It seems intuitive: When the work piles up, we drive up the number of hours we put in. But what if those additional working hours aren’t doing us any good? New research shows why we should manage our energy, not our time, and harness those moment of “unfocus” for good.
Books like The 4 Hour Workweek have tapped into our desire to be more efficient (“work smarter, not harder,” anyone?) but when it comes down to it, our first inclination is to put the pedal to the metal. We strain and stress ourselves with more hours dedicated to work. Then, instead of ending up with that promotion or actually getting it all done, we get stomachaches, headaches, have trouble sleeping, and develop chronic pain or stress.
On top of that, we actually become less efficient—tasks that should take a few minutes turn into hours, and we tack on nighttime or weekend hours to compensate. We work straight through, without a lunch break, without getting up from our computers, thinking we’re just doing what needs to be done to get the outcomes we want.
In reality, the typical 8 or 9-hour workday is not conducive to productivity. A recent study found that the average worker experiences 87 interruptions over the course of a workday. 87. No wonder we feel unfocused and unproductive!
Something’s gotta give—and it’s our need to cling to the mantra that more is better. In a 2014 study, the social networking company The Draugiem Group found that the top 10% of employees with the highest productivity didn’t put in longer hours than anyone else. Often, they didn’t even work eight-hour days.
Instead, the key to their productivity was that for every 52 minutes of focused work, they took a 17-minute break. Yep, resting, stepping away from the computer and doing something to shake up your brain, is actually what facilitates productivity.
#RestIsTheNewHustle, people. And this really isn’t news: In 1951, a study from the Illinois Institute of Technology found that scientists who spent 25 hours per week in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent just five.
The takeaway? We need to listen to our bodies better. We need to start prioritizing down time in our workdays to actually get more done. When our brains toggle between focused and unfocused time, they become more efficient, says Srini Pillay, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time in 2 Easy Steps
In order to make the most of our focus and energy, we need to embrace downtime. And that can look any way you like—be it sitting and thinking, taking a nap, going for a walk or meditating. But it has to be as important to you as your work time. Protect that space like it’s a doctor’s appointment or a meeting.
- Break your day up into 45-minute dedicated work periods. Cut out distractions like emails, your phone and co-workers, and do your “deep work” during these spurts.
- When you finish your dedicated deep work period, take a break. Actually. Step away from what you’ve been toiling over and doing something totally different (that doesn’t mean check your email). You brain needs that decompressing time to recalibrate, be creative and work smarter.