Working hard...or hardly working?

Working hard…or hardly working?

Why Doing Less Could Make You More Productive

If you’re anything like me, you hate the feeling of having wasted time; that you haven’t been as productive as you could have been.

Things didn’t get done, tasks went unfinished. In short, you set goals, failed to reach them and end up feeling guilty, lazy and frustrated with yourself.

What makes things all the more maddening is that last week you seemed to be able to achieve more in the same space of time.

Deep down though, there’s this nagging feeling that something isn’t right. You did put in the time. You did work just as hard. You reached into that pot of energy to get things done until finally, the energy cash dispenser simply came up with ‘no more funds available’.

So why was it easier last week to accomplish the same amount?

Two words. Ego Depletion.

Ego Depletion

If you use up all of the mental energy available for a day or week it takes time for that energy to be replenished. There is scientific backing for this idea; it’s called ego depletion. It’s the reason why, if you’ve ever noticed, Barack Obama only wears a small number of colours of suit and tie to work: when you have to make so many difficult decisions all day every day, the last thing you want to be doing is expending limited energy on the ones that don’t really matter.

Dealing with China...

Dealing with China…

In Navy...

In Navy…

Different day...Sam dark suit

Different day…Same dark suit

Burnout Vs. Patience

Now for a mathematical demonstration.

The red line on the graph represents what happens during what I like to call ‘the burnout model’. You push the envelope, burn the candle at both ends and convince yourself that you’re ‘a grafter’. Your tiredness is proof that you’re making things happen. Maybe you even enjoy telling people how early you get up, how long the hours are that you work and how late you get to bed. Without caffeine you’d probably pass out at various times of day.

Let’s pretend that fatigue robs you of 1% of the energy you need for the following day and 1% for every day after. Even if you’re 100% efficient and every drop of energy goes into ‘making miracles happen’ then productivity still seeps away as time goes by.

The price of fatigue?

The price of fatigue?

The external effect is that you become less and less effective at progressing towards your goals, whatever they may be. The internal effect is that even though you are making progress, you feel like you’re getting there slower and slower as time goes by. In my experience this is usually compounded by motivation dropping off a cliff, procrastination, a rest period (where you basically do nothing productive) and a restart of the same pattern.

The green line on the other hand represents a more sensible approach. It assumes that you use 95% of the energy you have available. You could work a little harder but you keep it in reserve. There’s a bit left in the tank. You’re revving the engine but you don’t spend long in the red.

The Results

Now look at what happens over 60 days when you compare one approach to life with the other:

Working hard vs. Working smart...

Working hard vs. Working smart…

  • After 6 days you’re already more productive than a person operating in burnout mode.
  • After 12 days you’ve made up for the frantic use of energy that the grafter has been putting in for the first few days when you started.
  • By the time you get to 60 days; just a couple of months into our experiment, just by being patient you will have been over a third more productive than someone far more tired than you are.


I know that the numbers used in this model are made up.

I’m aware that there’s a balance and you can go too far the other way.

But as the days go by this week, when you’re thinking of working that extra hour or staying up that little bit later, it might be worth trying something different:

Instead of asking: ‘Could I have worked harder today?’

Ask yourself: ‘Is this as productive as I can be for months at a time?’

If the answer is no and you’re more tired tomorrow than you were today, then you know before long you’ll run out of steam.

Have Your Say

How about you?

Is sleep for the weak? Or does working smart always trump working hard?

Comments, as always, are welcome.

Or you can email your view to Foolosophy@peteburnett.net

Finally, if you like the content or if you think it could be helpful to somebody else, please pass it on.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s