Part 1 of this article describes in detail the decline of personal productivity. Part 2 will provide some practical solutions.

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 2007. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

In summary, there are signficant reasons why personal productivity is declining. Part 2 of this article will suggest strategies to fix the problem.

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