The tech industry has attracted many of the brightest, most ambitious, and most motivated people on the planet. This has led to an incredible culture of amazing ideas and products being created in unbelievably short time periods.
We’re the ones who persevere. Who push through. Who make the effort. Our instinct is to hustle and grind; it’s our mantra as the creators, the founders, the entrepreneurs, the doers of the world.
However, this incredible drive has a self-destructive dark side: left unchecked, highly driven people can overwork themselves into burnout and breakdown.
And, in a tragically ironic twist, the hustle and grind mindset is actually harming our ability to accomplish our goals.
In this article, we’re going to walk through four inconvenient truths — along with the research that backs them — about productivity, and how we may be inadvertently tanking our ability to get things done.
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“Grinding” actually damages our productivity
Given what we can accomplish in a 40-hour work-week, simple logic would suggest that a 80-hour work-week would result in accomplishing twice as much.
Under deadline pressure, it’s not uncommon to see teams enter “crunch time”: a period of longer hours to, presumably, assist the team in meeting a looming deadline.
While this may seem to be a pretty obvious relationship — more hours equals more output — the reality is that there’s a point where more hours starts to reduce output: prolonged periods of working 60+ hours actually cause negative productivity compared to a 40-hour work week.
The grind doesn’t work, and we can prove it with science.
In a 1909 study comparing hours worked to value produced determined that there’s a point of diminishing returns for overtime. These results have been borne out in other studies and hold true across all industries.
The results of the study showed that workers saw a brief initial boost in productivity when working longer hours, but after a short time — typically just a few weeks — their output started to decline. After a couple months their output dropped below the baseline established in a 40-hour week.
By contrast, workers on a 40-hour schedule were able to keep up a steady rate of productivity continuously. (Studies like these are how we ended up with a 40-hour work week in the first place.)
The decrease is due to several factors, with the most notable being:
Increased exhaustion leading to a higher error rate,
which means that a significant portion of the longer hours are spent fixing errors that wouldn’t have occurred under a regular schedule.
Decreased engagement and urgency.
If all we ever do is work, there’s no incentive to work quickly; it’s hard to get excited when the only reward for finishing our work is more work.
What to do instead
Rather than burning the midnight oil, keep a regular schedule.
If you’re like me, it’s hard to stop working if there’s nothing else to do, so book activities outside of work: make a date to go see a movie with friends; plan to cook dinner with your partner; sign up for classes or lessons.
It may feel like “wasted” time, but let 100 years of science soothe your nerves: we’re more productive in the long term by working a sane 40-hour schedule.
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The best tools for creativity are downtime and playtime
There’s a reason that many stories of huge breakthroughs involve smart people taking baths, walking to the bus, or otherwise doing things that are completely unrelated to whatever problem it was they ended up solving: our subconscious minds do a lot of the heavy lifting for creativity and problem solving, and we can’t engage our subconscious when we’re actively slamming our heads against a problem.
If we want to be at our most creative, we need to dedicate time to leisure activities and relaxation.
There are so many studies that say downtime is critical
Studies have repeatedly shown that time away from our work helps us boost our creativity. For example, simply taking a walk can help us get unstuck.
Mowing the lawn reduces stress. Mental downtime helps us solve problems and may even help with the formation of memories.
Which is all to say: what we tend to call “idle” time is actually a vital part of doing our best work.
Build downtime into your day
Despite the internal resistance many of us feel to downtime, setting aside time to relax, play, and generally let our minds wander is absolutely critical if we want to perform at our highest levels.
Ideally, downtime will involve a mix of activities that both engage our minds in different kinds of thinking, and that don’t really engage our minds at all.
For example, reading books unrelated to our industry, learning skills that challenge us in different ways — cooking or woodworking, for example — help us to engage different parts of our brains and can help spark connections that lead to huge breakthroughs.
In contrast, going on long walks, playing sports, meditating, or just staring out a window with a hot beverage give our minds the opportunity to wander, which is — as they say — where the magic happens.
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Working tired is worse than working drunk
It’s tragically common for people in our industry to show up at work with bags under their eyes, talking about an all-nighter with a twisted sort of put-upon pride. We wear four hours of sleep as a badge of honour among the driven, with dismissive clichés like, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
Going without sleep is a dumb decision. Literally. Not sleeping makes you less intelligent.
Pitting sleepy interns against drunk drivers in tests of skill
In a study on sleep deprivation, medical interns were split into two groups: one group that was getting progressively more tired, and one group that was getting progressively more drunk.
At only 18 hours without sleep — that‘s six hours a night — participants showed significant decrease in cognitive function, and performed at a level that was just about as impaired as the drunk group.
That means that trying to work on five hours’ sleep is as bad — or even worse — than trying to work after five shots of tequila. We’re less alert, less precise, more sluggish, and far more likely to make mistakes.
Getting enough sleep is also correlated with a huge number of health benefits, including decreased risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. Sleeping is also how we process information and solve problems also boosts our subconscious, which means sleeping enough is making us more creative as well.
Put sleep at the top of your priority list
Get at least seven hours a night.
Sleep should be a primary concern. When we’re staring down the barrel of tight deadlines, we certainly shouldn’t consider cutting sleep to squeeze in a few extra hours of effort.
It’s challenging at first, but if you prioritize sleep — especially in cases where sleep has been a secondary consideration for long periods of time — the difference in your mental state is alarming. And after you’ve felt what it’s like to operate at 100% mentally, it’s far easier to hit the sack and get the rest necessary to stay at 100%.
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The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing us we could multitask
If there’s anything that could be truthfully called a Magic Bullet™ for boosting productivity, it’s this:
How multitasking ruins our productivity
Every additional task we try to juggle results in a 20% time loss. In concrete terms, each additional task is costing an entire working day of productivity per week.
Doing two things at once? At best, only 80% of your time is productive. Four things? You’ll be lucky to hit 40% productivity.
The tasks sneak up on us: how often do we find ourselves doing three things at once — say, working on a project, monitoring email, and following the company Slack channel? Most of us don’t even notice it happening, but juggling like this means that we’re working 5 days, but only getting 3 days’ worth of work done.
It’s pretty rare that research is unanimous, but everyone agrees multitasking sucks.
What to do instead
No matter how tempting it is to think we can manage multiple tasks at once, we have to work on one thing at a time.
In practice, this means looking at our to do list, deciding what to work on, then eliminating all other distractions until that task is finished (or the time limit is reached, if it’s a large task). Email gets fully closed, quit Slack, put your phone in airplane mode.
This is hard to process, because our gut reaction is to feel guilty about “ignoring” tasks when we’re single-tasking. But that’s just the tragic irony of modern work: multitasking makes us feel productive; single-tasking makes us actually productive.
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Productivity is about strategy, not brute force
All of these studies share a common conclusion: no matter how badly we wish for it to be true, we can’t operate at our highest levels of productivity through brute force. The idea of “powering through” to get more done is a fairy tale.
Grinding all day and night, skipping sleep, and never taking breaks may sound like the epitome of a dedicated entrepreneur, but that kind of effort has an extremely limited window before it does more harm than good.
Those of us who want to be truly productive need to be more strategic. We need to balance our drive with our need to recharge; our grit with our need to process problems in the background; our ambition with our cognitive limits. By learning when to press hard on the accelerator, and when to let biology do its work, we maximise our productivity and efficiency — we’ll see our careers accelerate and the bags under our eyes disappear.
And if we think about why we’re working, isn’t the reason to work so we can have a better life? By being strategic, we can make sure we’re not giving up the long-term goal of work for short-term progress.
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