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| November 14, 2017

by Jim Bruce

Your Most Precious Resource

Each of us has 24 hours each day and 168 hours each week for work and everything else – commuting, eating lunch, taking breaks during our work, organized activities including time with family and friends, exercise, religious activities, team sports, play, rest, and sleep, etc.  And, no matter how hard we try, there is no way to manufacture more hours.
So, how do we best use the time we have?  Let’s begin our thinking with sleep.  International sleep research indicates that the typical adult needs between seven and nine hours of sleep each night.  Research at the University of California, San Francisco has revealed that some individuals, less than 3% of the population, have a gene that enables them to do well with six or fewer hours of sleep each night.  The remaining 97% of us need more.  So, a good assumption is that essentially all of us need 56 hours or so of our 168 hours for sleep.
The other large item on the list for most of us is work. In the 18th century 10-16 hour workdays were normal.  Over time, it became clear that such long days were brutal and unsustainable.  Welsh activist Robert Owen argued for shorter workdays:  “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”  In 1914, Henry Ford stunned the manufacturing industry in the U. S., and probably his workers, by reducing everyone’s hours to eight and doubling wages.  And, the result was counter-intuitive:  Productivity increased.
Today, most of us have what are called salaried positions.  We are paid a monthly salary and are expected to work the hours, assumed nominally to be 40 per week, necessary to do our job.  Nevertheless, many of us take pride in proudly announcing that we work 50, 60, even 80 hours a week.  So while these may be our hours in the office, it’s easy to think that the hours when we focus on work is even larger given that technology always makes our office only a tap away.  Yet, while we may perceive that we productively work such a number of hours, research suggests that this isn’t necessarily the case. 
Sarah Carmichael, in her essay The Research Is Clear:  Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies, reports that Professor Eric Reid of BU’s School of Business found that “Managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to.”  Reid was not able to find any evidence that employees who actually worked less accomplished less, or any sign that the overworking employees accomplished more.
Research that attempts to quantify the relationship between hours worked and productivity suggests that employee output falls after a 50-hour week such that essentially nothing additional is produced in hours 55 to 70.  (And, as an aside, this is what I learned during my 20 years as CIO at MIT.  I could make the motions of work beyond 50-55 hours per week, but nothing significant was accomplished during those hours.)
In addition, there is considerable evidence that overwork is not neutral.  It actually leads to all sorts of health problems including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease.  Further if your job relies on interpersonal communication and making judgment calls, managing your own emotional reactions to overwork and its accompanying stress and exhaustion can make these difficult activities more difficult.
So, what’s a conscientious, hard-working person supposed to do?  Everyone I talk with identifies two major sources of overload:  Meetings and electronic communications.  It’s not unusual for people to tell me that if they put all their meetings one-after-the-other, the meetings would consume at least two full days of the workweek.  Some companies report that 15 % of the collective time of all the company’s employees is spent in meetings.  Our technology has made it extremely easy for anyone to setup a meeting with any one or many individuals just by inviting individuals and directly putting it on their respective calendars.  This is a tremendous time saver for people who are scheduling meetings.  However, it enables a tremendous waste of time when misused to set up unnecessary meetings.  E.g., meetings you don’t need to be involved with or one-on-one hour-long meetings to do what could be handled in a 3-minute phone call.
How you control unwanted meetings appearing on your calendar is both a technology issue (do they just appear or do you have to accept a meeting) and a cultural issue.  However, given the number of unwanted meetings that I sense everyone has, it is something that you need to take some affirmative action on.
Just as the number of meetings has grown exponentially, so has all manner of electronic messages – phone calls, email, text messages, twitter, etc. – increased, likely more than doubling each decade since the 1970s.  And, technology has developed so that each of us now has a device in our hands both more capable than all the computers in the world taken together when I first used a computer, and with applications that were unimagined then.  These capabilities add to the information overload and are a major driver to multi-tasking.
Now, you know, and may even believe, that you cannot multitask.  (I do, yet, the temptation is so great that I will sometimes succumb and try to multitask.)  However, that you cannot multitask is real and has two major effects:  First, it interrupts whatever you were doing.  With luck you may be able to pick up what you were working on without “missing a beat,” but most likely not.  And, second, it interrupts everyone you were interacting with who will, at a minimum, have to mentally acknowledge that you have gone on to another activity, or perhaps they will have to stop whatever they were doing together with you and restart it when you mentally return.
Unnecessary meetings and messages place significant demands on your time.  They add to the hours in your workday and represent costs to your organization.  Mankins, in the article Your Scarcest Resource and in a subsequent book Time, Talent, Energy, notes that most organizations have elaborate procedures for managing expenditures.  For example, most staff cannot procure goods or services having a significant cost without some form of approval.  Yet, just about anyone can send a chain of emails to a large number of people or set up an unnecessary meeting with a dozen attendees.  These activities have real costs and are primary contributors to the overloads that we all experience.  Andy Grove, longtime visionary executive at Intel once wrote:  “Just as you would not permit a fellow employee to steal a piece of office equipment, you shouldn’t let anyone walk away with the time of his or her fellow managers.”  The thievery occurs as meetings appear on the calendar and as messages, requiring some action including just reading them, are sent with no clear need or priority.  
So, back to the question, what does one do?  I think that the first, and most important step that you can take, is to begin to change your personal response to meeting requests and to interruptions by your electronic devices.  With regard to meetings, I suggest that for each invite you receive, you stop and ask why do I need to be at this meeting.  Make sure that your presence would add real value to the work and if it won’t, politely decline.  
And, you might also explain to the meeting’s convener why you declined.  Also, as opportunity occurs, be clear to your team and other colleagues which meetings you will attend and desire to be invited to, and which you see no need to personally attend.  For example, if you have delegated something to a part of your team, you might tell them that you don’t want to receive all of their normal email messages for the task.  Don’t attend meetings that don’t have an agenda or an expected clear outcome.  The idea is that by announcing your new practice, you are working to change your and their habits and to introduce a new culture to your team.  It won’t happen overnight, but if you are consistent, change will occur.
With regard to electronic communications, consider changing your habits and to not respond immediately.  I personally have a very short list of people (primarily family) whose phone calls I will take immediately.  I find them too interrupting to what I’m doing, particularly if I’m deeply into what I’m working on.  And, I have all the announcements for email and txt messages turned off but I do check them when I’m on breaks between activities.  Perhaps you may want to try some of these tactics to simplify your work life.  Your time and the quality of your life is at stake here.
At this point in this Tuesday Reading, you may be asking what is it that Jim thinks I might consider doing.  There are three things on my list:

  1. Understand that time is a valuable, very limited resource and consider how you use it more strategically.
  2. Pay more attention to the hours you sleep and work.  These are quite possibly more important factors in your wellbeing than you realize.
  3. Actively make those changes that you are led to believe that you may need to make to be more effective in all aspects of your life. 

Do make it a great week for you and your team.
.  .  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 
 Sarah Green Carmichael, The Research Is Clear:  Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies, Harvard Business Review, August 2015.
Melanie Curtin, In an 8-Hour Day the Average Worker Is Productive for This Many Hours,, July 2016.
Bob Sullivan, Memo to Work Martyrs:  Long Hours Make You Less, November 2014. 
Michael Mankins, Chris Brahm, and Greg Caimi, Your Scarcest Resource, Harvard Business Review, May 2014.