We hear the old adage all the time: don’t work harder, work smarter! Fine. I’m not opposed to hard work, but the phrase “work smarter” implies working less, or less hard, and getting better results by doing do. That is certainly an attractive idea. But I know I can’t magically make myself smarter. So what does “work smarter” really mean, and how exactly do you do it? Can you really get better results at work by working less?
Two examples help answer these questions—one from professional services, one from professional sports.
According to a 2009 survey of over 600 workers in the United States by the Society for Human Resource Management, 70% of employees work beyond scheduled time—staying late, taking work home, and working weekends. Over half cite “self-imposed pressure” as the reason. In certain industries, the numbers are even more dramatic.
Harvard Business School researchers Leslie Perlow and Jessica Porter surveyed 1,000 people in professional service firms (management consultants, lawyers, investment bankers, and such) and found that nearly half worked over 65 hours per week, not including nearly 25 hours spent on Blackberrys outside the office. Work is the top priority, with personal time a far distant second.
“They believe an ‘always on’ ethic is essential if they and their firms are to succeed in the global marketplace,” write Perlow and Porter in their ground-breaking four-year study, the results of which were published in the October 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review.
Having worked with and for a number of such firms and professionals, I know that this is indeed the prevailing mindset. But is it true?
The research by Perlow and Porter seems to confirm just the opposite, that not working can yield better work. In the experiment, members of a dozen four- or five-member consulting teams at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) were required to take “predictable time off” every week, defined as one uninterrupted evening free each week after 6 p.m.—no work contact whatsoever, and no Blackberrys.
The downtime was awkward for many, nerve-racking for some, and a few fought the idea, fearful of poor performance ratings or more weekend work. The goal was to teach people that you can tune out completely for a time and still produce great work.
It worked. BCG internal surveys showed that within six months, consultants were more satisfied with their jobs and work-life balance, and more likely to stay with the firm, compared to those who weren’t part of the study. Too, BCG clients told Perlow and Porter that the teams turned out better work, in part due to “more open dialogue among team members” and that “the improved communication also sparked new processes that enhanced the teams’ ability to work most efficiently and effectively.”
It worked so well that BCG is now rolling out the strategy across the firm.
But can the strategy work in sports, where training actually demands a progression in workload over time?
Lance Armstrong might say yes. He struggled to win his fifth straight Tour de France in 2003. He had run out of hours in the day to train, and throughout the spring he had spent too much energy shedding the previous winter’s weight gain. So, in preparation for his 2004 attempt at an unprecedented sixth Tour victory, Armstrong and coach Chris Carmichael came up with a new way to train.
After examining the previous year’s regimen, they concluded that old-school methods lacked specificity, which resulted in inefficient training. Riders would stay in the saddle for six hours or more, but at intensity levels over or under the optimum level needed to yield desired gains. They figured that, with more precise goals for each workout, only four hours might be needed to accomplish what once took six. The extra time on the bike wasn’t needed or helpful and just led to fatigue and longer recovery periods—it was just plain waste.
So they targeted the inefficient training and inconsistent dieting. They used specially engineered wattage meters designed into the training bike to accurately gauge when specific workout goals and power levels had been met. Armstrong revamped his diet to match the needs of his training regimen, which better provided him with the necessary nutrition for health and performance, without the excess calories that lead to unwanted weight gain.
The results? Armstrong had more time to recover, which in turn allowed for higher-intensity training within a much shorter time frame. His streamlined program also gave him more personal time and more flexibility to handle his active media schedule without compromising his preparation or performance. He went on to win not just the 2004 Tour, but also 2005’s. Seven consecutive Tour de France wins is likely a record no one, including Lance Armstrong himself, will break any time soon.
If you think about it, Armstrong got a lot better results by working a lot less at exactly what he was hired to do: ride a bike.
Both examples help prove the point that working longer and harder can lead to diminishing returns, and that there’s certainly something to the old adage.
So stop working harder and start working smarter!
Matthew E. May is an innovation consultant and the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. He blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.