Less Hours, More Focus Leads to Higher Performance

There is an argument that employees can be more productive by working fewer hours and taking more time for rest and renewal during the work day.

At US company, the Energy Project, they’ve tested this assumption over the years by progressively reducing the number of hours they ask employees to work.

They report that, “Our hours are truly 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and we encourage all employees to take an hour off for lunch, away from their desks. If people want to take a nap or work out during the day, we support that.  We don’t expect them to send or reply to email in the evenings or on the weekends.  We provide five weeks of vacation for first-year employees, and seven weeks for those who’ve been with us more than five years.”

So How Do They Do?

They admit that each time they’ve opted to give their employees more time for rest and renewal, they’ve wondered anxiously if they have finally gone too far.  But every year since 2009, their revenue and profitability have significantly increased.

This approach is effective for the same reason that interval training is an efficient way to work out. You get more accomplished by working intensely for short periods and then refueling than you do by working continuously over a long period of time.  None of us can operate continuously at peak levels for very long.  There is also other research that mutli-tasking at work reduces rather than improves performance - better to focus on one thing, take a break and move to another.

When Are We at Our Best?

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel in economics for his work in behavioral economics, conducted one of the most fascinating studies in this area. Along with several colleagues, Mr. Kahneman set out to study “diurnal rhythms” — those that occur at predictable times every day — among 909 working women. The goal was to assess whether the way people felt was correlated with the time of day.

The most compelling evidence turned out to be around fatigue. Among a dozen feelings including “happy,” “competent,” “hassled” and “worried,” “fatigued” was far and away the one most strongly correlated to specific times of day.

Interestingly, most respondents in the study experienced the highest level of negative emotions in the mornings, but also the most energy and the greatest feelings of competence. Energy and competence peaked around noon, and then both declined steadily until bedtime.

In short, the longer subjects were awake, the more fatigued they became and the more incompetent they felt.

So What to Do?

It makes us think that our preference for half-day workshops and training sessions, mostly in the morning, has some merit and is founded on more than our intuition and untested experience over many years.  We have come to realise that full-day workshops are hard to sustain to the end.  We lose some people mentally or physically as the full day progresses.

But there is an antidote to fatigue and its impact on competence. Not surprisingly, it’s rest. Among 16 potential daily activities — including eating, praying, relaxing and exercising — taking a rest break had far and away the biggest impact on reducing fatigue.   So what are the implications for how we ought to work most efficiently?

Here, the work of K. Anders Ericsson, one of the foremost researchers into expert performance, is relevant. In his most well-known study, Mr. Ericsson found that top violinists practice in intense, relatively short intervals, first thing in the morning, for no longer than 90 minutes, followed by a break. They almost never practice more than 4½ hours a day.

In short, the best violinists do all of their hardest work in the mornings when they have the most energy and the fewest distractions. In the afternoons, the best violinists regularly take a rest (sometimes a nap), averaging 20 to 30 minutes. They also report that rest breaks  — and sleep — are among the most important things they do to improve as violinists.

Mr. Ericsson studied a sample of just 30 violinists, so his findings are not conclusive. But other researchers have found almost precisely the same practice and renewal patterns among athletes, chess players, artists, scientists and writers.

Lessons for Leaders

The lessons for leaders are surprisingly simple.  Actively encourage your people (and do it yourself) to”

1. Do their most challenging and important work as soon as possible in the morning, when they have the most energy. If their highest energy is in the evenings, and they have flexibility, save their hardest work for then.

2. Focus in the most absorbed way possible when they are working and then take a break at least every 90 minutes to refuel their energy reservoir. Any activity — like deep breathing, reading a novel, talking with a friend or taking a walk — can be effective. The key is choosing something they find restorative.

3. Always have lunch, preferably away from their desk or normal workspace.

4. If they can, take a rest no longer than 20 to 30 minutes between 1pm and 4 p.m.  It will give them a surge of energy — and potential productivity — for the rest of the afternoon. If a rest period isn’t possible, simply closing their eyes for a few minutes can still be a source of modest renewal.  This may seem strange in some organisations with a macho culture, but there is evidence to show that it increases rather than decreases productivity and satisfaction.