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.
I don't know about you, but there are days - especially in the lazy days of summer! - when I really struggle. It'll be approaching 4-o'clock and I'll be wondering where the time has gone and what I have to show for close to a day's work (and then panic at the thought that I only have a few hours left to "catch up" before my daughters get back from nursery).
There are times when I feel so swamped and buried in the "stuff" that I am terrified that I'm not actually moving forward in any meaningful way, and wonder if I am doing enough. And it's during these moments of (mini) crises that I go back to my data.
See, a while ago (7 years to be exact), I got sick of wondering and wanted to know. I remembered a fantastic New York Times article (I highly recommend reading) that talked about the data-driven life. So I started to track my stats. I set myself daily, weekly, and quarterly targets and then tracked how I was using my time against those targets (in the early days, I used Excel, now I use Toggl and can't recommend it enough).
And doing so changed everything. It gave me a concrete and objective picture of where my time was actually being invested. I could look back at a day, a week, a year, and see exact percentages and numbers of minutes being invested in business development, marketing, speaking, admin, etc. And I could use those stats to hold myself accountable against the targets I had set.
Simple and powerful. And most important: objective.
Because, the thing is, we are often the worst at assessing ourselves. And we often get it wrong when we are guesstimating or appraising off the top of our heads. We suffer from recency bias. And availability bias. And self-preservation bias. We judge our performance based on what has just happened, what we can recall (and we forget a LOT), and we tell ourselves stories to make ourselves feel better ("I have been working soooooo hard and soooooo much!").
But the reality is often different to what we imagine. When I started objectively measuring what I was doing each day, what I learned surprised me. It still does. In some instances, I was way ahead of my game (a few years ago, I was having a really bad week so wanted to see where I was going off track... and you know what? I wasn't off track at all. I had hit 50% of my targets for the YEAR by May!). And in other cases, I was doing far less than I thought (when I was starting my first business, I was making shockingly fewer calls to partners and clients than I thought I was. No wonder things weren't moving as quickly as I wanted back then).
The data changes everything: practically, emotionally, and energetically.
When we are ahead, wouldn't it be great to know that? We can breathe a little easier, we can stop stressing (a bit) about how much always needs to be done, and we can maybe even celebrate our successes or pat ourselves on the back (crazy, I know!).
And when we are behind, isn't the data morale boosting in a counterintuitive way too? If we aren't seeing progress, isn't it better to use the data to tell us whether that's because we're not investing enough time on the important things or if it's because we're spending too much time on "low value" things? Isn't it better to know if the flaw is with the process or with the execution?
The data gives you answers. The data helps uncover solutions. And the data makes it easier to know, instead of guess.
Business and success and growth don't happen by guesswork. And that's the beauty of the data-driven life: you swap the confusion of wondering with the power of knowing. And knowing is half the battle.