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I don’t have enough time!!!

The most common expression I hear from my clients and colleagues and friends is “I don’t have enough time,” or “I can’t seem to get everything done.” They are often amazed by the people who seem to be super productive without become workaholics.

Productivity, or the lack of it, seems to be a widespread personal and organizational problem.

At the organizational level, the emphasis on employee engagement levels, which is another way of defining productivity, has been a focus of many Gallup polls, other research and management fixes. At the personal level, the focus has been on work-life balance, workaholism, and stress.

A closer examination of the issue of productivity surfaces several important perspectives:

  • The applied definition of productivity
  • The relationship between productivity and working hours
  • The impact of technology on productivity
  • Our scattered and over stimulated lives
  • Solutions to the personal productivity problem.

The definition of productivity

The dictionary defines productivity as “the quality, state, or fact of being able to generate, create, enhance, or bring forth goods and services.” Since the industrial revolution began, we have equated productivity with other concepts and beliefs—progress and growth. The success of our free market capitalist system and economic prosperity has since been based on structural systems and habits that require unending economic progress and growth. Yet we are now beginning to realize that our obsession with economic growth and productivity is in fact creating huge problems, and economic growth is the cause of them. It requires a constant increase in the flow of raw materials extracted from the planet to be turned into goods, services and waste. The more we grow, certainly using current economic thinking, the more resources we need to use and the more pollution we create. Our definition of productivity takes a positive perspective, not indicating it has detrimental effects. Hence our belief that productivity is good, and anything that can enhance it is good. But what if productivity was bad? What if the bad effects outweighed the good?

Productivity and Working Hours

The industrial revolution’s factory model of work ushered in the use of humans as virtual slave labor for the average worker (but not their wealthy owners), with 12 and 14 hours working days for six and seven days a week. Soon the 40-hour workweek became the base upon which the workplace was structured. As global economic competition increased, productivity-working hours were assumed to be the driver of economic success. Indeed the concept has been integrated into accepted measurements such as GDP and GNP, none of which measure human well being or social factors. And while the 40-hour work week for a while became the norm, in part due to government policies and the power of unions, the norm has slowly been eroded, most notably in North America and Asian countries. But not in many European countries, where the work week has been reduced.

In the late 1700’s, Benjamin Franklin predicted we’d work a 4-hour week. In 1933 the U.S. Senate passed a bill for an official 30-hour workweek, which was vetoed by President Roosevelt. In 1965, a U.S. Senate subcommittee predicted a 22-hour workweek by 1985 and a 14-hour work week by 2000. None of those predictions have come to pass. In fact the opposite is true. The number of hours people work is increasing.

Working hours in North America and the U.K. have steadily risen in the last 20 years. A DIT research report found that 1 in 6 employees now work more than 60 hours a week. Full time employees in the U.K. work the longest hours in Europe and a British Medical Association report found that 77% of consultants work more than 50 hours a week and 46% more than 60 hours.

According to U.S. Census and CPS data, the number of employed American men regularly working more than 48 hours per week is higher today than it was 25 years ago. Using CPS data from 1979 to 2006, this increase was greatest among highly educated, highly-paid, and older men, was concentrated in the 1980s, and was largely confined to workers paid on a salaried basis. A new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) confirms that on average, people in the U.S. are putting in 20 per cent more hours of work than they did in 1970. It also shows that in the same period, the number of hours worked in all the other industrialized countries, except for Canada, decreased. The average work week in the U.S. is 54 hours according to a Sage Software Survey. In an average week, only 14 percent work 40 hours or less. One-third work 50-59 hours a week, and 80% work between 40 and 79 hours according to a 2006 study of 2,500 Americans. In Japan, in contrast, annual work hours declined 17 per cent and in France they declined by 24 per cent. In general, a third of all American workers could be viewed as chronically overworked in 2004, according to a report by the nonprofit Families and Work Institute in New York City.

According to the Harvard Business Review we often feel the need to respond to work related communications after hours due to ambition, pride and proving that we’re valuable to our companies.

So in many ways we have begun to accept overwork or workaholism as a necessity to drive productivity. At what cost?

In the U.S., and Canada workaholism remains what it’s always been: the so-called “respectable addiction” that’s dangerous as any other—whether or not they hold jobs. “Yes, workaholism is an addiction, an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it’s not the same as working hard or putting in long hours,” says Bryan Robinson, PhD, one of the leading researchers on the disorder and author of Chained to the Desk and other books on workaholism. Workaholic’s obsession with work is all occupying, which prevents workaholics from maintaining healthy relationships, outside interests, or even taking measures to protect their health.

So who are these workaholics? According to several research studies, there is no typical profile, although Baby Boomers are more susceptible to being workaholics than Generation Y workers. Most workaholics are successful. And workaholics are more likely to be managers or executives, more likely to be unhappy about their work/life balance and work on average more than 50 hours per week. They neglect their health to the point of devastating results and ignore their friends and family. They avoid going on vacation so they don’t have to miss work. And even if they do go on vacation, they aren’t fully present because their mind is still on work.

It’s been my experience in working with many firms, particularly large ones, that overwork is the norm. In a society where job dedication is praised, workaholism is an invisible addiction. Work is at the core of much of modern life. If you work excessively you can be both praised in the corporate world, and criticized because of a lack of work-life balance.

Workaholism is like a badge of courage for many. Professionals are working harder than ever and the 40-hour work week is a thing of the past. Workaholism is a reflection of our culture’s embrace of an extreme ethos. For many professionals, work is the center of their social life and friendships.

Personal connections, once made exclusively through family, friends and civic organizations, are now made in the workplace. In conversations with executives and employees alike in the boardrooms and lunchrooms I have visited, the most common comments I hear are phrases such as “I’m up to my neck in alligators,” or “I can’t keep up,” or “not enough time.”

The phenomena of overwork can’t be blamed entirely on employers and bosses. Laura Vanderkam, author of What Most Successful Do on the Weekend, contends many workers lack the self-discipline to set proper boundaries between work and their personal lives. Many report a feeling of being needed or important by overwork.

Studies suggest that over a third of all American workers anticipate eating lunch at their desk on a regular basis, and more than half of us expect to work even when we’re on vacation.

Does More Working Hours Mean Greater Productivity?

Not according to research. Economists for some time have argued working longer hours would negatively affect productivity. John Hicks, a British economist was one of the first in the 1930s to look at the issue ), and concluded that productivity declined with increases of working hours.

John Pencavel of Stanford University showed in his research  that reduced working hours can be good for productivity. The study found that productivity declined markedly after more than 50 hours per week. His study also showed that the absence of a rest day (such as Sunday) damaged productivity.

Research by the Draugiem Group, a social networking company using a time-tracking productivity app called DeskTime, conducted an experiment to see what habits set their most productive employees apart. They found the employees with the highest productivity didn’t work longer hours than anyone else. In fact, the study showed that these people didn’t even work full eight-hour days. What they did instead is to take regular breaks (17 minutes for every 52 minutes of work). Other studies have shown that 90 minutes of continuous work without a break reduces cognitive performance. What is critical about the breaks was the focus—these productive people did something totally unrelated to work, rather than checking email, phone messages or other tasks. Instead, they took a walk, read a book, meditated, engaged in social talk.

A study published in theAmerican Journal of Epidemiology shows that long working hours may have a negative effect on cognitive performance in middle age.

There’s more proof that working more hours per day doesn’t translate into greater productivity. In Greece , the average number of hours worked per worker is among the highest in the OECD, second only to Korea, yet the economy there has ground to a halt, partly because problems in worker productivity. In contrast, economies in Germany and Sweden are robust where workers work considerably fewer hours.Across the world’s richest countries, higher productivity correlates with lower working hours (see also OECD data).

Longer hours have also been connected to absenteeism and employee turnover. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention even has an entire website devoted to the effects of long working hours even if workers aren’t paid for this extra time.

A survey  from UBS has shown that the French continue to work the least amount of hours per year in the world. People work an average of 1,902 hours per year in the surveyed cities but they work much longer in Asian and Middle Eastern cities. People in Lyon and Paris, by contrast, spend the least amount of time at work according to the global comparison: 1,582 and 1,594 hours per year respectively. Nationmaster ranks France as #18 in terms of GDP per capita, at $36,500 per person, yet France works much less than most developed nations. They achieve their high standard of living while working 16% less hours than the average world citizen, and almost 25% less than their Asian peers.

Mexico—the least productive of the 38 countries listed in 2015 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—has the world’s longest average work week at 41.2 hours (including full-time and part-time workers). At the other end of the spectrum, Luxembourg, the most productive country, has an average workweek of just 29 hours.

The United States ranks fifth, according to the OECD, contributing $68.30 to the country’s GDP per hour worked, countering claims that Americans are the most productive workers in the world. America put in more hours—33.6 per week on average—than all four of the European countries with higher productivity rankings.

Employers at Ernst & Young found that for every additional 10 hours of vacation time an employee took, their yearly performance review improved by 8%—plus, they were more likely to stay with the company. Even small, daily changes can make a world of difference; night air traffic controllers who were given 40 minutes to nap during their shift exhibited improved vigilance and response times.

Dr. Marilyn Paul, author of An Oasis in Time: How a Day of Rest Can Save Your Life, compares hard work to running sprints. Being super productive for a few hours is like sprinting—during that time, you’re using abnormally high amounts of energy (or cortisol) to meet your goal. Just as no one can sprint nonstop, no one can be constantly under stress; you need time to rest and regenerate before you can run your next mile, so to speak.

The Impact of Technology on Productivity

Technological progress was assumed to have driven productivity and economic growth. Yet, there is evidence  that it hasn’t contributed greatly to our standard of life. Between 1991 and 2012 the average annual increase in real wages in Britain was 1.5% and in America 1%, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a club of mostly rich countries. That was less than the rate of economic growth over the period and far less than in earlier decades. Other countries fared even worse. Real wage growth in Germany from 1992 to 2012 was just 0.6%; Italy and Japan saw hardly any increase at all. And, critically, those averages conceal plenty of variation. Real pay for most workers remained flat or even fell, whereas for the highest earners it soared.

It seems difficult to square this unhappy experience with the extraordinary technological progress during that period, but the same thing has happened before. Most economic historians reckon there was very little improvement in living standards in Britain in the century after the first Industrial Revolution. And in the early 20th century, as Victorian inventions such as electric lighting came into their own, productivity growth was every bit as slow as it has been in recent decades. This failure of new technology to boost productivity (apart from a brief period between 1996 and 2004) became known as the Solow paradox. Economists disagree on its causes. Robert Gordon of Northwestern University suggests that recent innovation is simply less impressive than it seems, and certainly not powerful enough to offset the effects of demographic change, inequality and sovereign indebtedness.

Technology has allowed workers both at work and at home, through the use of smartphones, tablets , email, and instant messaging to be “on” and available at all times for work, even outside of working hours. And increasingly, people are working on vacations or not taking vacations at all, particularly in the U.S.

Our Scattered and Over Stimulated Lives

John Robinson, one of the leading researcher on the issue of time use, says the biggest problem we have today is not “not having enough time,” it’s that our lives are so fragmented, over stimulated and interrupted. Ed Hallowell, best selling author of Driven to Distraction , argues that we have a “culturally generated ADD.” In other words, there are so many distractions and stimuli, we are losing our ability to focus.

Many studies have shown that most workers are frequently interrupted at work. Top CEOs and executives can be interrupted as often as every 20 minutes.

And research has shown that for every interruption it takes an average of 25 minutes to fully regain your cognitive focus. Dr. Gloria Mark, associate professor at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, found that average information workers are interrupted every three minutes – nearly twenty times per hour or seventy-three times every day. And the average manager is interrupted every eight minutes. Interruptions include telephone calls, incoming email messages, interruptions by colleagues, and crises. On average, most of us experience one interruption every 8 minutes or approximately 6-7 per hour. In an 8-hour day, that totals around 50-60 interruptions in the day. The average interruption takes approximately 5 minutes. If you are receiving 50 interruptions in the day and each takes 5 minutes, that totals 250 minutes, or just over 4 hours out of 8, or about 50% of the workday.. Cognitive studies on interruptions show that an interruption requires immediate attention and action and most of us allow and even encourage interruptions to take place and to take precedence over other tasks. We often respond quickly to these interruptions, as it gives us a feeling of closure, knowing we may not have to address this issue in the immediate future.

And what about multitasking?

The evidence is pretty clear that multitasking is not efficient and takes a severe toll on productivity. No two tasks can be done at the same time with 100% efficiency. As multitasking increases, our ability to distinguish between what is relevant from non-relevant declines. You’ve likely heard that multitasking is problematic, but new studies show that it kills your performance and may even damage your brain. Research conducted at Stanford University  found that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. The researchers also found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time. What’s interesting is the research conducted at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night. IQ drops of 15 points for multitasking men lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year-old child. Finally, it was long believed that cognitive impairment from multitasking was temporary, but new research at the University of Sussex found that multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control.

Strategies To Increase Productivity By Working Less, Taking Breaks, Controlling Disruptions and Developing a Personal Control System

I focus on what matters – positive affirmation words on a slate blackboard against red barn wood

  • Shorten your to do list. Many of us unconsciously keep adding things to do in our lives, without deleting any. So make an extensive list of the things that don’t really matter in your life (that is essentially just busyness), and delete them, so you can make more room for the things that really matter in your life;
  • Make a NOT TO DO list. List the things you don’t want to do and take action, then check them off so you can see them visually as something accomplished.
  • Change your have to do list to a love to do list. Prioritize all the things you do and make sure you commit corresponding time and energy to them rather than less important things. Spend time on the things related to your most important values;
  • Rest in a do-nothing state. There is plentiful research evidence to show that doing nothing in a restful state (where there is nothing to accomplish) strengthens your state of being, rather than doing, and can enhance your energy levels and creativity;
  • Learn how to say no and guard against energy vampires. Workplace culture often requires that you sacrifice time for others, whether that means acting as a mentor or maintaining an open-door policy. The benefit to others’ productivity often comes at a cost to your own. Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, recommends extreme selectivity as a check on your desire to always be accommodating. McKeown likes to ask people to imagine they have no to-do list, no inbox, no schedule of appointments. While it’s nice to be able to help people and be the “go to” person at work, if you’re efficient, and get your to do list done, people will notice and readily ask you for help. Learning how to say no to requests is critical for maintaining your physical and mental health;
  • Eliminate or seriously reduce multitasking. The research evidence is pretty clear on multitasking—it reduces productivity and cognitive functioning. Replace it with what has been termed “single tasking”—doing one thing at a time with complete focus. Learning how to mediate can help immensely;
  • Learn how to live in in present. This is an essential part of mindfulness. When we occupy our minds with thoughts and emotions by rehashing the past, hoping to change it, or constantly thinking about the future, particularly what could go wrong, we increase stress levels (including cortisol in our bodies) and become less productive. Focusing on the present moment and what you can do only then is the answer;
  • Measure progress daily and stop measuring your worth by what you accomplish. In her book The Progress Principle,  Teresa Amabile emphasizes progress (moving forward with one’s work) over productivity (getting things done well and efficiently, irrespective of their importance). A sense of making meaningful progress, she found, has much greater positive impact on engagement and motivation. Her latest research suggests that the simple act of looking back on progress also positively affects your sense of accomplishment and how competent and effective you feel at work. Francesca Gino, also an HBS professor, asked some employees at an Indian company to spend 15 minutes at the end of each day writing about what had gone well. The group that took time to reflect had a performance level 23 percent higher than that of employees who spent those last 15 minutes simply working. If reviewing incomplete to-do lists brings us down, it appears compiling have-done lists bestows a sense of satisfaction and enhances performance;
  • Manage your energy, not your time. This concept is taken from Tony Schwarz’s book, The Power of Full Engagement,  where he argues that ensuring your energy levels (physical, mental and emotional) are more important than trying to manage time to fill in all you want to do in life;
  • Stop writing down, visualizing and telling everyone about your goals. This may sound counterintuitive, because we’ve become brainwashed with the conventional wisdom of goal setting. Yet there was no research to show that writing down goals translates into success. And visualizing your goals being accomplished is more hype promoted by self-help gurus than motivational;
  • Schedule breaks in your daily work (17 minutes), ideally every 52 minutes or even less. Use a timer as a reminder;
  • Schedule everything in your calendar rather than creating to do lists. Scheduling has the added impetus for you to confront what you have to do, rather than burying it on some hidden to do list. This includes scheduling your free time.A study was conducted at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology in Taiwan found  a positive relationship between free time management and quality of life;
  • Plan your day in reverse. Start with your desired ending time (eg: 5 pm), and then calendarize all you want or have to do in reverse order including free time. This also gives you a greater sense of control over your work life as opposed to reacting to time demands as they appear;
  • Take regular vacations or sabbaticals. A 2010 survey indicated that the average American accrues 18 vacation days and uses only 16. More than forty percent of American workers who received paid time off did not take all of their allotted time last year, despite the obvious personal benefits, according to “An Assessment of Paid Time Off in the U.S.” commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group, and completed by Oxford Economics.The average French worker takes more than twice the vacation time. To some, this statistic encapsulates the difference between American and European workers. Americans believe they are productive and Europeans are lazy. In fact, it’s the opposite. Europeans understand that breaks improve workplace efficiency. Americans mistakenly believe that more hours will always increase output, while ignoring the clear evidence: The secret to being an effective worker is not working too hard. Not taking vacation time is a bad idea, as it harms productivity and the economy. Those are key findings of a new study (link is external)released earlier this month. One of the most watched Ted Talks by Stefan Sagmeister, who takes a sabbatical every seven years and describes the incredible benefits.Make the beginning of your day the most productive. Tim Ferris author of The 4 Hour Work Week  recommends not checking email for the first hour or two of the day. Dan Ariely, co-founder of Timeful, a time management app, and the New York Times bestselling author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions,  says you have 2-2.5 hours of peak productivity every day. You may actually be 30% more effective at that time. He argues most people are productive in the first two hours of the morning.
  • Control your email habits. Some organizations, particularly in Europe, have taken action to restrict internal emails for employees to address their negative effects on productivity. Other studies how shown how attending to emails throughout the working day occupies up to 30% of the entire working day, but does not actually result in productive work. A study by the French business watchdog company ORSE found that reading useless email messages damaged concentration, as it took more than five minute to refocus on the task at hand. A study  by the University of California, Irvine, which was co-written with United States Army researchers, found that people who do not look at e-mail on a regular basis at work are less stressed and more productive. A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of ten points on an IQ test. It was five points for women, and fifteen points for men. This effect is similar to missing a night’s sleep. For men, it’s around three times more than the effect of smoking cannabis.
  • Become a master in regulating your emotions. Research shows how you start the day has an enormous effect on productivity and you procrastinate more when you’re in a bad mood. Researchers  found that employees’ moods when they clocked in tended to affect how they felt the rest of the day. Early mood was linked to their perceptions of customers and to how they reacted to customers’ moods;
  • Develop a personal system that simplifies things, is routinized and reduces decision fatigue. Roy Baumeister, author of the New York Times bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,  argues every decision you make depletes your self-control. Having too many choices or decisions to make depletes willpower and afterward your self-control is impaired. Personal organization guru David Allen, author of best seller, Getting Things Done, has great suggestions on a personal system;
  • Engage in mindfulness practices. Mindfulness has been shown in research  to help people be calmer, more grounded, handle stress better, improve emotional regulation and cognitive functioning.
  • Focus on developing good habits, and eliminating bad ones, rather than one-time goals. Learn how to integrate your goals within your habit system.

We need to redefine productivity. Unfortunately, it has become synonymous with busyness. We are seduced by the cultural norm of measuring productivity as the goal of “getting all the work done.” So we invent the checklists or to do lists, and excessively focus on what hasn’t been done.

What if productivity was defined not be describing what we get done but by doing things we want or love to do. Or by defining it by doing things well, instead of fast. What if we decide to take control over our lives and value time off, vacations and doing nothing as strategies for improving our productivity. Wouldn’t that create a different kind of life?

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