Working Fewer Hours to Improve Your Health and Productivity

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It’s a rare thing to hear an entrepreneur boast about working fewer hours. Us company founder types tend to pride ourselves on working hard, putting in long hours, and giving it all to make our businesses successful.

There’s nothing wrong with hard work, but It’s almost like a cult has arisen that says you have to run yourself ragged to have a successful business.

But like the rest of the working world, entrepreneurs could actually be hurting ourselves in multiple ways by working such long hours. Here’s why.

We’re Working Too Much

The average working week for Americans is 47 hours long, according to a 2014 study. Even worse, around a fifth of Americans were working up to 59 hours every week. And there are some decent impulses driving these long hours.

We work long hours because we’re ambitious. Overworking is more common in higher paid positions. We want a promotion, we want a bonus, we want our own company to succeed.

We work longer to prove we’re good at our jobs. As more of us move into knowledge work, it’s harder to measure our output, so we put in extra hours to demonstrate that we’re effective.

We work long hours because our colleagues do. Without a proper sense of how much is enough, we often look to those around us to see what’s acceptable. We don’t want to be the last to arrive in the office or the first to leave. We wait for others to give us the cue that it’s okay to stop—and perhaps they’re waiting for the same from us.

Some of us are pressured by our bosses or co-founders to work longer hours. We don’t want to let down those around us, so we do what they ask, or what we assume they want from us.

Whatever the reason, if you’re staying late at the office and putting in extra hours on the weekends, you’re not doing yourself any favors.

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How Overworking is Dangerous for Your Health

So many of us learn that overnighters are the way to get through college, and that we can recover from them well enough. It’s the same with overworking. We see others doing it, we start doing it ourselves, and even though we’re stressed and tired, it seems to be the only way to get ahead.

But it’s not the only way. And even if it was, it’s so dangerous to our health that it’s not worth the tradeoff.

Overworking leads to higher levels of absenteeism and turnover in employees, and that related stress can negatively affect our health. It also makes us worse at handling interpersonal communication, making judgment calls, and managing our own emotional reactions.

You might think you’re fine, especially if you’re running your own business. You love what you do, and you want to put in the extra hours. Unfortunately, voluntarily overworking is no less dangerous for your health.

It can also be disastrous for others when we’re overworked. Overworking leads to human error-induced disasters, and long hours without sleep leads soldiers and surgeons alike to make more mistakes. Even if our work isn’t life and death, we still don’t want to be making any more mistakes than necessary. After all, our businesses are our livelihoods, and many other people depend on performance.

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When you start your own company, your reputation and career are at stake, and it’s important to give your customers and investors the best impression you can. Overworking will only work against that goal.

At a broader level, societies that are overworked are not the most well-adjusted. The biggest wealth inequality is mostly seen in countries with the longest working hours, with both the poor and the rich working excessively to keep up. Working less doesn’t translate to wasting time either, as countries that are generally overworked tend to watch a lot of TV.

As entrepreneurs, we often neglect our health and other areas of our lives in favor of building our businesses faster. We think of it as making a deal—I’ll overwork myself so I can get ahead, and worry about rest later. This obviously isn’t a great approach, because it leads to burnout and health issues that end up affecting our businesses negatively anyway.

But if you’re not convinced overworking isn’t worth the risks to your health, perhaps the negative effects on productivity will prove that you should cut back your hours.

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How Overworking Hurts Productivity

You probably think, as I did, that working more = accomplishing more. It has to, right? How can you work more and not get more done?

Well, it’s not quite that clear cut. According to a paper by John Pencavel at Stanford University, this only holds true up to 49 hours per week. There’s a close correlation between productive output and hours worked all the way up to 49 hours, which, being more than 40 hours, still counts as overworking.

At this point, though, the correlation weakens. Past 50 hours per week, the output per hour starts to drop, so we only get very small gains for each extra hour worked. At 70 hours per week, the output measured is just about the same as at 56 hours. So that’s an extra 14 hours per week totally wasted.

This study was done on munition workers during World War I, so it was easy to measure hours worked vs. output. The original research Pencavel based his paper on also suggested that not having a full day off to rest each week damages productivity.

One other study of Italian CEOs found that working more hours does increase productivity, but it depends on how that time is used. Using your extra hours wisely, then, could improve your productive output, but simply spending more hours at your desk won’t. But again, few of the CEOs in this study logged more than 48 hours per week, so even using your time efficiently could lead to diminishing returns once you clock more than 50 hours.

If you’re hoping to impress someone by working longer hours, there’s even more bad news. In another study, managers couldn’t tell the difference between employees who worked 80 hours and those who just pretended to. So those extra hours meant to keep your boss, colleagues, or co-founder satisfied probably aren’t worth your time.

On the other side of the research, working a shorter workweek has been shown to be beneficial. Shorter workweeks tend to lead to higher life satisfaction overall, and they tend to be more common in countries with better gender equality—not to say shorter workweeks cause gender equality, but there is a correlation.

Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-hour Workweek suggests shorter working weeks as a solution to the fact that our working lives are stretching longer as we live longer and healthcare improves. Working fewer hours per week for more years could make our working hours more sustainable and yield more overall work, while being less damaging to our health.

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How to Cut Your Working Hours and Still Get Everything Done

If you’re overworked and you want to cut back, you might be wondering how to go about it. It’s not necessarily as easy as just leaving early or not working on weekends anymore. If you’re worried about getting everything done while working less, try these techniques.

Use the Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle was initially used to describe how 80% of the land in England was owned by 20% of its citizens. It’s since been used to describe how, in almost any pursuit, 80% of the outcome comes from 20% of the efforts.

In business, this is a fantastic principle to put to work, because it helps us identify the efforts that give us the biggest return, and spend our working hours more efficiently.

To figure out your own “20% efforts,” simply track how you spend your time at first. For one or two weeks, write down on a sheet of paper what you do each hour of the workday. At the end of your tracking period, look over how you spent your time and identify anything that didn’t give you a good return (for instance, reading industry newsletters for two hours that you didn’t find useful, or networking for two days without making any new meaningful relationships).

Then, look for the efforts that you know gave you a great return. Look for where most of your new customers are coming from, where your biggest chunks of revenue are coming from, and where your biggest opportunities for growth are.

Now, the trick is to find more time for those high-return activities, and drop the time spent on low-return efforts. You might even find you can drop your working hours by 20% in a week simply by cutting out those low-return activities. But you’ll be even better off by increasing time spent on high-return efforts.

Identify the underlying cause of long hours

Elizabeth Grace Saunders, author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money suggests looking for the reason you’re overworking, so you can fix the underlying cause. If you find, for instance, that you’re spending so much time in wasteful meetings that there’s not enough time left in your week to do meaningful work, identifying that reason will help you adjust your meeting schedule.

Or perhaps your company has a culture of overworking. This kind of habit can creep in and proliferate among employees without you realizing. But once you’ve noticed it, you can actively work to ensure everyone works a healthy number of hours and doesn’t feel guilty for going home on time.

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Front-load your planning

Another reason you might be overworking, says Saunders, is unplanned activities taking up your time. If you’re getting caught up in helping colleagues, unplanned meetings, or extra work that piles onto your to-do list during the week, you might find that you end up working extra hours at the end of the week to make up for these distractions.

Saunders suggests front-loading your week to avoid that problem. Stack up your most important work on the first few days of the week, and push non-urgent tasks to later in the week. If colleagues ask for a quick chat or suggest an impromptu meeting, ask if they can push it to later in the week. That way, it won’t stop you getting through what you really need to get done.

You can also do this on a daily basis, planning your most important work for the day in the earlier hours, so it’s out of the way early and afternoon interruptions won’t keep you working late to finish those tasks.

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Fill your free time with non-work activities

Finally, if you struggle to let go of overworking, or you find you’re thinking about work even if you’re not there, you might need a (healthy) distraction.

If you’re planning on cutting down your working hours, Saunders suggests filling that time with healthy, fun activities to take your mind off work and help you reset in-between working hours.

You could plan fun activities with friends or family, sign up for a sports team or join a class, or spend time taking in the parts of your local area you’ve overlooked.

Overworking is such a part of our culture that many of us don’t even see it as overworking anymore. We’ve spent so long believing the fallacy that extra hours equal extra productivity, that we’ve fallen into a pattern of working longer than is healthy, and not even realized we’re not necessarily getting any better output for our efforts.

Overworking is bad for our health and our productivity. If you’re working more than 50 hours per week, you’re likely wasting most of that time that could be spent in more healthy ways away from the desk.

Do you struggle with working too many hours? Have any tricks to make sure you’re off the clock on time? Or have you merely surrendered to the round-the-clock lifestyle? Let us know below!

  • Justin Baeder

    Superb article from a great writer and productivity expert! I think there’s a great deal to be said for figuring out what most needs to be done, and when to best do it, and rejecting the idea that logging long hours is the only option.

    Because of my kids’ school schedule, and my commitment to stop working at 5pm so I can spend time with my family, I rarely work more than 8 or 9 hours a day. Yet I feel incredibly productive when I’m doing the right work at the right time, e.g. creative work in the morning, email at night, and so on.

    I also think we should give ourselves permission to step away during the day to do something else—going to the gym mid-day for the last six months has cut into my work time, but it’s been incredibly good for me.

    And yeah yeah, easy for me to say as someone who doesn’t have a regular job, but I’m thinking of this as an employer, too. Why expect everyone to clock traditional hours if that has very little relationship to the demands of the work itself?

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