Pulling an all-nighter, doing 80-hour weeks, burning the midnight oil.
There are countless cultural references and expressions of overwork, most of them talk about the number of hours we work.
The 8-hour workday can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution and was introduced as a way to give workers enough time to rest from heavy manual labor. In a knowledge based society, where many of us mainly work with our brains, what would be the equivalent rule? How should our workdays be structured to optimize and protect our cognitive muscles?
We have all experienced days or meetings that left us completely spent, barely able to hold a conversation with our family at the dinner table. Some tasks are just more cognitively demanding than others. A 30-minute disorganized Teams meeting with conflicts can leave us mentally drained while a whole week of working on a passion project can even add to our energy depot. These insights are particularly important when you’re in a billable hour practice or run your own business.
Or as George Orwell might have put it, had he been writing LinkedIn articles in 2023:
‘All hours are equal, but some hours are more equal than others.’
I find human capacity and performance management fascinating and I’m not surprised that it’s a well researched topic. There are numerous behavioral science studies and psychology papers exploring human endurance and how we maximize performance. From looking at what world record holding athletes have in common to analyzing iconic chess games.
I recently came across Samuele Mancona’s study about how mental and physical fatigue are linked. It was described in Alex Hutchingson’s book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, which I can really recommend. In the study, Manconaasked volunteers to be part of two time-to-exhaustion tests on a stationary bike. Basically, the participants were asked to cycle until they were too exhausted to continue. Ahead of the first test, the volunteers were asked to spend 90 minutes on a mentally draining computer game that required their full attention. Ahead of the second test, the participants were instead asked to watch a bland and emotionally neutral documentary.
After the mentally draining computer game the volunteers gave up 15,1% earlier on the bike test.
There were no physiological explanations to the time difference – their heart rates, lactate levels etc. were the same. They were similarly motivated in both the tests as the best performance was rewarded with a $50 prize. The difference was that when the participants were mentally fatigued, they reached their perceived point of physical exhaustion quicker.
In the study, they used the Borg scale, after Swedish psychologist Gunnar Borg, to measure perceived exertion. In his view perceived exertion is the best measurement of physical strain since it’s based on signals not only from muscles, joints and the cardiovascular system but from the central nervous system as well.
Here’s more from Orwell:
“Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else.”
The results of the study might make sense to us instinctively even if I for one can’t explain it. But it does make me wonder why so many workplaces are still organizing work based on hours, as if all hours were indeed created equally. Surprisingly often I meet managers who expect their team to clock 40, 60 or 80 hours per week, regardless of the kind of work the employees have done or the results generated.
Our jobs are more cognitively demanding today than ever before. The value we add, as simpler tasks are AI’ed out, is often about solving complex problems, managing change or generating ideas – mentally expensive work. Add to that all the distractions we expose our brains to every day.
I believe managing our cognitive resources will be a critical skill going forward, both for achieving meaningful work goals and for important social interactions.
So how would we organize and measure work if LinkedIn-Orwell had a say in it?
USE COGNITIVE RESOURCES WISELY. Since attention is a scarce resources, be mindful what you spend or waste it on. Do a cost benefit analysis for the things you spend a lot of time on, like meetings and emails. A study published in MIT Sloan Management Review 2022 found that by implementing just one meeting free day per week companies improved autonomy by 62%, cooperation with 15% and engagement with 28%. Avoid powering through when you feel exhausted, it’s counterproductive.
AUTOMATE. We make thousands of decisions every day and each decision uses a part of our cognitive capacity. To focus your decision-making energy on the things that really matter we need to automate as many decisions as possible. Barack Obama allegedly only had one type of suits to eliminate that decision every morning.
HAVE STRIPED DAYS. Mix more challenging tasks with easier throughout day. Balance physical and cognitive tasks. Take frequent breaks and longer breaks. Change the environment you’re in – go work in the office canteen for an hour. Avoid de-prioritizing rest, exercise or sleep. Avoid back-to-back meetings and tasks.
LEAD THE WAY. As leaders, you need to role model this way of viewing work. Be open about what you need to do your best work and what boundaries you have. As organizations we need to start rewarding and promoting responsible energy management. In business planning or when resourcing projects, make sure you are crystal on the cognitive capacity you have and how to prioritize it. Call out ways of working that misuse people’s energy.
Over to you:
How can you organize your work to get the highest ‘ROCI – return on cognitive investment’ or ‘bang for the mental energy buck?’
Last month I celebrated my 3rd anniversary as a fulltime entrepreneur. Happy birthday to me!
In some ways you can compare starting a business to parenting a child. It’s an exciting idea to bring a child into the world but few of us were prepared for the toddle tantrums and a 3-year old’s talent for accidents. (My youngest son went through a period of putting peas, sweetcorn, and anything small enough up his nose 😫).
What parents learn, often a bit too late, is that their toddler isn’t trying to drive them crazy nor kill themselves. They are simply learning and developing by testing boundaries.
A small business goes through similar growing pains. It can be equally challenging, unpredictable, and full of ups and downs. Just as parents can draw strength from watching their cherubs sleep peacefully after a day of food attacks, entrepreneurs can find energy from reflecting on their experience.
– We need to remind ourselves of why we set out on the journey in the first place.
So, as my ‘third child’ turns 3, here are my reflections:
🎂 My BS ratio (Nonsense work/ Meaningful work) has dropped from about 10-1 to 1-10 since I left my corporate career. Back then my days were filled with ineffective meetings, impression management and producing endless amounts of PPT presentations. Today most of my time is spent on what I consider meaningful work, things that help me achieve my mission.
🎂 The freedom that comes with being your own boss is even greater than I imagined. Perhaps the greatest freedom for me is being able to choose whom I want to collaborate with.
🎂I’ve grown and developed a lot in these years. It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to use all your talents and experience to create something of your own.
A big thanks to my supporters, clients, partners, and the amazing fellow entrepreneurs I’ve met along the way.
Here’s to the next 3 years, hoping they will be as fun and rewarding, but perhaps a bit less crazy.
Decisive, bold, assertive, fast, consistent – these are traditionally highly valued traits in the corporate world. Many of us have heard them in performance reviews, either as qualities we have or should develop.
In brand management, where I spend most of my career, we were trained to know our data, do our research, then to commit to an idea and stick to our plan. Often spending most of our energy convincing the world about its brilliance. There was little room for honest reevaluation or rethink.
Why is changing our minds so hard?
I recently read Think Again by Adam M. Grant. Grant starts by describing the concept of Escalation of Commitment –
“When we dedicate ourselves to a plan and it isn’t going as we hoped, our first instinct isn’t usually to rethink it. Instead, we tend to double down and sink more resources in the plan”.
If we’re collaborating with others on this plan, it can be ever harder to change our minds. We are social creatures and challenging the direction of our team comes with risk. Nobody wants to come across as arrogant, stupid or indeed insecure. Most of us want to fit in. It takes a very open and inclusive team climate to accommodate this kind of risk taking. A psychologically safe environment in which candor and half-baked ideas are welcomed. With leaders who encourage us to rethink, relearn and challenge truths.
The ability to change our mind is more important today than ever
In stable and predictable industries and markets, like the ones I worked in at the time, being consistent and sticking to your guns is often a good thing. It inspires confidence in stakeholders and gives your brand consistency. However in uncertain, fast-paced and ever-changing corporate environments, the courage to reevaluate and change direction becomes business critical.
To do this we need people with the right cognitive skills. We often think of mentally fit people as intelligent people. The smarter you are, the more complex problems you can solve, faster. But in a rapidly transforming world, there are, according to Adam Grant, cognitive skills that could matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.
“Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything – George Bernard Shaw”
The value of reflection
For those who dare to be indecisive, there’s a lot to gain. Kahneman’s work on Thinking, Fast and Slow gives us another take on the virtue of the slower, more deliberate System 2 thinking.
Reflection is also important for developing our self-awareness. Professor Daniel Newark, who studies decision-making, identity and behaviour, claims that pondering over outcomes of two or more options allows us to be introspective and gain unique dimensions of self-awareness. He says: “The contemplations and conversations characteristic of indecision may help construct, discover, or affirm who one is.”
For me, this speaks to the theory of ‘slowing down to speed up’ and the value of reflection.
Invite others to rethink with you
There is lot to gain from opening up about our doubts and inviting others to reflect with us. Otto Scharmer talks about self-reflection as one of the prerequisites for new thinking. We cannot go from disagreement to generative dialogue without being curious about our own views and willing to challenge them.
So why not invite your collegues to reflect with you? Newark also found that when you seek advice before making a decision it can inspire conversations of meaning and build professional connection. Quite a nice side effect.
Many of my clients experience an acute lack of focus time, what they often call ‘real work’. They are overwhelmed by the constant flow of emails, meeting invites and ‘urgent’ requests from stakeholders.
It’s not surprising. A study from Loughborough University (T.W Jackson, 2021) found that 84% of professionals always keep their inbox open in the background with 70% of emails being opened within 6 seconds of receipt. Given that the average knowledge worker receives 120 emails per day (Earthweb, J Wise, 2022) and on top of that a constant flow of Slack- or Teams notifications and social media updates, we are setting ourselves up for failure at best. Burnout at worst.
What does this availability cost? For your focus, for your health, for your productivity?
Why is it so hard to turn off distractions, even though we know it’s what we need the most?
Throughout evolution we have been rewarded for being curious. There are powerful neurotransmitters like Dopamine involved, which makes checking emails or social media likes difficult habits to control. It’s more important than ever that organizations put sustainable communication practices in place and that their leaders live by them.
And yes, in periods we might need to be more accessible. But I challenge everyone to schedule undistracted focus time at least once per day. It’s critical for our focus, wellbeing and productivity at work.
Slowing down doesn’t mean accomplishing less; it means cutting out counterproductive distractions and the perception of being rushed. – Tim Ferriss
Here are a few thing you can try:
Get the Pen and paper out. Go analog when you are next solving a problem or planning an activity.
Use mornings wisely. Studies show that out stress tolerance is higher in the mornings, making the first couple of hours of work out ‘cognitively expensive’. If possible, block undisturbed time for your priorities in the morning.
Plan for productivity. The 52:17 rule, first described in a Muse article in 2014 is a method by which you spend 52 minutes of intensive, purposeful work followed by 17 minutes of rest away from your computer. People using this method were found to have a unique level of focus and productivity.
Go Walkflecting: Walk+Reflection. A powerful practice to increase our creativity, wellbeing and productivity. Just make sure you turn off your mobile.
What could you do more of if you were less distracted?
How can you help yourself focus on what really matters?