Since the industrial revolution, we’ve been treating workers like machines – always on, always faster, always more efficient. “With machines, the goal is to minimize downtime,” says Arianna Huffington. “That’s fantastic for machinery, but the human operating system is different. Downtime for a human is not a bug, it’s a feature.”
Taking time away from work may be the secret to getting more work done. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, there’s science to back it up.
You Don’t Get More Done
Your tasks can fill the time you give them – and more time doesn’t necessarily mean more results. Consider this finding from the Boston University:
“In a study of consultants by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to. While managers did penalize employees who were transparent about working less, Reid was not able to find any evidence that those employees actually accomplished less, or any sign that the overworking employees accomplished more.”
Read that again. Managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to. There was no sign that overworking employees accomplished more. Whether you're a consultant, contractor, or employee, you have to be honest about auditing your time. How many hours a week do you actually spend working? What expectations do you have about how much you’re supposed to be working? Examining these attitudes and expectations can help you find the right amount of work time for you – it may be less than you think.
Your Work Isn’t Better
Overwork not only doesn’t produce more work, it also reduces the quality of the work that you do accomplish. Consider this from the Harvard Business Review:
“Overwork, and the accompanying stress and exhaustion, make interpersonal communication, making judgment calls, reading other peoples’ faces, and managing your own emotional reactions, more difficult. Research has also suggested that as we burn out, we have a greater tendency to lose sight of the bigger picture.”
Your judgment, communication, and strategic capabilities are all compromised when you are burned out. This isn’t surprising as much as it is sobering. You aren’t you when you’re exhausted! Your clients and managers didn’t hire an over-caffeinated, over-worked, frazzled worker. They hired someone who was smart, dedicated, experienced, and passionate about their craft. Don’t lose what’s great about your work by overdoing it. Because here’s the other side effect of working too much: you start to hate it.
A study in the UK showed that the more you work, the less you want to work. “Research showed that dissatisfaction with long hours working and preferences for shorter working hours increased with the number of hours worked.” Satisfaction with work decreased with longer hours as well.
Make Your Own Rules
The good news and bad news here is that you are the only one who can make these changes. No one else is going to make them for you. That means you are (largely) in control of how and when you work, and of advocating for what works best for you.
Start by getting back to your foundation: What are your priorities? Why did you even go independent? (Was it because you really wanted to spend more of your time working?) For most of us, there was a desire for balance, autonomy, and agency in our careers.
Next, audit your calendar. Really track where your time is going! It can be annoying, and even if you’re already tracking billable hours for clients, keep detailed notes for a week (or two!) and take a look at your patterns. You may be surprised at where the time goes – and how much time you’re putting in.
Then try it for yourself. Even if it’s just a two week experiment. Take control of your calendar and set some realistic, but serious, goals for yourself and see how it goes. Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, is a big advocate of working less to work better. “Leisure time is the new luxury,” he says. There is no perfectly optimal amount of hours you should or shouldn’t be working – you have to find what works for you.
Need help setting those boundaries? Try Fried’s magic word: “No is such a liberating word – one of the few things that can buy you time.” Huffington speaks to her personal experience with work: “I love it much more when I’ve taken time to recharge.” After your audit and experiment, set aside time to seriously reflect. What was helpful? What was stressful? What do you want to carry forward? The research is clear, but you need to find what compels you to make these changes.