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Can You Get More Done by Doing Less?

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Productivity systems, journals, planners, books, apps and more are all the rage. In a world where minimalism, being present and slowing down are also trendy, people still seem to be intensely interested in being more productive. We’ve made a fetish of staying busy and getting stuff done.

What if the key to getting more done is, in fact, doing less?

Author David Rock coined the term “neuroleadership” while thinking about the intersection of brain science and good leadership and management. His research led him to consider issues such as how to maximize our mental resources and better manage distractions. 

The trap of busy-work

Rock’s 2009 book Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long tackles the productivity question from a workplace angle. Starting with a typical 40-hour workweek, Rock found that we spend about 34 hours of that week on stuff that makes us feel busy and drains us of energy but isn’t actually accomplishing anything. For Rock, getting more productive stuff done is simply a matter of stopping the energy-draining busy-work that wastes our time. Doing less will help us accomplish more.

There’s support for Rock’s ideas from the halls of academia, too. Author and Stanford University visiting scholar Alex Soojung-Kim Pang put it this way in his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less: “Busyness is not a means to accomplishment, but an obstacle to it.”

What the research says

John Pencavel, Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research at Stanford University, published an April 2014 paper called The Productivity of Working Hours. 

Pencavel studied munition workers in 1915 and 1916 and tracked their productivity compared to the number of hours they worked. Instinct might suggest that the longer the munitions workers worked, the more productive they were. Research showed that was true, but only to a point. Up to a particular threshold, more work meant more productivity. Beyond that point, the rate of productivity dropped off as working hours went on. In the academic language of the study, this meant that: 

Long weekly hours and long daily hours do not necessarily yield high output and this implies that, for some employees engaged in certain types of work, their profit-maximizing employer will not be indifferent to the length of their working hours over a day or week.

Now, one could argue that this is a rather obvious result. We intuitively know that the longer we work, the more tired we get and the less productive we are. Intuition is one thing, though. Pencavel’s research lends academic research-based authority to that idea. There is one problem with Pencavel’s study. The hours threshold that he researched was around 48 hours a week. Beyond that point, productivity dropped off. 

The doing more by doing less school of thought of today is not talking about the need for us all to stop working after 48 hours per week. They would — with hearty support from the rest of us — set that tipping point much lower. Of course, those munitions workers in 1915 and 1916 were working during exceptional times: World War I. 

Is it how long you do it, or what you do?

Productivity is not just tied to how long one does something, or how many things one does. A study by researchers from the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick has found that happier people are more productive. Their paper, called Happiness and Productivity Experiments, revealed that happier people worked harder and were 12 percent more productive than the less happy people. 

To sum it up: Do less distracting busy-work to allow yourself to be more productive in less time. Do more of what makes you happy. And if you’re making munitions, stop after 48 hours every seven days. Unless, of course, that’s what makes you happy. 

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