It seems many Americans are born hard-wired with the belief that productivity requires time. There are no shortcuts for a good, Puritan work ethic. It's the American Way, after all. We love stories of companies who started with nothing and worked like dogs to become massive successes. The Sam Waltons, the Bill Gates—these are true American heroes.
Self-sacrifice has almost always gone hand-in-hand with entrepreneurship and small businesses. We're capitalists, and he who works the most makes the most money at the end of the day. Or so it would seem.
Yet Europeans have always seemed to have taken a different route when it comes to the work/life balance. Germans on average work around 1,436 hours per year, versus the 1,804 hours Americans work. With those numbers it would be easy to conclude that Americans do more and would be more productive in the workforce.
But we don't. Studies show that Germans get roughly the same amount of stuff done in fewer hours each week, and with more vacation time.
We Didn't Used to Be This Way
The situation with the economy hasn't helped our obsession with "hard work." With tightened budgets and a scarce job market, simply keeping our jobs is a major worry for many Americans. Spending longer hours at the office might keep us off the chopping block for another day.
Author Thomas Geoghegan believes that Americans weren't always this overworked. In an interview, Geoghegan explains that in the 1960's, Americans spent more vacation time than they do now, and many people in their 50s or 60s will tell you that they take less vacation time than their parents did.
So why did we become such workaholics? And why do Germans have better productivity and more vacation at the same time?
Less Social, More Work
In the same New York Times article, another commenter noted that Americans view time as a currency in the workplace, as opposed to output. Meanwhile, Germans view results as the biggest indicator of results. Americans tend to spend more time socializing at work, while Europeans are less social but leave quickly after work.
"In the U.S., hanging out by the coffee machine and having a few minutes to talk while you drink your coffee is normal. So yeah, the workday is longer in the U.S., but it is also more relaxed. Longer, however does not mean more productive. About the same amount of productive work gets done in either case."
Our American work atmospheres are considered more relaxed and more social, while German workplaces put emphasis on quality, individual work time, then leaving promptly after work.
One American who was working as a manager in Germany described German workers as more individual and closed off, whereas Americans tend to "meet it to the death" when faced with problems. Oftentimes Germans will work remotely and take more time off during the day, resulting in more focused, individual work sessions that yield higher results.
It's no shock that Americans have too many meetings. We view time. Germans have learned that meetings and productivity don't mix.
Federally Mandated Vacations
Germans have six weeks—that's weeks, not days—of federally mandated vacation time a year. As an American, I can't even fathom what six weeks of vacation time would feel like.
American companies provide vacation time as benefit packages, and vacation time is a major factor in negotiating contracts. But as small business owners, we're responsible for bringing in the bottom line. There is no negotiation of contracts. Really, vacation time is seen as a bonus to meeting or exceeding expectations.
In Germany, vacation time isn't used as much as a bargaining chip or a luxury. It's a federally mandated right, a way of life. And therein lies the difference: Americans view vacation as a bonus, Germans view vacation as a necessary aspect of life.
Fear of Job Loss Isn't As Big
"How am I going to be pay for X?" is one of the first things people think about when they worry about losing their jobs. Oftentimes we'll take positions we normally wouldn't because of benefits offered by the employer.
The German government tries to alleviate a lot of these worries by providing many for free. The government provides citizens with free healthcare, free university education, and childcare. For many Americans, many of the things that are given freely to Germans are our biggest worries. Healthcare alone is a massive thing to worry about, and makes up one of the biggest cuts into our income.
Germans don't have as many things to worry about paying for each month, which allows them to focus more on things like productive work instead of monthly expenses.
Not Just Clocking In
Geoghegan believes Germans understate their work hours, and Americans overstate work hours. Yet both countries are getting roughly the same amount of work done. This means that Germans are actually doing more, while working less. This is probably because Americans tend to see long work hours as a badge of accomplishment.
In a recent study by Expedia, it was found that 31 percent of U.S. adults won't use all of their paid vacation days. In 2008 it was estimated that three vacation days were left unused for most American workers. We clearly view time spent on the clock as incredibly important. So important that we won't even take paid vacation.
Americans often see working as "clocking in"—that it's enough to simply put in the hours. This is why we're more likely to socialize at work. Often we treat it more like a social atmosphere, and less like a workplace. After all, it is where we spend a third of our day.
If you really want to be productive at work and capitalize on vacation time, block things out. Make sure you're getting stuff done. When we start to take pride in our work and view it less as a boring routine and more as an occupation, we see better results.
Let's take a cue from our German friends and start measuring work output by results, not time spent in a chair. And enjoy life!
Glen Stansberry is the co-founder of Howdy, a way for small business sites to improve site conversions. You can find more of Glen's business insights on Wise Bread, the leading personal finance community dedicated to helping people get the most out of their money.