Community//

The One Big Common Mistake People Make That Hurt Their Productivity

Working too many hours can lower your overall work performance

Originally published on Quora

There’s one big mistake people make all the time: they work too many hours.

As I report in Great at Work, in a 2009 survey by Harvard Business School Professor Leslie Perlow and research associate Jessica Porter, 94% of the 1,000 professionals surveyed worked 50 hours or more a week, and a staggering 50 percent of them said they worked more than 65 hours a week. In a study of high earners, management writer Sylvia Ann Hewlett found that a full 35 percent worked more than 60 hours a week, and 10 percent worked more than 80 hours a week.

Working all of these very long hours only makes sense if it leads to better performance. But as I’ve experienced first-hand, it doesn’t. Early in my career, when I worked at the Boston Consulting Group, I put in 60, 70, 80, 90-hour weeks in an effort to make my mark. One day, I confronted an uncomfortable truth: A colleague of mine was getting better results than I was. Her analysis was crisper and more compelling. Yet one evening in the office, when I went to look for her, she wasn’t there. I asked a guy sitting near her desk where she was, and he replied that she’d gone home for the night. He explained that she never worked late. She worked from 8AM to 6 PM. No nights. No weekends.

This colleague was on to something. As my research has shown, performance doesn’t increase in a linear fashion with hours worked (see the chart at the end of this post—pretty cool chart—squeezing the orange means getting results from work!). I analyzed the relationship between weekly hours worked and performance among 5,000 managers and employees in my study. Working longer hours enhances performance, but only up to a point. If you work between 30 and 50 hours per week, adding more hours on the job lifts your performance. But once you’re working between 50 and 65 hours per week, the benefit of adding additional hours drops off. And if you’re working 65 hours or more, overall performance declines as you pile on the hours. (Note: these are averages across jobs and industries. The actual numbers may be different in your job, but consider that the shape is similar).

Other research has documented the same inverted “U.” Studying factory workers at a weaponry plant in Britain in 1914, Stanford economist John Pencavel found that performance topped out at 64 to 67 hours per week, beyond which it began to fall. See his chart at the bottom of this blog post, and notice how similar it is to mine, even those these are very different datasets.

Think about the profound implication of these findings: the whole entire premise of the world’s work ethic—that harder work equates better results—is basically wrong. Yes, you need to work hard (about 50 hours per week in my dataset), but that’s completely different from saying you need to work harder than others to rise to the top.

What’s the implication for all of us? Are you working the right number of hours in the week? Too many, or too few? You should actually determine a number in your mind: “the optimal average number of hours per week to work for me is ___ .” Mine is 50. Then comes the most important question of all: how can I spend those hours of work better? As the top performers in our study showed, it’s how they work—and not how much they work—that counted the most to boost job performance.

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!
Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.