We often hear of the benefits of working less: our body is naturally wired to work in short bursts and when we give our mind room to breathe we generate new ideas and connections. We are not always measured by the widgets we can make, so does it make sense that our working hours are more inspired by the industrial age than the information age?
Every week we come across blog posts and essays from workers who have claimed to dramatically cut their hours. Metalab founder Andrew Wilkinson writes in Pando Daily about making the transition from working 80-hour days to less than 40:
Paradoxically, the more I let go, the more things seemed to take off. Short workdays forced me to focus on the important stuff instead of dicking around in my inbox, and I quickly learned to delegate the day-to-day. I started working smart instead of working hard.
Developer and entrepreneur Kyle Bragger wrote about a similar effect:
What did The Hustle™ accomplish? I gained weight. I wasn’t spending enough time with my (now) wife. I felt like shit. I began to resent my work, and the work I was producing clearly wasn’t my best. I started cutting corners. I went from a mindset of shipping with quality and integrity to “when is this going to be over?”
Nowadays, I’m working 4-day weeks, and doing no more than an hour or two of intense work at a time. I take a lot of walks. I’ve lost weight. I’m happier. My wife is happier. I’m more present. And most importantly:
I’m doing the best work of my life.
Yet we still come across other entrepreneurs or creatives that pride themselves as overworked. Not everyone who works long hours is a trail blazer. But it can seem like every trail blazer works long hours. A 2012 profile of Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk offers a glimpse into this mindset:
Freeing mankind from the scourge of carbon, not to mention its terrestrial shackles, has taken a toll on Musk’s personal life. In August he finalized his divorce from his second wife, the actress Talulah Riley. He’s had one vacation in four years. This summer he took his five boys—twins and triplets—to Maui with his family. “I think the time allocated to the businesses and the kids is going fine,” says Musk. “I would like to allocate more time to dating, though. I need to find a girlfriend. How much time does a woman want a week? Maybe 10 hours?”
To truly change the world do we need to put in vacation-less years like Musk? Or should we concentrate all of our work in 35-hour weeks like the developers above?
Entrepreneur, weightlifter, and travel photographer James Clear shares his simple visualization to help us lead a balanced life: a bucket.
Imagine that your health and energy are a bucket of water. In your day-to-day life, there are things that fill your bucket up. These are inputs like sleep, nutrition, meditation, stretching, laughter, and other forms of recovery.There are also forces that drain the water from your bucket. These are outputs like lifting weights or running, stress from work or school, relationship problems, or other forms of stress and anxiety.
Clear says that if we want to keep your bucket full, we have two options:
- Refill your bucket on a regular basis. That means catching up on sleep, making time for laughter and fun, eating enough to maintain solid energy levels, and otherwise making time for recovery.
- Let the stressors in your life accumulate and drain your bucket. Once you hit empty, your body will force you to rest through injury and illness.
Recovery is non-negotiable: you can recover on your own terms or on the terms burnout sets when it inevitably catches up to you. The choice is yours.
“It’s easy to miss the real point of our lives even as we’re living them,” writes Arianna Huffington in her book Thrive. “And it is very telling what we don’t hear in eulogies.” Those things include making senior vice president, sacrificing kids’ Little League games to go over those numbers one more time, or my personal favorite: “she dealt with every email in her inbox every night.”
“You never hear, ‘George increased market share by 30 percent,’” Huffington said at a recent event at Soho House in New York City. What you do hear in eulogies, she says, are stories of “small kindnesses.”
It’s well known that details make good art great. Subtle word choices separate great poets from amateurs. Small flourishes define superlative architecture. Tiny considerations make products world-class (“Jobs spent days agonizing over just how rounded the corners should be,” writes Walter Isaacson about the Apple II in Steve Jobs).
I think the same can be said about building a great business. Tiny considerations in the interactions companies have with their customers are all about focusing on people before profits—and, paradoxically, this can yield huge returns. This is the mentality that Wharton professor Adam Grant talks about in his research on corporate “givers” versus “takers.” In various now-famous studies in his book Give and Take, Grant has shown that the most successful people in the workplace tend to be the ones who give selflessly to others without expectation of returned favors. Research by Jim Stengel, former global marketing head at Procter & Gamble, shows that this also works at a corporate level. Businesses “center[ed] on improving people’s lives outperform their competitors,” he writes, after studying a decade of market performance of fifty thousand brands.
In Thrive, Huffington argues that power and money have too long been life’s main yardsticks of success, and that we should measure our achievements instead by four new metrics: Wisdom, Wonder, Well-Being, and Giving. If the eulogy test is an indication, Giving is likely the most memorable of the four.
“It’s tempting to reserve the giver label for larger-than-life heroes such as Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi, but being a giver doesn’t require extraordinary acts of sacrifice,” Grant writes in Give and Take. “It just involves a focus on acting in the interests of others.”
This is an excerpt from 99U’s new book, Make Your Mark. It features 21 essays and interviews on building a creative business with impact, including the full text of this essay by Contently co-founder and journalist Shane Snow.
His approach is built on the Pareto principle, which holds that 80 percent of your results come from 20 percent of your efforts. Arrange the layout of your work day by front-loading, so that you’re executing the meat of your workload when you’re freshest and firing on all cylinders.
A few favorites from his suggestions:
Schedule your day the night before. Every day, you should list all your tasks and when you’re going to do them the following day. You will not be productive unless you plan out everything you’re going to do the next morning. Quick tip: Don’t schedule too much. Keep your to-do schedule light to actually accomplish real work.
Make 60-second decisions. Decision making is a time-draining vortex. When you’re faced with a decision in the course of your work, give yourself a one-minute limit. Your decision will be just as good, but it will take less time.
Do your writing early on. Writing is one of the most mentally demanding tasks. However, writing also has the power of focusing your brain and improving your productivity. Do you writing early in the day, and you’ll improve both the quality of your writing and the rest of your day.
Reward yourself at a certain time. Set the clock–a countdown timer if you have to. At a certain point, you’re going to stop. So, stop. Break out the kazoos, throw some confetti, and do your happy dance. It’s time to reward yourself.
What better motivation than a refreshing mid-day break and the knowledge that you’ve drilled through the bulk of your workload? You’ll be primed to zero in on the remaining 10 percent.
Conventional wisdom holds that the higher echelons of any industry are populated by people who never quit. But writer and designer Sarah Kathleen Peck suggests that quitting is not only OK, it can be richly constructive.
In a post on Medium, Peck describes what she learned from observing her enduring pattern of enthusiastically starting projects, pausing partway through, and beating herself up for failing to ship:
What was happening? Why was I quitting? Life happened. Things got hard, they got rough: deadlines built up. Real work pulled me in. The need to take a run and take care of my body surfaced. The competing pulls of attention and focus and deadlines wrapped me in their compelling arms. But something else was happening, too. Ten days of paper-crafting…led me to building an entirely new online program of my own.
Skimming the lessons in a business-building mastermind opened up a new way of creating sales pages. Reading half of a book propelled me into my next project. And then it hit me: what if I was getting exactly what I needed?
The idea is that quitting can beneficially lead to embarking on a different project that’s informed and nourished by the abandoned one. Peck suggests that it’s possible the ego is the only part of ourselves that actually cares about finishing, at least when it comes to exploratory creative work:
You don’t have to do everything to get something out of it…. No one said you have to get 100% done and be perfect to enjoy the fruits of your progress.
If you’re working on something that’s not beholden to someone else’s deadline or parameters, don’t finish for the sake of finishing. Quit to see what space you’ve opened up for something even greater.
On the commentary track (around 5:11) for Pixar’s animated film, WALL-E, director and writer Andrew Stanton discusses how the creative process can sometimes lead you to unexpected places and hard decisions:
I always sort of always equate story development to an archaeological dig, in that you kind of know the dinosaur you want to dig up and where it is. You pick a piece on the ground and you start digging and you bring up bones and you start trying to piece together this dinosaur or the story you’re trying to find, but you just don’t have much say about which bones you’re going to get and what bones they are…
Stanton understands that sometimes everything about your dig will point to a tyrannosaurus rex. Then at the last minute you’ll dig up something and realize all your bones were backwards and you actually have a stegosaurus. He asks the hard question: do you shift everything around at the last minute to show a stegosaurus or do you just force it to be a tyrannosaurus rex?
Even if it extends the deadline, it’s better to realign your project then to force it to be something it’s not. When the creative process takes your concept for a spin, go with it. Stanton concludes, “I am very, very lucky that I work for a place that encourages last minutes ideas.”
Jason Norcross, executive creative director at advertising agency 72andSunny, knows that when you have too many ideas or options, it’s easy to overanalyze every option before making a decision. In an interview with Fast Company, he says the best option is just to pick one and see what happens:
The best way to learn, create and move forward is to be decisive. It’s OK to be wrong, but make a decision because then you’ll learn. At least you’ll know you’re wrong and can move on. As opposed to just over-thinking and debating things… If it seems like it’s meeting the brief and it’s the right thing to do, then pursue it. If it doesn’t come to life for whatever reason, then reboot and go in a new direction.
When you spend so much time trying to decide what the best direction is, you burn people out and stop making progress. No one has time for that. Select an idea that fits the solution and leave time to try another idea if it doesn’t work out. If something is going to fail, it’s better to find out sooner than later so you can change direction.