For most of my adult life, anytime I set myself a target or wanted to grow my business, I threw hours at the problem. I figured if I worked hard enough and long enough that anything I wanted to do would get done.
And to some extent I was right. There is a positive correlation (albeit one that gets looser under investigation) between hours and output. But it took a phone call with a friend and fellow entrepreneur to illuminate the industrial-era fallacy behind “working harder”.
More often than not, we don’t need to work harder and more, but smarter and less.
Now, many of us can probably recall times when we have been grinding out work and burning the candle at both ends and running on fumes and [insert-hard-work-metaphor-here], because we think we have to, or our work culture dictates that we do, or we don’t know another way.
But the thing is, that hours-for-output mentality doesn’t make sense anymore. Sure, in the industrial era there was a direct and necessary relationship between the number of hours input and the number of widgets produced. If you wanted to make more things, you had to put in more hours to make those things.
And we got so used to trading hours for output that even when our economy evolved, our way of working stayed the same. We tried to pretend that what served us in the 1800s would continue to serve us now. But it doesn’t.
Many of us are not in the business of making actual things. Most of us operate in a service-based or knowledge-based environment, but we still cling to old ways of working that are actively counterproductive and a colossal waste of time and effort. And even those of us who do make things do so under vastly different conditions to what existed in the Industrial Age.
For example, “face time” in the office tells us we “should” arrive at a certain time and “should” leave at a certain time, regardless of how productive we are in between. Most people (I would venture to guess) end up padding their day with coffee breaks, chit-chat, scrolling through social media, busy work, whatever they need to do to be visible for long enough until the boss goes home. What a wasteful charade.
Or those 100-hour weeks that are the expected norm in a lot of companies? They’re often counterproductive and dangerous. There are measurable and diminishing returns to working that long for any sustained period. Our minds simply can not and will not function optimally without rest, and our performance will suffer and accidents will happen.
And yet we continue to think we need to do more, more, more, more and work longer, longer, longer, longer to achieve.
But what if instead, we worked less? What if we chose to prize working smarter over working harder?
In the 21st Century, in the service- and knowledge-based industries in which most of us operate, the industrial approach to work simply doesn’t make sense. And to create sustainable businesses – that we can live long enough to sustain! – we need to escape our industrial era mindset.
I am not saying we should be lazy or slow, but that we are thoughtful about the work we do and that we question why we are doing what we are doing, and that we always ask ourselves if there is an easier, better, simpler way, or if we are just creating work to justify our salaries and assuage the industrialist lurking inside.