Work Time Paradox – When Does More Become Less?

Work TimeWork time is what busy people are always looking for more of.  Am I right?

Often we sacrifice sleep, leisure, and family time in order to find more work time.  When’s the last time you were late for dinner because you stayed at work to finish something up?  Or maybe you work from home and spend work time at your computer well beyond the point when the house has gone quiet and everyone else is sound asleep. Sound familiar?

Our illusion (and it is an illusion) is that the more work time we find, the more efficient and effective we will be.  But the truth is different; work time beyond a certain point is actually less and less productive.

Work Time and YOU

Late last month I read a very interesting article by Drake Baer on Fast Company titled “Why Your Brain Can’t Handle an All Day Schedule.”  In this brief piece, the author cites two considerations about work time that are, to my mind, extremely important:

  • Our energy levels vary throughout the day – meaning our efficiency and effectiveness also varies; and
  • Mental activity can helpfully be thought of as comparable to physical activity.  We are finite beings and we simply don’t have inexhaustible stores of energy.

An article titled “Why the 9-to-5 Day Is So Tough on Creative Workers” by Lauren Davidson in The Atlantic offers the following thoughts on our work time:

A shorter workday works particularly well for knowledge workers—people in creative or professional jobs—who can work productively for about six hours a day, compared to the eight hours manual laborers can churn out, according to Salon. Unlike machines, humans operate on a cyclical basis, which means our energy and motivation fluctuate in peaks and troughs. Cognitive workers tend to be more focused in the late morning, getting another energy boost in the late afternoon when lung efficiency peaks.

Work Time Rhythms

When it comes to work time, what is optimal is a rhythm of activity and rest.  Each of our rhythms is going to be somewhat unique to us, but the fact that we humans have rhythms is indisputable.

And the other fact about work time that appears to be indisputable is that the more you push yourself beyond your physical capacity, the less effective you will be.  So working long hours, going without sleep, not giving yourself adequate food or exercise – all of these things that our culture actually encourages us to do – will substantially undermine your productivity.

Instead of pushing yourself, what really helps (and this is counter-intuitive for most of us) is to give yourself a break.  This is especially true when you are MOST stressed.

It requires great discipline – and might even feel risky – to follow through on this.

Take a break when a deadline looms and the clock is ticking?  Are you crazy, Paula?!

Work Time and Recovery Time

No, not crazy at all.   😉  What helps here is if you think of yourself as an athlete.  To train and perform at your peak you need to work your muscles AND give them time to rest and recover.  It’s the same with our brains.  You enhance your energy and attentiveness when you break up your work time with periods of rest and recovery.

The Pomodoro Technique is one very popular tool for doing this.  But it doesn’t address the length-of-the-work-day issue; that is something that you’ll need to make a separate decision about.

The bottom line is that, as we treat ourselves better and give ourselves the self care and recovery time that we need, we are going to be more productive.  So I highly recommend that you take the risk of stepping back and thinking about decreasing your work time in order to increase your efficiency and effectiveness.

And here’s to your time success …

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  1. I constantly wake up early or stay up late to finish work tasks. There really are not enough hours in the day! I also find myself to be more productive in the mornings.

    • Hi Krystal – It is great that you recognize some of your cycles. Do you notice your energy flagging when you are overtired? A break (even a short one) might really give you a boost.

      Thanks for stopping by!


  2. Break times can enrich me greatly, if I pay attention to what I do during them! Exercise, stretching, a quick check-in phone call… the right kind of break brightens my day.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Alison. It’s great that you pay attention to what works for you, because the better the fit, the less time it takes to feel restored and energized. To your time success …

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