What Managers Should Know about Personal Productivity

Not too long ago, I was a bystander in a Twitter discussion about academic work hours. I was a bystander because I have a fairly firm rule that I do not argue with people about their personal work hours. Very few people have ever tracked their time use, and will assert they work 60 hour weeks with no data to back that up. Many, maybe even most, are convinced that while it may be true that most people get less efficient as they work longer, they are in the long tail of that distribution, and they get more work done when they work longer hours.

Frankly, life is too short to waste my time trying to argue with this. Some people want to improve their time use. Those people tend to be interested in what I say. People who are sure that their time use is just fine aren’t my audience for personal productivity discussions. And I’m sure that some people really are in the long tails of the time use curves, and really are working 60 hour weeks and getting more done than they would if they worked 40 hour weeks. That is great for them, and I’m glad they’ve found a time use pattern that works for them.

The problem comes when these people assume that they get more work done in their 60 hours than I do in my 40. If it was just that I am annoyed by their tendency to frame this condescendingly, thinking that they are some how “hardier” or “more resilient” than people like me,  it would be no big deal. But many of these people are managers or, in the academic case, advisers for other people who have less power in the workplace than they do. Their opinions on time use shape the work environment of other people. If they think that people who “can” work 60 hour weeks are somehow better than people who “only” work 40 hour weeks, that is a problem. Even if they tell themselves they are judging people on their output, they may write a less glowing recommendation (for instance) for the grad student who “only” works 40 hour weeks, and that can have a profound impact on that grad student’s career.

The work culture they build may also be subtly exclusionary. If everyone knows that the way to be viewed as “hardy” and hard-working by the boss is to be at work for more than 50 hours per week, certain types of people will end up self-selecting away, even if they would be able to produce the necessary work output in 40 hours. Who might self-select away? People with caregiving responsibilities. People with religious commitments that make it impossible to work weekends. And people who know that their mental or physical health would not survive such an environment, even for a few years.

That last category hints at an even more upsetting outcome: there are people who don’t realize that their health will not survive that environment, and do real and long-lasting harm to themselves as a result.

I don’t know how best to tackle this culture. Perhaps I should argue more with people, but I find that exhausting and am doubtful that my message is getting through.

If I were granted three wishes, though, I’d wish that every person in charge of other people’s work would:

(1) Familiarize themselves with the data on overestimation of hours worked. Here is a journal article summarizing it.

And here is a key graph:

Summary of the difference between reported work hours and actual work hours for three different time use studies.

And here is a key quote:

“Most notably, time-diary-based estimates of paid work hours typically are lower than estimates derived from the CPS.[5] Perhaps because of the diary’s implicit constraint on the numbers of hours in a day (all activities must add up to exactly 24 hours), diary respondents tend to report fewer hours at work per day or week than respondents to time-estimate questions. Responding to questions of the type “How many hours do you usually work (or did you work last week)?” workers within the range of 35- to 45-hour work weeks tend to report relatively similar work hours when filling out time diaries and when answering questions asked with the time-estimate approach, but the higher the respondent’s estimated number of hours per workweek, the larger is the gap between the estimates obtained with the two approaches. Workers estimating 50- to 80-hour workweeks had progressively greater gaps between this estimate and what they reported in their diaries.”

(2) Read John Pencavel’s discussion of what the British government learned when it tried to maximize productivity at its munitions factories in WWI, think about how incredibly motivated the British were to get as much productivity as possible in this case, and then think about why they are so sure their type of work follows different rules.

(3) Track their own time for a week or two to find out how many hours they actually work. Notice whether or not they really do still feel productive as the total goes above ~55 hours per week. (Bonus: try an experiment in which they drop their hours to about 40 per week for awhile, and see what happens.)

I have more links to research on productivity on my resources page, including a summary in the Harvard Business Review of the available research on knowledge workers.

I’m sure productivity and optimal work hours follow some sort of distribution. I am sure some people really are outliers. But by definition, that means most people aren’t. Shouldn’t we try to set up our work cultures to support most people, and not just reward the outliers? If we don’t, we’re creating work cultures that are harmful and exclusionary for most people.

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