While the number of hours American workers in the knowledge economy spend working each week has slowly crept up over the past century, studies show our concentration actually wanes the longer we’re at work. After four to five hours of concentrated focus, we become less efficient, taking longer to make decisions and losing sharpness.
As the hours tick away, we experience the law of diminishing returns: we take longer to get work done, and often end up with a lower quality work product. That means those last three, four or more hours of your workday are probably not having the impact you’re hoping for.
Multitasking and endless interruptions are also a productivity and creativity killer. Dr. Gloria Mark of the University of California found that knowledge workers are interrupted nearly every three minutes, and it takes 15 minutes to refocus after an interruption. If we’re never allowed extended time - even an hour - to focus on deep work, we never move the ball forward.
Forcing our brains to work beyond their capacity and subjecting them to constant interruptions like they are open tabs in your browser is also problematic, especially as brain fatigue can contribute to making mistakes and eventually burning out. One study revealed managers can’t tell the difference in output and performance between an employee who works 80 hours per week and one who just pretends to. And overwork hurts employees by leading to higher stress levels and health problems, which in turn hurts an organization’s bottom line. Expecting employees to work excessively long hours or be “always on” is a lose-lose scenario.
If the way we’re working isn’t working for our brains, how can organizations apply the science behind how our brains work?
First, remembering the law of diminishing returns with our brain power, consider shortening the workday. We know it’s a big step, but many organizations are realizing a workday as short as six, five or even four hours gives employees the motivation to get stuff done while allowing them the freedom to invest in other priorities. This makes for more productive working hours and a healthier, happier team. Not ready to take that step? Get serious about an eight-hour workday, and put organizational norms in place that prevent work from creeping into evening and weekend hours.
Second, organizations need to balance time at work between deep focus and creative collaboration. Most people do their best work at the start of the day, so allow employees a few hours in the morning for uninterrupted deep work. Then, allot time in the afternoon for meetings and collaboration as brains tire from focused effort and find creative endeavors refreshing. At MatchPace, we call this assigning “core hours,” and if you’re ready to get your organization performing at its optimal pace, we can help!
Ultimately, our traditional workday and excessive working hours just don’t encourage productive focus or creative problem-solving. Our brains are our most valuable resource, but they get tired. Consider some research-backed changes to your workday to help everyone maximize brain power, reduce distractions and interruptions, discourage multitasking and truly structure the workday to get work done.