Some time ago I watched a TV programme on Work-Life balance, that reported that the UK’s “always-on” attitude to work is damaging to our mental and physical health. The programme was largely focused on small business owners, and these health issues were also presenting even in people doing work that they loved.
What was interesting was they showed a software programmer who moved from London to Denmark, with the same employer, doing the same work, who was able to be just as effective in significantly fewer hours. The different attitude to work and working hours meant that he achieved pretty much the same output in normal business hours there, as he had in much longer hours in London.
The contention from work psychologists is that when we work fewer hours we are more focused, sharper, physically in better shape, more relaxed, and less resentful, so we produce better work in those hours we are at work. This, I am sure, is down to Parkinson’s Law – that work expands to fill the time available for its completion.
I know when I was in corporate life I would regularly face stiff deadlines. And at a certain point in the day, I’d say to myself: ‘I’m really going to struggle to get this done by 5:00pm – I’m going to have to work late, or take it home to do it.” And the moment I made that decision, my work-rate dropped, because I knew I had an effectively unlimited time to complete the work (relatively to the size of the task, anyway). After a while, I began to expect to work late, and so my overall productivity dropped – “Oh, I can always work late.”
Now, while it’s true that some of the time there really was too much work to complete it between 9-5 (though I suspect fewer and shorter smoke breaks might have helped, I was a 20-a-day man back then), generally there was plenty of time to stay on top of it all during normal working hours.
But over time, the smoke breaks, the chats round the coffee machine, and indeed the perfectionism born of a lack of time constraints, meant that my performance during the day dropped, and it was regularly made up by working into the evening. So I can fully believe that it is possible to get as much done in seven hours as most of us currently do in nine.
As a business owner, I am fortunate that my work and home life are mixed. I wouldn’t have it any other way, it suits me to have it like that. But it is important that they are truly mixed, rather than simply allowing my home time to be swallowed up by business. So when I have a task to complete, I decide how much time I am prepared to allocate to it, and I make sure that it gets done within that time. OK, admittedly there are times when my estimate of how long it will take is way off, and I have to schedule in some additional time, but even then, I stick to the new time slot.
By setting effective boundaries in this way, I ensure that I get to spend more of my time doing stuff I enjoy – whether that’s formally designated as ‘work’ or ‘play’, because to a very large extent, it’s all just ‘life’ to me.
So my challenge to you this week is: where are you allowing the availability of extra hours to mean that you are ending up ‘working’ longer than is good for you?