and do things at the same time, which never works.

When we’re at work, we are not always working. We do things that we’re better off not doing. For instance, we spend time browsing the web aimlessly or anything that lets us avoid work.

When we bite more than we can chew at work, we end up doing more things poorly rather than doing a few things well. Not only that, we try to do it all in the short term. Either way, we’re being ineffective and/or inefficient in terms of managing our attention, or we’re spreading ourselves too thin.

I hope this piece gives you a better understanding of how most of us work and how it’s not the best approach to doing our work.

In the next piece, I discuss why working less is in our best interest.

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