By Matt Plummer
Like many of my classmates, shortly after college, I joined the ranks of a top strategy and management consulting firm. I knew I was signing up for long hours, but the reality of that didn’t really sink until a few months in, when I asked for a vacation day to go to a friend’s wedding. My request was granted, sort of.
My wife handled the long drive to the wedding, while I spent my “day off” in the passenger’s seat working furiously on my laptop, with occasional stops at cafes to recharge my computer and send emails via the free wifi. This pace continued for months – even on national holidays, I holed up in my apartment to work – and I began to wonder how long I could continue.
Unfortunately, this story of impending burnout is not unusual. In fact, as recently as 2012, a Gallup poll revealed that 40% of U.S. workers “were so stressed out they felt burnt out.” Stress and anxiety are cited in 70% of the calls placed to phone-counseling lines at Workplace Options, a provider of employee-assistance programs. This may not be too surprising since working hours continue to climb for the highest paid workers. In the last 30 years, the multi-century trend of the best-paid workers working less than the lowest-paid workers has been turned on its head. Today, the best paid are about twice as likely to work long hours as the most poorly paid. According to a 2008 survey, the vast majority of professionals (94%) worked 50 hours or more a week, and almost half worked more than 65 hours a week.
Employers have not missed or ignored this troubling reality. Instead, they’ve tried three different strategies over the last few decades.
* Make up for it: The first tactic was to compensate employees for the long work by rewarding them handsomely with financial and other benefits.
* Make it more fun: As it became increasingly hard to buy out high performers’ personal lives, employers decided to bring more of their personal lives into the workplace. They added ping pong tables, cafes, and gyms, and in the cases of some, free meals and on-site daycare, or laundromats and hair salons.
* Make it better: In the last five years or so, more and more companies have adopted innovative mental health and mindfulness programs to treat the symptoms of burnout. As one example, Headspace, a digital provider of meditation and mindfulness services, has grown to a value of $250 million in just seven short years.
While each of these approaches have some merit, they all fail to address the root cause: overwork. My guess is that most employers know this, but don’t know what they can do about it without sacrificing their bottom lines. Fortunately, there are strategies we each can use to cope on our own.
That’s what I decided to do as the path to burnout became more certain. Intrigued by the possibility of a way out of the burnout cycle, a coworker (Colin) and I started meeting every other week to discuss productivity. We didn’t have much of an objective and it showed. We had little to show for six months of meeting. To give more rigor to our meetings, we decided to define a metric for our productivity: average weekly hours worked. We began measuring it and setting goals for reducing it. In one month, we decreased our average weekly hours worked by 10% compared to our baseline average. Over the ensuing six months, we improved that figure further, such that our average hours worked over the course of those six months were 15-20% lower than our baseline average. But we were still getting just as much done as before.
We didn’t quite know what we had done to make such a difference, other than tracking our time and meeting bi-weekly. But we saw, for the first time, that our previous work habits – developed unintentionally or copied from others – had cost us a lot of time.
This was the first time I realized that most people have no idea whether they’re really being productive or not. But it wouldn’t be the last. What started as a bi-weekly meeting with my coworker, Colin, evolved into a 3-office initiative involving over 40 colleagues that spanned two years. (Disclosure: this experience ultimately led me to leave that job and found Zarvana, a company that offers productivity technology and services.) I’ve realized specifically what enables people to scale back on the hours they put in, while actually improving their performance:
* Be strategic: This sounds obvious, but lots of us spend our days developing strategic plans for our own companies, or helping clients do so, and yet fail to take a strategic approach to improving our own productivity. As most of us know, any good strategy involves setting goals, developing a plan for achieving those goals, and tracking progress towards those goals. The same is true for productivity. Yet most of us don’t have sustainable productivity goals, much less a plan for achieving them.
* Define a metric. Choose a metric for sustainable productivity. For me, it was average weekly hours worked. For you, it might be something else. Then track data on that metric, set goals for improving the metric, and run experiments to see what influences the metric.
* Focus on one change at a time. There’s a lot that goes into becoming more productive. I’m sure you’ve read many articles that talk about the “five steps” or “8 things” or “10 ways” to getting more done in less time. But it’s too much to work on so many skills at any one time. Instead, figure out which one thing is the biggest obstacle to your productivity. What would save you the most time if it were removed? Time spent deciding what to do next? Facebook? Being interrupted at your desk? Start there.
* Change your behavior: Many have pursued greater productivity via books or apps, expecting information or technology alone to make them more productive. These initially feel helpful, but then, usually, they fail. The problem is that becoming more productive is more like losing weight than memorizing the presidents’ names – it is the product of behavior or lifestyle change, not (only) knowledge. As a result, the key to becoming more productive is changing small behaviors (i.e., developing new habits) and sticking with those changes over time.
* Find someone to hold you accountable. I probably would have bailed on my productivity enhancing efforts without Colin’s support – and he probably wouldn’t have succeeded without mine. It’s really hard to change your behavior alone. So find someone who wants to go on this journey with you, and be honest about your progress (or lack thereof).
While the path to great productivity described above is not rocket science, my guess would be that most of you won’t stay on it long enough to see the benefits unless you reckon with the following truth. Becoming more productive ultimately requires an investment now for the promise of future benefits. This means that in the midst of your busyness and impending burnout, you actually need to add another task to your to-do list. Until you can make becoming more productive a priority, it will remain elusive.
Even so, the good news remains that there is an answer. I am hopeful that even as individuals embark on this journey, employers, too, will go beyond making up for the burnout problem, making it more fun, or even making it better, and commit to solving the problem of overwork. And to do that, they no longer have to demand less. By helping their employees make behavior changes and develop productive habits, they can get more work at higher quality out of their employees, while finding them healthier and happier.
Matt Plummer (@mtplummer) is the founder of Zarvana, which offers an online employee training program to help working professionals make the behavior changes necessary to get more done in less.
Before starting Zarvana, Matt spent six years at Bain & Company spin-out, The Bridgespan Group, a strategy and management consulting firm for nonprofits, foundations, and philanthropists.