Shorter, Better, Faster, Stronger

The easiest way to get more done? Work fewer hours.

Businessman standing at his desk, trapped in cubicle, rear view
Why does working more hours mean you get less done? 

Photo by Thomas Jackson/Thinkstock

Adapted from Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland. Out now from Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group. © 2014 by Jeff Sutherland.

When Scott Maxwell, founder of the venture capital firm OpenView Venture Partners, was working as a consultant at McKinsey in the early 1990s, he received what he considered to be an odd pep talk. Jon Katzenbach, then a director at the company, told Maxwell that when he was starting out back in the ’70s, everyone worked seven days a week at McKinsey. That was the culture. If you didn’t work that many hours, you weren’t pulling your weight.

For religious reasons, though, Katzenbach worked only six days a week. And he noticed that he was actually getting more done than the guys—and they were all guys back then—working every single day. He decided to try only five days a week, and he found that he was even more productive. Work too long, he said, and you get less done. He told Maxwell that he always wanted to drop down to four or even three days a week, but he wasn’t sure that the company would accept it.

Maxwell and the other young consultants scoffed at the idea. But it stayed with Maxwell for years as he moved through his career, and at OpenView, he discovered how people actually work instead of how they say they work. (Full disclosure: I am a senior adviser at OpenView.) OpenView’s culture was ingrained with the expectation that people would work late and on weekends. As in a lot of high-powered offices, OpenView was full of aggressive, ambitious people. But they were getting burned out, depressed, and demoralized. Soon, Maxwell realized that above a certain threshold, working more hours stopped producing more output. He pulled me into his office one day and drew this curve on a whiteboard:


Courtesy of Crown Business

The y-axis is productivity, and the x-axis is hours of work. The peak of productivity actually falls at just under 40 hours a week. Armed with this data, Scott started to send people home early. “It took them a while to get that I was serious,” Maxwell says. “But eventually they came around to my way of thinking.”

He started telling people that working late wasn’t a sign of commitment—it was a sign of failure. “It’s not because I want you to have a balanced life,” he said to his colleagues. “It’s because you’ll get more stuff done.”

So at OpenView it’s no more nights, no more weekends. When people go on vacation, they are expected to go on vacation—not check email, not check in with the office. If you can’t take time off without having to make sure everything is going right at the office, the thinking goes, you aren’t managing your teams well. “A lot of companies don’t practice [work-hour limits],” Maxwell says. “But there is a direct correlation. You get more done. You are happier. And you have higher quality.”

The curve is different for different people; it can vary significantly even for the same person at different times in his or her life. “As I’ve gotten older and in different roles, the peak output for me is at a lower number of hours than it was 20 years ago,” Maxwell says. Physical fitness, diet, personal issues, and other factors all play a part, he thinks. But he also believes that his output reaches its peak faster as he has grown and thought deeply about how to work.

But why does working fewer hours mean you get more done? It doesn’t seem to make sense on the face of it. Maxwell says that people who work too many hours start making mistakes, which can actually take more effort to fix than to create. Overworked employees get more distracted and begin distracting others. Soon they’re making bad decisions.

In April of 2011, a group of Israeli researchers published some remarkable research about decision-making, looking at more than a thousand judicial rulings by eight Israeli judges who presided over two different parole boards. The rulings covered Jewish-Israeli and Arab-Israeli criminals whose crimes ranged from embezzlement and assault to murder and rape; the vast majority of the decisions involved requests for parole. These were esteemed judges using their years of experience and wisdom to make critical decisions affecting not only the lives of the prisoners and their victims but also the well-being of the larger community.

So what was the biggest factor in whether a prisoner would go free or not? True remorse, perhaps? Reformation and behavior in prison? The severity of the crime?

None of those, actually. It turns out what mattered most was how long it had been since the judge had had a sandwich.

The researchers looked at what time judges made decisions, whether clemency was granted, and how long it had been since the judges had had a snack. If they’d just gotten to work, back from a snack break, or back from lunch, they made favorable decisions more than 60 percent of the time. That rate dropped to nearly zero by the time of the next break. Basically, right after a short break, judges came in with more positive attitudes and made more lenient decisions. As they burned up their reserves of energy, they began to make more and more decisions that maintained the status quo.

I’m sure that if you asked these judges if they were certain they were making equally good decisions each time, they’d be affronted. But numbers—and sandwiches—don’t lie. When we don’t have any energy reserves left, we’re prone to start making different kinds of decisions. This phenomenon has been labeled “ego depletion.” The idea is that making any choice involves an energy cost. It’s an odd sort of exhaustion—you don’t feel physically tired, but your capacity to make decisions diminishes.

In another set of experiments, college undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group had no decisions to make. The other group was presented with a host of products and had to answer questions about them: What kind of scented candle do you like—vanilla or almond? What kind of shampoo brand do you prefer? Do you like this kind of candy or that?

Then they all had to take the classic test of self-control: How long can you hold your hand in ice water?

Whatever resources are burned up by making decisions are also used up in self-regulation. The students who’d had to make all the product decisions simply couldn’t hold their hands in the icy water as long as the control group. And not just a little bit less—half as long. No decisions to make? More than a minute. Lots of decisions? Less than 30 seconds.

In short, there’s a limited number of sound decisions you can make in any one day, and as you make more and more decisions, you erode your ability to regulate your own behavior. So go home at 5 p.m. Turn off the cellphone over the weekend. Watch a movie. Perhaps most important, have a sandwich. By not working so much, you’ll get more and better work done. Hours themselves represent a cost—instead, measure output. Who cares how many hours someone worked on something? In the end, all that matters is how fast it’s delivered and how good it is.