Experiments in Productivity, Workweek Edition: 20 Hours vs. 90 Hours!

Experiments in Productivity, Workweek Edition: 20 Hours vs. 90 Hours!

Chris Bailey writes for The National Post about an experiment he undertook early on in his Life of Productivity efforts, when he needed to get a really good sense of the amount of Experiments in productivityhours of work it took to actually accomplish something. He set up alternating weeks of very short and very long (20 hour and 90 hour respectively) working weeks, and tracked how much work he completed, as well as how much work he felt he completed.

Bailey expected to find, like most of us I imagine, that if he threw more hours at a project, he would get a lot more done. But, when he finished his experiment and compared his long weeks to his short weeks, he discovered the following:

  • Even though Bailey nearly quintupled his working time, he only accomplished a tiny bit more actual work,
  • However, during the 90-hour workweeks, Bailey reported feeling “twice as productive” than during the 20-hour weeks — a gut reaction that was not supported by his actual output.

Bailey attributes his ability to get roughly the same amount of work done in 20 hours as in 90 hours to the focused “energy and attention” he was able to bring to it. In the longer workweek, that energy and attention was dispersed more widely:

“When I invested more time in my work during my insane weeks, my work became a lot less urgent; on a minute-by-minute basis, I invested less energy and focus into everything I intended to get done. But when I had a limited amount of time in my 20-hour weeks, I forced myself to expend significantly more energy and focus over that shorter period of time so I could get everything done I had to do. Of course, all the pressure I felt during this experiment came from me — I didn’t have a boss, team or any large, looming deadlines around the corner. But the lesson is just as potent: by controlling how much time you spend on a task, you control how much energy and attention you spend on it.”

This is the chief lesson Bailey derived from his experiment, and one he wants to pass along to us: We can’t always control the length of time we have to complete a project, but we can control the shortness of time — and a shorter time in which to work equals greater productivity.

Bailey recognizes that the world can’t run on the 20-hour workweek ideal — but he cites research that the standard workweek of 35 to 40 is still sustainable, as studies show productivity and quality really takes a nosedive after 40 hours. There is some hope for us!