Working Harder Doesn't Get You Ahead

Last Updated May 17, 2011 5:11 PM EDT

By Tony Schwartz
Late last week, I had several different challenging projects on my plate, each with fast-approaching deadlines. Feeling the pressure, I awoke earlier than usual in the morning and got to my desk by 7:00 am.

Four hours later, I was still sitting there, barely having budged from my chair. To my surprise and frustration, I still hadn't finished my project.

At first, I attributed my failure to the difficulty of the task. But the more I thought about it, the less that made sense.

A Faulty Instinct to Work Harder
Suddenly, it dawned on me. Anxious about all the demands on my plate, I'd defaulted into a way of working that doesn't work.

I hunkered down, powered through, stayed the course. Along the way, something insidious, inevitable, and mostly unconscious happened.

I started reading emails, and responding to them. I remembered little things from my to-do list, and decided they were actually quite urgent. I made some phone calls. I rewrote my to-do list. Feel familiar?

This isn't the sort of thing that should happen to me. I run a company called The Energy Project, and we're in the business of energizing individuals and organizations to be more productive and higher performing by learning to balance work with strategic periods of renewal.

Alas, I'm also human. I violated the very lessons we teach.

Professionals live today in a world of relentless demand. To meet their obligations, their default instinct - including mine, if the pressure gets high enough - is simply to push harder.

The problem is human beings aren't meant to operate the way computers do: at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time. To the contrary, people perform best when they pulse rhythmically between spending and renewing energy - not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally.

Unfortunately, rest and renewal get no respect in the organizational world. Most managers view the need for downtime as weakness. The problem is that when their employees work without pause, they very quickly get decreasing incremental returns on each hour invested.

Just as I did, you stop thinking as clearly, creatively, and strategically, and you take more time to get less accomplished.

Though you may not realize it, you're physiologically designed to operate in cycles of approximately 90 minutes, during which you move from higher to lower alertness. These phases are called "ultradian rhythms."

Don't Ignore Your Body's Signals
When you need a break, your body sends you clear signals, including fidgetiness, hunger, drowsiness and loss of focus. But if you're like most people, you override them. Instead, you find artificial ways to pump up your energy: caffeine, foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates, and your body's own stress hormones - adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol.

Relying on these hormones for energy prompts the state we all know as "fight or flight." It's great for escaping danger, and terrible for performance. In fight or flight, people become less capable of thinking clearly and reflectively, more emotionally volatile, and burn down their energy at a rapid rate.

The Value of Working in Spurts
The counterintuitive secret to great, sustainable performance is to live like a sprinter. In practice, that means working with the high intensity, uninterrupted, for periods no longer than 90 minutes, and then taking a break to renew and refuel.

For the first several books I wrote, I typically sat at my desk for 10 or even 12 hours at a time. There was no way to stay fully engaged the whole time, so I found ways to distract myself along the way. Each of the books took me at least a year to write.

For my most recent book, I wrote without interruption for three 90-minute periods in the morning, and then took a break in between each one. I wrote no more than 4 ½ hours a day, and I finished the book in less than six months.

Obviously, it's not possible for most people in most companies to work in a series of uninterrupted sprints the way I did. Let me challenge you instead to try a smaller experiment.

For the next week, take on your most challenging task first thing in the morning, for 60 to 90 minutes, uninterrupted. Then take a break. You'll get an amazing amount done - and feel better the rest of the day.

Tony Schwartz is president and CEO of The Energy Project, and author, most recently, of Be Excellent At Anything. You can follow him on Twitter at @TonySchwartz and @energy_project.

image courtesy of flickr user, krispdk