Talent Management

How Much Work Is Too Much Work? What Is the Limit to Productivity?

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Don’t smoke too much, drink too much, eat too much, or work too much. We’re all on the road to the grave—but there’s no need to be in the passing lane.” — Robert Orben, American humorist.

Recently, I held a public seminar where one of the participants posed an interesting question to me in the Q&A section: “Laura, how much work is enough? I could work 16 hours a day, but I’m not sure when to stop! What is a good gauge?”

What a great question! One of the audience members said (only half-jokingly), “I stop when I finish my to-do list or can’t stay awake any longer.”

What’s the right work mix

In my case, it depends: I work constantly and consistently when I travel (over 100,000 miles a year on United Airlines to get to speaking engagements). I make the most of my time in airports, on planes, and in hotel rooms.

Why? So I can spend more uninterrupted time with my family when I’m home and less time working. What’s the right mix for you?

No matter how productively and efficiently you work, more work always waits in the wings. As one cartoon featuring a frazzled-looking beaver puts it, “It’s just one dam project after another.” Some tasks repeat on a predictable cycle, making it difficult to get ahead. We can always do more to tweak our systems and tighten up productivity — if we had nothing else to work on.

Because there is a never-ending stream of work, you must make a conscious decision not to overwork — except when you have to — and then only for short bursts. If you don’t, you may end up in a downward spiral of exhaustion and poor health.

Even if you do somehow find some spare time, you may feel so wound up you don’t know what to do … especially when you start wondering what happened to your family and friends.

Six things to remember about work

To keep that from occurring, set deliberate limits on your work time. No amount of work will make you more productive than a reasonable work/life balance, especially once you hit the point of diminishing returns at about 10-12 hours per day.

Keep these thoughts in mind as you proceed:

  1. No one’s head will explode if you don’t finish a task this second. Furthermore, I doubt doing it tomorrow will get you fired. Few things are so urgent you can’t put them off if necessary — especially when you’re overextended and exhausted. Be honest, direct, and realistic.
  2. Manage your expectations and deadlines. Determine, in advance, the amount of effort it will take to handle a task or project. Then calculate backwards how much you’ll need to work on it each day between now and its due date, so each day you know you’re making the best use of your time. Program in some flexibility in case of emergencies or illness. Make sure each milestone goes on your daily HIT (High Impact Task) list, and work on your tasks in priority order. That way, you won’t suddenly realize you’ve left your Priority 1 tasks for the end of the day, so you have no other choice but to stay until you’ve finished them — creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of overwork.
  3. Strike a decent balance. Decide to work no more than a set number of hours each day and to stick to your guns. If you had to work (x) number of hours per day, what would have to change in order for you to achieve it? I have to do certain things on my list each day, but other tasks can fall off the list if I run out of time. Establish sharp boundaries between work and the rest of your life, too. Once you’ve left the office, avoid working unless it’s an emergency (and define “emergency” very strictly). Take your well-earned breaks, weekends, and vacations as well.
  4. Don’t forget family. A job is just a job. Yes, you want to wow your boss and make a great living, but never at the expense of never seeing your loved ones. If the choice comes down to breaking ties with your family or your workplace, family should win hands down. You can always get another job—you can’t get another family without much suffering. Pay attention to your kids while you still have them (trust me—my daughter is graduating from high school next month, and I feel the time ticking in my heart every day). Set a weekly date night with your spouse. If you marry your job from the very beginning of your career, prepare to be alone when you retire—and decide now whether it’ll be worth it.
  5. Your health matters. Most people need 7-9 hours of sleep per night, and we all need to eat well and exercise regularly. Schedule your workouts as religiously as you would any of your work tasks, so you can keep your energy up and maintain astonishing productivity. I schedule my run on my calendar five of seven days a week and stick to it religiously, or I’m a grumpy bear and have horrible energy.
  6. Get a hobby. Find (or rediscover) something not work-related you love to do, so it’ll tempt you away from spending too much time at work (even if you love your work too). A hobby can fill your time if you start feeling antsy about being off work. Do you love to fish, read, write, golf, play cards, ski, or swim? We have a 5-month-old Aussie puppy I love to play with — I’m working with her on the command “Jump” in preparation for Agility trials. Find something to turn to instead of work, and make that appointment as important as any other on your calendar.

Steady as she goes

Hard work can be its own reward, but it can also be its own penalty. We only have 24 hours in the day; if you work 16 — like the fellow I mentioned earlier seemed willing to do — you won’t have much time for the basic life functions like cooking and shopping — much less sleep, good health, and enjoyment.

Live! Don’t just live to work.

While work is crucial, doing nothing but working only represents an existence. It’s certainly not a life.

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.

Laura Stack is one of America's premier experts on productivity, and her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides workshops around the globe on productivity, potential, and performance. She’s the author of six books, most recently, “Execution IS the Strategy: How Leaders Achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time.” Contact her at laura@theproductivitypro.com, or you can connect with her on LinkedIn.
  • http://www.hullfinancialplanning.com/ Jason Hull

    One condition I’d add is what is the likelihood of reaching a point of completion with the extra time that you’re putting into the work? It doesn’t have to mean finishing the entire project, but, rather, can you reach a milestone or a natural stopping point in the amount of time that you’re willing to allot? As research by Dan Ariely et al regarding the Ikea Effect shows (http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/11-091.pdf), we’re much more likely to value our work when we can point to a completed task than an uncompleted task. Furthermore, as the Zeigarnik Effect shows (http://www.hullfinancialplanning.com/the-zeigarnik-effect-and-your-money/), if we don’t complete a task, it will rattle around in our brains until we CAN finish it – leading to dissatisfaction.

  • jacque vilet

    Here’s an example of work carried too far. Actual incidents reported in Japan:

    “Working for long periods under extreme stressful work conditions can lead to sudden death, a phenomenon the Japanese call karoshi, literally translated as “death from overwork,” or occupational sudden death, mainly from heart attack and stroke due to stress. Karoshi has been more widely studied in Japan, where the first case of this phenomenon was reported in 1969.”