Hourly wages and the classic 40-hour work week have trained us to measure our labor by the number of hours we log. However, this mindset is dead wrong when applied to today’s professionals. The value of lawyers, consultants, and analysts isn’t the time they spend, but the value they create through their knowledge.
Even worse, when managers judge their employees’ work by the time they spend at the office, they impede the development of productive habits. By focusing on hours worked instead of results produced, they let professionals avoid answering the most critical question: “Am I currently using my time in the best possible way?” As a result, professionals often use their time inefficiently.
Business meetings are a perfect illustration. Very few professionals would say that attending meetings is the best use of their time. In one survey, white-collar workers estimated that two thirds of meeting time is pure waste. I agree: all too often, information is repeated or the discussion goes off-topic.
Yet, many meetings are too long, too large, and too unfocused.
Many professionals use their time inefficiently because their firm’s hour-oriented culture hasn’t forced them to think rigorously about what’s really important. Sometimes, this leads professionals to spend an inordinate amount of time perfecting one particular task — say, the formatting of an internal presentation — instead of spending time where it might be more useful.
Worst of all, if you measure your productivity by time spent, your only way to get ahead is to spend more hours in the office — to the detriment of the rest of your life. In research published in HBR in 2006, Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce reported that 62 percent of high-earning individuals in America (whom they define as the top 6% of earners) work 50 hours or more per week; 35 percent work 60 hours or more per week.
What You Can Do About It
How can you remove yourself from this treadmill of long, wasted hours at work? Start by constantly evaluating your use of time — even if your organization’s culture doesn’t force you to.
That means knowing what’s important to you, your organization, and your boss — and, vitally, what’s not important. So think critically and rigorously about your priorities.
Then, be prepared to say “no” to requests that don’t matter:
- Decline meetings, whenever you can. To be polite, you can explain your workload and request to see the meeting’s minutes instead.
- Don’t be afraid to use the “delete” button when reviewing your inbox.
- If you can’t say “no” to a certain request, recognize that it may only require a B+ effort. Don’t spend hours bumping it up to an A+ unless you really need to.
While individual employees can change their own habits, organizations need strong-willed leaders to make more radical changes. These leaders must thoroughly reform their organization’s implicit and explicit reward structure. Are employees praised for coming in on Saturday — even if only to finish work that could have been completed during regular hours? Are employees suspicious of others who leave early for the day in order to watch their child’s Little League games?
Of course, this change won’t come easily. It’s easy to count hours. It’s much harder to set project metrics or make subjective evaluations. But smart leaders realize that the only way they can succeed is by getting the most out of their employees. And the only way they can get the best out of their employees is to focus on results, not hours.