What do Americans spend more time doing than anything else? Working. Research shows that almost 86 percent of men and 66 percent of women in the United States toil for more than 40 hours per week. As a comparison, we work 137 more hours per year than our Japanese counterparts.
As for vacation days, compared to every country included in recent surveys (except Canada and Japan), we rank the lowest: We take an average of just 13 paid vacation days per year, compared to 20 paid vacation days in the UK and 30 in France and Finland. In fact, America has been dubbed the "No-Vacation Nation." As Rebecca Ray and John Schmitt report, the U.S. is the only advanced economy that doesn't guarantee its workers any paid vacation or holidays.
Are all these hours mandated by the requirements of running a business? Not necessarily. Some of this busyness is self-imposed—many people take on added work and obligations voluntarily.
"They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety," contends Tim Kreider in his New York Times article "The 'Busy' Trap," "because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence."
The Downside of Busy
Whether we work long hours because our business demands it or whether it's by choice because of our ambitions or fears, the busyness craze can be detrimental. It's true that you can derive short-term gains by working a 60- or 70-hour week—for example, when you're pushing extra hard to meet a critical deadline. But this should be for a short period only—cultures of midnight oil aren't sustainable in the long run.
Several studies prove, for example, that working more than 40 hours per week makes you less productive. In "Bring back the 40-hour work week," Sara Robinson shows that the drive to work long hours is a useless practice. As she states, "Increasing a team’s hours in the office by 50 percent (from 40 to 60 hours) does not result in 50 percent more output ... In fact, the numbers may typically be something closer to 25 to 30 percent more work in 50 percent more time."
If you've fallen into the busyness trap, for whatever reason, you need to extricate yourself and your employees as quickly as you can. Here are eight ideas to help you:
Reward Results, Not Hours
If you're a business owner with people reporting to you, think about the role you play in encouraging employees to put in excessively long hours at work. Most bosses view those who spend long hours at the office more favorably than those who don't, according to the results of a UC Davis study. In the study, all 39 managers who participated considered employees who spent longer hours at work as responsible, dependable, committed and dedicated.
But this mindset harms people: It pushes them to neglect their health and sacrifice a lot of family time. It also prevents them from becoming more efficient, from finding ways to complete their projects without having to work 60 or 70 hours.
People want to compete, to get ahead, to be viewed favorably. Change the metric for how they can achieve this by getting the message across to everyone that success in your shop is measured by results and not hours clocked.
Determine How You Compare With Others
Use this handy BBC Tool to discover how you compare with the average working person across 34 developed nations. It might be sobering to see what the results reveal about your work schedule.
Then use this information to make some changes in how you operate. For example, conduct a time audit to see where your energies go. What can you drop, or improve, to shave some hours from your schedule each week? What meetings can you avoid? Do you have to read all emails? What can you unsubscribe from? Do you have to be available 24/7 to clients' demands? Can you replace some of your travel with teleconference calls? Do you have to attend every work-related event that happens outside office hours?
Stop Bragging About How Busy You Are
Scientific studies at Harvard University reveal why we like to brag so much. It turns out that when we brag, we experience the same pleasure sensation that we derive from food and money. And while we may frown on people who brag about money or possessions, it's acceptable to brag about how busy we are. Bragging about being busy has become an unconscious habit for many. The new status symbol isn't a Rolex or a Tesla—it's how busy we are.
If someone asks how you're doing, is your habitual response likely to be that you're extremely busy? Think about how you feel when you tell others how busy your life is. Does it give you a special status? Every time you do it, you reinforce the habit. If you stop the fix it gives you, it might prompt you to make some healthy changes to your lifestyle.
Incorporate Rest Periods
Most people are good at planning their workday from hour to hour, without any thought to incorporating a rest period between activities and events. Instead, get in the habit of deciding in advance how you'll break up your work during the day to re-energize. Some ideas include reading for 10 minutes, watching a TED video, catching up on social media, meditating, listening to music, going for a walk (even if it's around the office) or doing a few brief stretching exercises.
Own the Choices You Make
Many aspects of our life involve choices. So does busyness. You have a choice to lessen the noise in your life in many different areas. For example, you don't have to fight every little battle with the same intensity. Nor do you have to waste time on unproductive communication. In his video "Teaching Leaders What to Stop: Aren't I Smart and Aren't They Stupid," Dr. Marshall Goldsmith estimates that about 65 percent of all communication is wasted talking about how smart we are and how inept others are.
What about the way you spend your leisure time? If you find yourself flicking on the TV every night because you no longer have any energy left, drop this harmful pattern.
In Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, author Brigid Schulte writes, "With the flick of the TV’s remote, our thinking brains shut off. Within thirty seconds, we lose our sense of self, and our alpha waves become no more active than if we were staring at a blank wall.”
Add space in your life, space for picking up a non-business book to read, space for going for a daily walk, reflecting or practicing a quiet hobby you enjoy. Make room for the joy of idleness on some evenings or weekends. Take time to play whatever game makes you happy. Making a conscious decision to let go of a frenetic way of being is climbing a rung on the maturity ladder. Give it a try for a month and see what happens.
Split Your Day Into 90-Minute Windows
If crazy schedules aren't something you can avoid right now, then at least be smart about the way you work. Here's a popular idea, recently reintroduced by Leo Widrich, co-founder and COO of Buffer. In his article, "The Origin of the 8 Hour Day and Why We Should Rethink It," Widrich recommends working in 90-minute spurts. Productivity experts tell us that working in 90-minute chunks allows us a comfortable amount of time to get work done before we tire and need a break. Limiting yourself to 90-minute periods can prevent you from depleting your energy and running on empty until you stop your day's activities.
Pay Attention to the Most Important Job in the World
Parenting is the most important job you'll ever have. If you happen to be a parent, read what Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce have to say in "Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek." Fifty-eight percent of overachieving professionals the authors surveyed believe that working long hours gets in the way of strong relationships with their children. The research shows that extreme jobs requiring a 70-hour workweek affect the well-being of children. The list of problems revealed in a global survey includes watching too much television, acting out, discipline issues, eating too much junk food and underachieving in schools. This is the price of life on the edge.
Put a Price Tag on Your Well-Being
Studies reported by Occupational and Environmental Medicine conclude that working long hours increases a person's chances for illness and injury. The research shows those who logged in 12 hours a day working experienced a 37 percent increase in risk compared to those who worked fewer hours. Risks include hypertension, cardiovascular disease, fatigue, stress, depression, chronic infections and diabetes, to name a few.
What is your well-being worth to you? The late Maya Angelou once said, “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it.” Do you like how your hectic lifestyle is making you feel when no one is looking? If not, take time to define what success means for you. It might surprise you to find that your vision of success isn't aligned with how you really live your life.
Ultimately, it's about living a whole life. If you need more motivation, reading the obituaries might be a good start. As author David Levithan puts it, “If you start the day reading the obituaries, you live your day a little differently.”
Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd. and the author of two books, Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.
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