Human brain has been researched thousands of times. Let’s look at the facts:
- We all have limited amount of mental energy to spend during our workday – scientists prove that if you overspend your resources on wrong tasks or don’t take breaks, your mental energy, supporting creativity and critical thinking, is easily and faster depleted. Brain is a muscle, and like every muscle, tires from repeated effort.
- Our brains work best at intervals – 60-75 minutes of working windows should be followed by 15-30 minutes of a break. Remember school where each class was followed by a break? As you had to change classrooms, you never worked in the meantime. It’s key that you move around, go grab a coffee outside, have a chat with a friend. Scientists prove that working exactly 52 minutes followed by 17 minutes of a break is optimal – but let’s treat this as a guideline and be more flexible.
- Women are great at dividing their attention, but multitasking doesn’t work – and leads to spending more mental energy as you switch from tasks. Don’t move until the next task until there is nothing else you can do to complete it to stay focused.
Long workdays with few or no breaks to recharge simply don’t work – is it time to go back to school? Click here for part II and tricks to make it work. It’s only a metaphor – and refers to any job (whether 8 or 12 hours long) that makes your creativity, focus and well-being decrease with and over time. When you do things you love and recharge before you feel exhausted you can work 15 hours and feel absolutely fine! I travel extensively for work and it regularly happens than I wake up before 4am and am back in my hotel room around midnight. That’s where I learnt how to keep my energy levels high – and apply it whenever I’m in the office as well.
Throughout my career I had jobs where I had to work regular office hours. In the beginning it was the normal 9am-5pm, a couple of years later 8am-6pm, and then I added travelling making it difficult to track, but 60+ hours weeks became a norm. At that time I still didn’t know there were ways to deal with that and I kept on working with very few breaks, often sacrificing sleep. I didn’t have to wait long (6 months or so) before I noticed I’m running out of energy, drive and passion – even though I loved my job. This is when I started looking for alternatives: I simply could not continue like this, and felt on the verge of being burnt out at the age of 28. And I wasn’t the only one.
I wondered – how can you get to the same – or better – results, and yet have energy to enjoy your after-work life? Is that the luxury we should sacrifice? Why are so many of us dreaming of taking a sabbatical very early in our careers, or fantasize about leaving it all behind – even if we have jobs we like? And most importantly, how do we sustain creativity and enthusiasm that is the foundation of every successful company?
Companies of the future: marrying well being with success
Think about Virgin and Richard Branson who never followed the traditional path. He introduced a company policy allowing his employees to take as much vacation time as they want to, and to work from anywhere. They would be then evaluated based on how well they performed, not where they were while doing it. The moment I read it, I thought I should apply for a job with them (as did many of you I suppose!). Wouldn’t such an environment be much more productive?
Less eccentric, still inspiring: look at the leading global corporations like Facebook or Google. They had found a way to attract top talent and more importantly, to retain it. How do they do it? By allowing flexibility, not following the traditional hours regimen. I also got lucky as I work for a company that recognizes this and supports all sorts of creative solutions.
Make no mistake: even the greatest companies are no charities and these are purely economic decisions based on plenty of scientific data. By allowing and encouraging flexible working arrangements, we get to the core of the most efficient solutions and our productivity peaks. It works.
Here is the trick: many of their staffers actually work longer than they would otherwise have.
As people are the foundation of every successful organization, and replacing talent costs more and more, it’s simply wise to make sure they stay once they’ve accumulated knowledge and expertise.
Does it always work?
I know it can be tricky, too. Not everyone will be disciplined enough to work without supervision, and some will relax too much. You have kids at home and you can’t focus? Do you stay in bed too long? Cleaning instead of working? It happens. You will always find people complaining about finding discipline when you don’t have to go to the office – they are usually entrepreneurs without an office and would welcome more of a working environment. That’s the other extreme and that’s why so many shared office spaces have been developed.
I believe that the solution is to set goals, and then measure people according to how they deliver against those goals instead of counting hours spent at the desk.
During my trip to California 2 years ago my friend Michele took me to Facebook’s HQs. I was amazed by all the amenities on their campus (it feels like a student village). A variety of restaurants, a gym, massage and games rooms, dry cleaning. They also have manually height-adjustable desks and treadmill workstations – if you want to move while working.
More importantly, they have designated relaxation zones where you could take a nap or read a book, and are encouraged to take 20% of their time off their projects and work creatively. They don’t need to leave work to relax. As a result they work longer on average.
Her friend, a senior finance director who spent years working there with a brilliant career, when asked about his routine, admitted to either coming later or taking a longer lunch break to accommodate his fitness routine. He was indeed in a good shape, and said that his philosophy was to look for a win-win. If they hired him to do the best job he can, he needs to make sure he himself feels and performs at his best, otherwise something will suffer. That’s why he was diligent about finding time to take care of himself and his family.
I spent 2 years working in a very competitive environment of London City and one thing is certain – if you don’t deliver, you won’t stick around for too long. If your health deteriorates and you can’t perform, you will be eventually replaced. That’s why it’s in your best interest, as well as your company’s, to make sure you stay at the top of your game.
Trust & productivity myth
As I was struggling with my own routine and oftentimes loss of focus, I looked closely. I was in a culture where if you showed up at work after 8am you were jokingly greeted with ‘good afternoon’, where almost everyone would be eating lunch at their desks and rarely taking breaks. How do you then stay focused? It’s against common sense. Coffee and sweet snacks seemed to do the trick.
The problem seems to be two-fold: a combination of trust issues and the underlying productivity myth. Despite all the data available
we still assume that ‘being at work’ means ‘working and getting things done’.
Likewise, we assume that when someone works from home they surely end up being distracted and are doing laundry, working from bed or taking a nap – but not working.
Richard Branson’s policy addresses both as he believes that his employees will get their work done, wherever they go. It’s not only Virgin, I bet you can find examples around you. It’s never black and white, but much more often, when you are happy with your job, you want to work more. You want to keep that job! If you feel valued and respected, you want to contribute to its success and feel a part of it.
I’m often inspired by my partner who is an expert in his field, in addition to being a very diligent and dedicated person by nature. He spent several years working for a global consulting firm, and as such is no stranger to the most extreme working arrangements. My idea of how he works shifted as we started dating and would spend more time together.
He had a senior position and lots of responsibilities but I noticed he wasn’t anxious about going to work early in the morning. He would wake up very early but spend his mornings at home, finding time for a proper breakfast, gym a couple of times a week, or a morning newspaper – and would always reply to most important emails as soon as possible. He would stay on top of his to-do list, but allowed himself the flexibility to do it from home.
As such, he was rarely tired, and even though he regularly worked in the evening or on the weekends, he almost never felt overwhelmed. He managed his energy really well. Others trusted him as he delivered on his projects and managed his team well – it became a norm that no one questioned. He is still a role model for me showing how to manage trust and productivity issues. When he changed jobs, he started doing exactly the same and it worked.
6-hour workdays in Sweden
This has been well understood in Sweden where several companies, followed by local authorities, introduced 6-hours working days to increase productivity and prevent burnout, in addition to helping accommodate private lives.
They argue that it’s virtually impossible to stay fully focused for 8 hours, so if you factor in all the breaks you make to stay at work, you could do the same amount of work in 6 hours. That’s why employees are blocked from social media, limit their breaks to the minimum and knowing they only have 6 hours, work much more efficiently.
Daniel Bernmar, leader of the Left party on the city council running the program said: “We’ve had 40 years of a 40-hour work week, and now we’re looking at a society with higher sick leaves and early retirement. We want a new discussion in Sweden about how work life should be to maintain a good welfare state for the next 40 years.”
The Economist 1843: Why it pays to work less
Scientific American: Tough Choices: How Making Decisions Tires Your Brain
Ariana Huffington: Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Happier Life