More Hours Isn't Better

I just finished reading Lean In by Cheryl Sandberg and loved it. In particular, I loved her discussion of how she scaled back her hours. She talks about how she went from being in the office twelve hours a day to being in the office for a more typical 8 hours after the birth of her first child. To do this, she had elaborate methods for hiding the fact that she was working a shorter day so that she wouldn’t appear less devoted.

This is an all too common thing to hear, particularly in technology where we have somehow conflated the amount of time spent working with productivity. After fifteen years of working in a number of environments, I can tell you that the two measures are strongly correlated for me, but probably not how you think.

When I first started working for startups, I bought into the hacker culture. I worked long hours and expected to be called at all hours of the night to deal with problems. It didn’t take long before I started to feel burned out. In fact, within a few short months I was less productive at work and less happy at home.

When I stopped to look at what I was really doing with my time, I realized that most of my time was spent reacting to issues that were caused by preventable problems. Over the next month, I focused on working fewer hours, but also on doing work that would reduce the number of times I was called in the middle of the night. Before long, I was working a more normal hour and getting more productive work done. It turned out I was busy because I spent all of my time fighting fires instead of just stopping them from getting started in the first place.

A few years later, I went to work for a very large company. Like the startup, most people there worked much more than the typical nine to five day. It didn’t take long to figure out that this had a different cause. Meetings.

At this company, people scheduled meeting for everything. Even worse, they invited more people than needed to attend. The end result was that more than half of every day was spent in meetings that should have been email chains. To overcome all the time spent in meetings, people would either multi-task in the meeting, thereby making the meeting even less useful, or would work extra hours.

After a few years of this I gave up and just started declining most meeting invitations. In particular, I declined almost every meeting that didn’t have a published agenda that was relevant to me. I also declined any meeting with more than five people in it. This turned out to be incredibly liberating.

Initially I was afraid that I would miss out on learning about topics that weren’t directly important to me now but that might be in the future. It turned out that the meeting summaries that were sent out via email afterwards were a great way for me to keep up with these areas without spending hours a day on it. Of course, not all meetings sent out summaries afterwards. These meetings typically were also run without an agenda and were rarely worth attending. They were almost always made up of rambling tangents.

Fast forward a few years and I had started Elevated Code. When I talk to potential clients, I am very up front with my work hours. I’m in the office from 8:30am until 5pm and don’t work nights or weekends. I don’t even check my email outside of those hours. If my clients really need something urgently, they can call me. Otherwise, it can wait until morning.

Some clients are surprised by this, but very few have a problem with it. In fact, most are amazed at how much I get done during these hours. The secret is that working more hours isn’t a substitute for knowing what to do and doing it well.

In fact, most of the time when I see people working long hours, it is due to either poor planning, poor organization, or poor discipline. For me, it’s also not sustainable. I might be able to get a small boost of productivity by working more hours for a week or two, but my effectiveness declines quickly over time.

I applaud Cheryl for talking about how she limited her work hours. More importantly, I encourage everyone to do it. By having a better work life balance I am not only much happier, but I’m also much more productive during my time at work.