Talk to almost anyone today, and they complain about having “no time,” about being too busy.  And we now equate that busyness to productivity and a characteristic of a successful life. The truth of the matter is that busyness does not result in greater productivity and that busyness is contributing to a culture of continuous anxiety and stress.

“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyhone how they’re doing,” contends Tin Kreider, in his article, “The Busy Trap,” in the New York Times. He says often this is said as a boast, “disguised as a complaint,” but often these same people complain about being dead tired and exhausted.

U.S.A. Today published a multi-year poll in 2008, to determine how people perceived time and their own busyness. It found that in each consecutive year since 1987, people reported that they are busier than the year before, with 69% responding that they were either “busy,” or “very busy,” with only 8% responding that they were “not very busy.” Not surprisingly, women reported being busier than men, and those between ages 30 to 60 were the busiest. When the respondents were asked what they were sacrificing to their busyness, 56% cited sleep, 52% recreation, 51% hobbies, 44% friends and 30% family. The respondents also reported that in l987, 50% said they and ate at least one family meal everyday; by 2008, that figure had declined to 20%.

I work as an executive coach and advisor to many senior executives and professionals. Almost without exception they either complain or observe that they can “barely keep up,” or “have not time for vacations,” or to do things for fun, and that their families often suffer. The result is often that they are overstressed and overworked, but tell me there is no choice—the job requires it.

Even children today are over scheduled. Today’s adolescents and teens are overtaxed and overburdened and stressed to a degree that was once seen only in child psychiatric patients, according to an analysis of research spanning five decades by Jean Twenge, PhD, a psychology professor at San Diego State University.

Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., a child psychiatrist and author of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap, “Over-scheduling our children is not only a widespread phenomenon, it’s how we parent today,” he says. “Parents feel remiss that they’re not being good parents if their kids aren’t in all kinds of activities. Children are under pressure to achieve, to be competitive. I know sixth-graders who are already working on their resumes so they’ll have an edge when they apply for college.”

Kreider argues that overly busy people are busy because “of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and read what they might have to face in its absence…They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.” He says that busyness serves as a kind of “existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness.”  For busy people’s lives cannot possibly be “silly or trivial or meaningless” if they are completely booked with activities, and “in demand every hour of the day.” Krieder contends that our culture has assumed a value position that idleness or doing nothing is a bad thing. But “idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice,” he says, “it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”

In essence, we have lost our belief in “dolce far niente,” how sweet to do nothing. Our inability to do this is exacerbated by our incapacity to unplug from the digital world. I argued in my article “Why it’s so hard to unplug from the digital world,” we may be actually addicted to the digital virtual world, which can physically disconnect us from others and our inner selves.

It seems like “work is no longer a place; it’s a state of mind. It’s become less bout when I turn off the office lights and more about when I turn off (at least mentally) the inbox, Christa Carone, Chief Marketing Officer of Xerox said, as cited in Louise Altman’s excellent blog, The Intentional Workplace.

In my article in Psychology Today,  “Workaholism and the myth of hard work,” I argued that a “contributing factor to the problem of workaholism is the prevailing belief in hard work as the route to success, particularly wealth. Notions of hard work are predominantly held by the middle class and poor people and originate from the industrial revolution and Protestant religious tenants, which viewed hard work both as a virtue and magic formula for success. Hard work has never been a belief embraced by the upper class and wealthy.”

We now equate busyness and overwork with productivity but the two are not the same. In the same way, we’ve equated “seat time,” that is time workers spend in their seats at their desks or in meetings, as equivalent to productive work. It may be the reverse.

In a New York Times article, “Let’s Be Less Productive,” author Tim Jackson defines productivity as “the amount of output delivered per hour of work in the economy.” Jackson’s perspective underscores that perception that productivity in all its forms is measured in economic terms and in terms of time. Jackson goes on to say, “time is money…We’ve become conditioned by the language of efficiency.”

Sara Robinson, writing an insightful article in Salon magazine, on the issue of overwork, “Bring Back the 40-hour Work Week,” says “150 years of research proves that long hours at work will kill profits, productivity and employees.” Yet, for most of the 20th century, the broad consensus among American business leaders was that working people more than 40 hours a week was “stupid, wasteful, dangerous and expensive—and the most telling sign of dangerously incompetent management,” Robinson argues. Citing the work of Tom Walker of the Work Less Institute’s Prosperity Covenant, “That output does not rise or fall in direct proportion to the number of hours worked is a lesson that seemingly has to be learned each generation.”

Robinson also cites the work of Evan Robinson, a software engineer who published a paper for the International Developers’ Association in 2005 that argued throughout the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, and ‘60s research studies conducted by businesses, universities, industry associations and the military supported the shorter (maximum 40 hour) work week. The research indicated that productivity does not rise substantially in extended work days or weeks. Extensive data showed that longer hours of work actually resulted in reduced efficiency and catastrophic accidents, which brought with them substantial liabilities to employers. The research showed that extended hours resulted in reduced brain functioning and physical fatigue, which actually results in loss of productivity. A Business Roundtable study found that after just eight 60-hour weeks the fall-off in productivity is so marked that the average team would have actually gotten just as much done and been better off if they’d just stuck to a 40-hour week all along. And at 70-or 80 –hour weeks, the fall-off happens ever aster; at 80 hours, the break-even point is reached in just three weeks. Studies on this subject conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics , U.S. Department of Labor, Proctor and Gamble Company, , the National Electrical Contractors Association, and the Mechanical Contractors Association of American produced similar results. All of them showed that continuing scheduled overtime has a strong negative effect on productivity, which increases in magnitude proportionate to the amount and duration of overtime.

Critics of these studies cite the fact that they focus on physical jobs and don’t apply to the majority of employees who are “knowledge workers.” Robinson argues that research shows that actually knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than physical workers—about six. U.S. military research has shown that losing just one hour of sleep per night for a week will cause a level of cognitive degradation equivalent to a .10 blood alcohol level. And what’s worse, most of them “typically have no idea of just how impaired they are,” says Robinson. Robinson cites the follow-up investigations on the Exxon Valdez disaster and the Challenger explosion, where investigators determined that overworked, overtired decision-makers played a significant role in bring about those disasters.

So, what has accounted for our sudden loss of memory of knowledge about working hours and productivity that pervaded most of the 20th century?  Robinson points to two factors. The first of these is the development of technology as a cornerstone of our economy, and the culture at the center of that technology—Silicon Valley. The jobs there have attracted a unique breed of brilliant young men and women who fit a particular profile: “single-minded, socially awkward, emotionally detached and blessed (or cursed) with a singular, unique, laser-like focus on some particular area of obsessive interest. For these people, work wasn’t just work; it was their life’s passion and they devoted every waking hour to it, usually to the exclusion of non-work relationships, exercise, sleep, food and sometimes even personal care,” argues Robinson.  Overwork and overtime didn’t even appear in their vocabulary.

The new technological corporate ethics and slogans reflected these young overworked employees. For example, Microsoft’s “churn’em and burn’em” which translated meant hiring young programmers fresh out of university and working them 70 hours a week or more till they dropped, and then firing them and replacing them with new ones.

The second and related development which strengthened the prevalence of overwork was management philosophy and leadership style. Taking management guru Tom Peters’ message of passion for work was translated into working more is the only answer to productivity. And so any aspiring manager or executive worth his salt, who worked 40 hours a week or less would not be considered promotable talent, or worse, laughed out of the office for appearing to be lazy.

The recent recession has entrenched the notion of overwork as a necessity now, as opposed to an optional strategy. The recession has resulted in massive layoffs across all industries, but the level of work expected of the employees who remain has not just remained the same, it has increased to compensate for lost employees. And even where businesses have shown some improvement now, managers are loath to rehire or hire new employees, because the norm of fewer employees with the impression of equal productivity is an argument against doing so. As Robinson argues, “for every four Americans working a 50-hour week, every week, there’s one American who should have a full-time job, but doesn’t. Our rampant unemployment problem would vanish overnight if we simply worked the way we’re supposed to by law.”

Yet, the prevailing popular and business cultures continue to perpetuate the myth that we must work harder and longer to be more productive, and that in turn will produce a better life and better economy. This philosophy flies in the face of all we know from brain science research, productivity research for most of the 20th century, and comparative data with other nations about how to measure the quality of life.

When it comes down to it, how can we ever have work-life balance, when the scales are tipped by dominant management views of the necessity for overwork as the only solution to increased productivity?

I now consistently advocate to my individual and corporate clients to embrace the life style that less is more; work less and your productivity and life satisfaction will increase.

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    Ray Williams
    Ray Williams is President of Ray Williams Associates a company located in Vancouver and Phoenix, providing leadership training, personal growth and executive coaching services. He is a regular contributor to Psychology Today, The Financial Post, Fast Company and Salon. He is the author of two books on leadership, a novel and has written over 300 articles on topics such as leadership, personal change and the workplace. Ray is a platform speaker and workshop leader in demand throughout North America. Ray is also active in the Vancouver Board of Trade, and currently serves as its Vice-Chair.
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