Art Lab punch clock

Art Lab punch clock (Photo credit: much ado about nothing)

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t wish they could get more done. And just as many people want more time out of their day and to spend less time working. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get the same amount of work done in less time? But making the same money or accomplishing the same amount of work while getting with more time for yourself? That sounds like something you’d need sorcery for.

A recent study found that doing only 3 or 4 hours of extremely focused work a day was better than working a full day (or an extra long day like many of us do). They claim that the quality of work actually went down significantly when the participants were busy, tired or working long hours over when they just a focused couple of hours and spent the rest of their time in leisure. In other words, that being busy was actually more likely to burn you out and that you’d do your best, most productive and high quality work in short bursts.

Sounds great, right? Except that they did the study with violinists which made me take pause. Playing the violin is not only a creative pursuit, it’s also physically challenging. It bares very little resemblance to what most of all think of as “normal” work. Would the same be true with other kinds of work? Do those findings apply with work that isn’t creative in nature?

Think about the times when you’re working frustrated, not sure how to fix the problem, or just overtired. There are definitely times when you’d benefit from a break and walking away from a problem sometimes makes it that much easier and faster to complete when you return to it. If you always limited yourself to short bursts of work, would you be more effective in the long run? Sometimes the answer seems like yes, especially with manual labor where you physically need a rest.

While playing the violin is a very different skill than writing, but they are both creative pursuits. Sometimes, I can spend 6 hours at the computer and only write a page but, if I plan what I want to write out ahead of time, I can write that same amount in a few minutes. That would tend to prove that I could be more effective with a few concentrated hours rather than a long stretch of time. But, on the other side, if have to take 1,000 pictures of new inventory, do some mindless data entry or some other repetitive,  manual or non-creative task, it just takes as long as it takes. A few concentrated hours isn’t going to help me there, is it? If there’s a benefit to working for less hours there, I can’t see it. Won’t it only result in my getting less work done?

I think it really boils down to this: most of us need to work many hours just to get those 3 to 4 super productive hours. None of us can just sit down and turn on our most focused work right away. Not to mention that most of us are not in charge of our own schedules. I’m not sitting around at leisure all day ready to jump up and work the moment I feel super-focused, I’m living my real life. Your boss wants 8 hours from you, not a random focused burst of half that. In the real world, we work when we have to work and we may not always be at our most focused then.

But it’s a tempting idea. I think every single year my New Year’s Resolution is the contradictory “Get more work done” and “Work less” and making the most of the hours I do work would be the way to actually achieve that. I’m just not convinced it’s actually possible.

What do you think? Is getting more work done in less hours of work a fairy tale or something that’s possible with discipline? Or does this philosophy only apply to some work (such as creative pursuits) and not others?