“I’ll have some downtime with the kids when I get through everything I have to do today.”
“I’ll call you for a coffee when things slow down a bit.”
“I’d love to make that recipe. Maybe I’ll have some time this weekend.”
No doubt you’ll have heard promises like this before, and chances are you have said something similar yourself. If so, you also know that getting through everything rarely happens, and the hoped for downtime, me-time or family time never materialises.
Despite the worldwide trend of increasing working hours, the fact is that working any longer than the traditional 40-hour working week is a sure way to lower your productivity and effectiveness. From as far back as the early 1900s, studies have repeatedly shown that worker productivity improves when working hours are reduced from sixty to forty hours a week. In fact, researchers at Stanford University have been unable to find any studies showing that extending work hours delivers higher output in any field. When it comes to achieving outcomes, more is not always better.
Working longer hours can also make you vulnerable to health problems. An analysis of 25 studies collecting data from more than 600,000 people in Australia, the US and Europe for up to 8.5 years, found that people who worked 55 hours a week had a 33% greater risk of having a stroke than people who worked a 35 to 40-hour week.
Yet still people fall for the trap of believing that working longer increases output. A recent study of full- time workers who are paid for an official working week of 38 hours, found that 65% of these workers put in more than 40 hours, and nearly 30% put in more than 50 hours. An ‘elite’ 1% put in more than 70 hours per week!
Keeping your work hours contained makes sense for a few reasons. It leaves enough time in the week to get non-work things done, and this is important. If you don’t have time to do the shopping, help the kids with their homework, fit in some exercise, research your next holiday or grab lunch with a close friend, then happiness declines, stress levels rise and your motivation to do your best at work wavers. Life starts to lose its meaning when work dominates at the expense of other things you hold dear -particularly your health, your relationships, and your other interests.
Also, by limiting your working hours you are forced to make choices about what will get done and what won’t. Those who know how to say ‘no’ to requests, who call a stop to something that is not adding value, and who resist the allure of distractions, are the people who get most done.
Sweden is experimenting with a six-hour working day, and many employees did not initially believe this was possible for them. But once they tried it, they found that they had fewer meetings, avoided distractions such as social media, sick leave levels fell, and the quality of work was higher.
Try it for yourself. For one week, put yourself on a working hours ‘diet’. From whatever your baseline is now, set yourself a limit of hours for the week which is at least five hours less than you normally dedicate to that work. It may sound like a lot, but until you really experiment with the counter-intuitive nature of getting more done by dedicating less time, you will not realise how powerful it can be.
Throughout the week, notice what this limitation forces you to stop doing. Maybe you will find the discipline to say ‘no’ to something you would normally agree to. Maybe you will stop taking work home and letting it eat into family time. Maybe you will change your priorities and get the important things done first. Maybe you will spend less time perfecting something and keep it moving, so you can get to the next task sooner.
Notice any temptation to add to your working hours and, at least for this week, resist it. The working hours diet will make you more conscious of your choices, improve your impulse control, and reward you with more opportunities to indulge in life’s wider experiences.
When you have less hours to get things done, you are more likely to focus on what really matters. And then you also have time for the rest of your life, and that matters too.
The Working Hours Diet is just one of the 21 practical experiments for you to try in Do Less. Be More, available now for pre-order and out in stores during June 2017.