Productivity hacks are some of the most highly sought after bits of know-how in the personal growth arena. A simple Google search of the phrase, for example, turns up 1.17 million results. It’s even given rise to a plethora of content on the “cult of productivity.”
Given this immense popularity, it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of conflicting advice on how to get the most things done in the least amount of time.
Two of the biggest myths on productivity are that it’s about getting things done in the first place, and that longer working hours lead to higher productivity. These two myths alone often contribute to a fundamentally misdirected approach to both personal and workplace productivity.
In many cases, the consequences of this go far beyond just being unproductive; they contribute to higher stress levels, bad work-life balance, and even burnout. Here’s why.
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The reason why we often feel overwhelmed and underproductive at work isn’t always because of the work itself. It’s often because we’re not approaching productivity the right way at work and in life.
David Allen, bestselling author of “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” posits that productivity isn’t so much about getting things done. Instead, it’s more about whether or not you’re appropriately engaged with your task list.
Stress and subpar productivity at work often occur because you don’t have the psychological space and mental clarity to be at your maximum productivity. That’s because you’re mentally overloaded with information and to-do items all day long, seven days a week.
Hence, your brain and body respond by either entering high-stress hurricane-busy mode, or by numbing yourself to it. Either way, you find your attention scattered everywhere instead of focusing. You also probably feel like you’ve lost control of your life.
The solution, according to Allen, is to have a sound system in place for everything that needs to be done:
Longer working hours are traditionally associated with higher productivity. As it turns out, though, the numbers tell a different story.
Science shows that even the most highly trained minds can only maintain a maximum of 4 hours in high-focus mode. Given that high-focus mode is responsible for the completion of most valuable work, it seems that the remaining 4 hours of the average workday are largely unproductive.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics, for one, found that in an average 8-hour workday, people are only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes (as reported by Inc.)
It seems that there is an inverse relationship between working hours and productivity; the more time people spend at work, the less productive they are.
In Singapore, though, working hours are still generally long despite gradual improvements over the past few years. A 2015 survey by ManpowerGroup, for instance, found that Singaporean millennials worked the second-most longest working hours in the world, tying with Mexico and China at 48 hours a week.
However, the problem isn’t that we don’t know or care about long working hours. In most cases, it comes down to working cultures that still equate longer working hours with higher productivity.
According to a 2016 survey by recruitment consultancy firm Morgan McKinley, 6.5 out of 10 Singaporeans “felt obliged to work longer than their contracted hours,” even without overtime pay (as reported by AsiaOne.)
There is a better way, though. When web application firm Basecamp trialed a 4-day work week one summer, it found that people still finished the same amount of work despite having one less work day. People had no choice but to use their time effectively and this, of course, paid off for the company.
In effect, fewer working hours motivated people to keep finding ways to improve how they work. This, in turn, led to higher overall efficiency and productivity.
Similar experiments by other companies found that fewer working hours translated to decreased stress levels and better work-life balance. People also reported improvements in mood, which has a great impact on workplace engagement. Sir Richard Branson said it best; “by working more efficiently, there is no reason why people can’t work less hours and be equally, if not more, effective.”