Long hours at the office, seemingly endless emails and pressure to be constantly available seem to be the norm in an increasingly broad range of professions nowadays.
In a 2014 Gallup poll, half of all full-time workers said they typically worked more than 40 hours a week, nearly four in 10 said they worked over 50 hours a week, and and two in 10 said they worked over 60 hours a week. However, the evidence increasingly seems to indicate that working overly long hours doesn't make for better work. In fact, working smarter — not harder — seems to be the key to achieving better work-life balance overall.
Various factors, including increased global competition, up-and-out policies in certain professions and the proliferation of technologies that allow us to remain in touch with our colleagues 24/7, have made eight hour workdays stretch into nine, ten, eleven or more workdays.
On the one hand, it would seem obvious that working more means getting more done and that an employee who routinely logs ten hour days is getting more done than someone who's routinely logging eight hour days. However, on the other hand, studies increasingly show that working overly long hours has negative effects on both health and productivity.
In short, getting more done in a shorter period of time so you can leave the office earlier is the best way to spend less time at work. However, achieving this aim is much easier said than done. Luckily, there are a number of tricks that can be employed to help anyone, regardless of their profession, get more done in less time.
As Brian Tracy, author of "The New Psychology of Achievement," explains, the 80/20 rule — also known as the Pareto Principle — suggests that 20% of activities will account for 80% of results. Applying the Pareto Principle to your day-to-day work means trying to cut out work that doesn't contribute much to your overall productivity. Some examples of this include reducing email time, saying "no" to people who want you to commit to non-value-additive work, reallocating your time to work on meeting your core responsibilities and reducing time spent on minutiae.
Josh Kaufman, author of "The Personal MBA" and "The First 20 Hours," explains that Parkinson's Law is usually expressed as "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." Thus, if something has to be done in a year, it'll get done in a year; likewise, if it needs to be done in a week, it'll get done in a week.
To apply Parkinson's Law to your day-to-day work, you should set yourself strict deadlines for getting work done and cultivate a desire to finish projects, rather than simply tasks off on a to-do list. Applying Parkinson's Law to your daily routine can help you achieve more each day by planning for the shortest possible duration that's needed to complete each project.
You can start applying Parkinson's Law to your daily routine by setting timers for relatively short periods of time (30, 60 or 90 minutes are good starting increments) to complete a project to force yourself to focus on that task alone for the duration of the time you've set and chunking large projects down into small pieces and aim to complete those individual pieces within short timeframes, as previously discussed, in order to focus your efforts.
Working while exhausted is less effective and often counterproductive, as we tend to make mistakes and produce sloppy work when we're tired. Rather than forcing yourself to work, focus instead of working hard (and smart) when you're well-rested and ensuring that you're getting the rest you need to operate at peak efficiency.
To put this principle into practice, try working in bursts by dividing your time between complete rest and complete focus (so, when you're in a full work mode, you're not taking intermittent browsing breaks, and when you're hanging out and catching up on Netflix, you aren't checking work emails) and finishing projects in single sittings so they aren't hanging out on your to-do list indefinitely. To ensure that you're well-rested, also make time to recharge by sleeping enough, eating well and taking time to enjoy life outside work.
In many cases, it's possible to iterate endlessly on a single project or deliverable. However, while you may make marginal improvements with each iteration, there comes a point where the marginal improvements made with each iteration are outweighed by the time cost of constantly working on the same thing at the cost of moving on to everything else on your plate. To avoid this trap, try to stop working on projects when the extra effort is outweighed by the marginal improvement in the end product.
Throughout your working life, constantly checking your assumptions about what works best through numbers, metrics and A/B testing can help you identify and eliminate inefficiencies in your workflow. To put this into practice, track your work output over time, identify areas for potential improvement and test strategies for increasing efficiency in those areas.
TalentSmart cofounder Dr. Travis Bradberry suggests waking up at the same time every day — including the weekend — in order to help your body establish a consistent routine and get it used to starting to be productive at the same time every day. According to Bradberry, sleeping in on weekends throws the body's circadian rhythm off and makes Mondays that much more painful and less productive.
Adjusting your wakeup time to be a little earlier could do wonders for your overall productivity. According to Dr. Bradberry, since the mind achieves peak performance two to four hours after waking up, getting up a little earlier to take in a workout or engage in a personal morning ritual can help you start the day off on the right foot and set the tone for a productive day. Waking up earlier also has the benefit of adding more structure to your day and, if you have children, allowing you to use the time before school drop-off to start your day.
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of "Rest," notes that Americans leave $54 billion of vacation table on the table each year. When workers fail to take much-needed time off, they burn out and become less productive. So, take vacations! According to Pang, shorter vacations spaced out over a year are preferable to a single long vacation. To further maximize your vacation, keep eight in mind: according to Pang, that's the number of days it takes to get maximum psychological distance from a job. After eight days, the pleasure derived from a vacation peaks or declines.
If you feel that you're ready to take the plunge into working fewer hours, starting a conversation to this effect with your boss is the first step. This can be a tough conversation to start, so consider using some of the following strategies and phrases to get the conversation started.
If you're looking to work fewer hours in order to meet specific commitments outside the office such as childrearing, caring for a family member or other personal reasons, specifically citing this reasoning is a great starting point for the conversation. In such cases, you could say, "I'm currently trying to figure out how to balance [the commitment] with my current work schedule, and am having trouble making it work. I'd like to discuss some possibilities with you," after which point you can raise decreased work hours as a possibility.
If you're looking to work fewer hours because you're overworked or being asked to take on responsibilities that don't fall within your actual role, you can specifically cite this in your conversation with your manager. In the case, you could say, "I've been working extremely hard to meet [X, Y, and Z responsibilities] and am feeling stretched beyond what's reasonable in my current role. I'd like to discuss possibilities for making this feel more manageable," at which point you could raise reallocating some of your current responsibilities elsewhere and reducing your hours as potential solutions.
Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.