Some Thoughts about Productivity and the 40 Hour Work Week

By Florian Hämmerle

Lauren Mancke on Unsplash

One thing I really care about is productivity, and one thing I hate is busyness. Being busy doesn’t equal being productive. Actually, busyness kills productivity.

Too many people spend too much time being (or looking) busy instead of being productive. At some companies you can’t leave your workplace before 5pm, no matter if you still have something useful to do at 4pm or if you’d rather call it a day and come back to the office the next day. You stick around doing nothing or at least nothing that will make a difference.

The same thing is true for the morning. Although coming in late seems to be more ok than leaving early. Our society has agreed on being in the office for 40 hours per week is how things should work. Who said that 40 hours is the magic number of hours one should and can do productive work? 
So what people end up doing is being busy for 40 hours every week. But that doesn’t mean that we actually perform productive work for 40 hours. Studies show that we’re maybe able to do around 5 hours of productive work each day. This — in the best case — leaves us with roughly 15 hours of sitting around every week. And you prefers sitting around in the office to sitting on the porch or spend time in the nature or with their family?

Although, I have to admit, sometimes it’s tempting to spend a few extra hours on an interesting task and, along the way, to neglect other, less interesting tasks. We should take a step back and look at what we’re doing more closely. Tell someone they have three days to complete a task that actually should not take more than one day to complete. Do you think they’ll come back after one day and tell you all is done? Rarely this happens but what you’ll notice after doing this with some more people is that they’ll come see you after three days to tell you they’re done. Do you think you’d have found them twiddling their thumbs? Probably not, but they might not have been completing the task in an efficient way either. This behavior is so common that it even has its own name — Parkinson’s Law:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

It’s not as if those people were sitting on their hands for two days. Maybe they even came back to the task a few times and refined it after they had already completed it. Or they took the remaining time to research some new technology or reading up on the topics they’re interested in. The point is, they were busy, but not very productive. Just think back at the last time you did exactly the same thing. What was it and what could you have done that would have been more productive?

But is this really how we want to do work? I mean, I like to research new technologies, play around with libraries and frameworks I come across, but I usually don’t do it in the office — with the occasional exception of Fun Friday. I like to research those things in the evening when I do not have any other plans and enjoy time on the couch or sitting on the balcony. And I believe that spending time at the office is only valuable when doing work in the team. Although I like my office and spend a lot of time there, I don’t think the same is/should be true for all people. When someone’s done with their tasks for the day or just has some other stuff on their mind and isn’t able to do productive work they should leave the office and do something that calms them down or gives them fresh energy to tackle whatever comes their way personally or professionally. Leave your workplace and go for a walk, prepare dinner with your partner, meet friends, or do whatever else you enjoy doing in your free time. Regenerate. Reflect on a productive day and treat yourself with something. You’ll come back to your desk the next day more energetic and ready to tackle the next task. Stay in the office just you look busy and you’ll not be as productive the following day.

It’s also a nice experiment to artificially shorten the time available to complete a task — often a simpler solution is found and the outcome is most of the time as good or often even better than if one or two more days had been available. Take a task that should be completed in three days and challenge yourself or your team to find out what would need to be done in order to be able to complete it in two days, or even one.

At Better Things Digital, we try to find the sweet spot and encourage people to find their own balance between focused work and some additional time researching new technologies, taking a look at things they’ve worked on the days before and maybe do a little refactoring. Talking about the personal well-being is also an important part of our bi-weekly retrospectives. We value good work — that’s where our name comes from — but we also deeply care about good work-life balance. You could call it Better Things Life. 
Is your mind somewhere else or the weather is just too nice to sit in the office? Go get out of there, do something that eases your mind or spend the rest of the day not thinking about work but doing something relaxing. You might even find yourself coming back to your original task at an unusual hour of the day, completing it in a fraction of the time it would have took if you’d stayed in the office.

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