Illustration by Olenka Malarecka
Illustration by Olenka Malarecka

Work Culture

We build our work lives around time, but doesn't energy make more sense?


Published on December 19, 2019

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In 2004, Kelly Kandra Hughes stood on stage the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. As her name was called and she stepped up to accept her doctoral hood, formally recognizing the completion of her PhD in psychology, it was the culmination of nearly a decade’s work, of long days in the library and late nights in the lab. As she looked out over the cheering crowd, she felt ecstatic. But little did she know, the hard work was about to begin.

After accepting a job as an assistant professor for a college in the Midwest, Hughes’ next five years were increasingly dominated by work as the lure of tenure took over her life. Just a little more work, she thought, and the job offer would come. Extra hours mounted up and 50-hour workweeks became normal. Then 60. Then 70.

“I was staying up until two or three in the morning to get all my work done,” says Hughes in an interview with Dropbox. “I was short changing my sleep on a regular basis and getting only four or five hours of sleep. Sometimes less.”

After several years of working brutal hours, Hughes could feel her body and mind starting to slip. Every morning was a battle and every research paper a chore. But still, she fought on. If she could only put in a little more time, the payoff would be worth it.

But then, she hit a wall.

Mentally and physically exhausted, Hughes just couldn’t go on. “I was lonely and exhausted,” she says. “I would come home from work and turn on the oven to start dinner, but then fall asleep on the couch.”

In 2013, Hughes quit her job and resolved to rebuild her life, prioritizing something other than time in the research lab.

As we decouple time from productivity, we need a new productivity yardstick. Increasingly, experts are suggesting that we structure our lives not around time, but energy.

Hughes’ experience is far from rare. Faced with rising professional demands, many people respond by increasing the number of hours they work. But just as Hughes did, they’re discovering that solution only works for a short period of time. And just as Hughes did, they’re burning out—by the millions

This trend—investing more time to increase work output—is built on a serious misunderstanding of how humans work. People are not simplistic machines. If you can produce one high-quality report in eight hours, that doesn’t mean you can produce two if you skip lunch and stay until midnight.

As we decouple time from productivity, we need a new productivity yardstick. Increasingly, experts are suggesting that we structure our lives not around time, but energy.

We are not machines

For centuries, people have analyzed businesses by measuring economic output using linear industrial indicators—think the number of hours a machine is operational or the tonnage of raw material a factory consumes.

These indicators worked perfectly for industrial economies. If a machine can assemble 1,000 smartphones in 10 hours, it will assemble 2,000 if you can keep it running for 20. But the nature of work has changed for huge swathes of the population. Tens of millions of Americans are now employed in the knowledge economy, where they sell the power of their minds, not the dexterity of their fingers.

Although many of our roles have changed, our productivity yardstick has not—and that has caused significant problems in how we think about work. “In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs,” wrote productivity author, Cal Newport, Deep Work, “many workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.” In other words, people prioritize doing something—anything—for hours on end just to show that they’re busy. Not only does this not move people towards their goals, it might actively undermine the work they do.

After someone spends more than 50 hours in work, their productivity drops off a cliff, they make riskier decisions and more mistakes. In fact, research shows that people who work long hours are often outperformed by those who work far fewer.

Take this study from time-tracking company, DeskTime. In a bid to uncover what made their top performers tick, DeskTime installed time tracking apps on all its employees’ work computers and meticulously recorded how they spent their time. The study discovered that the most productive employees didn’t put in more time than anyone else. “The employees with the highest productivity ratings,” wrote one of the study’s authors, “for the most part, don’t even work 8 hour days.” Instead, they managed their energy levels with carefully timed breaks.

With time eliminated as an effective productivity yardstick, people began searching for an alternative. In their book, The Power of Full Engagement, performance psychologist, Jim Loehr, and business writer, Tony Schwartz, proposed a radically new approach—energy.

In their research, Loehr and Schwartz identified four sources of energy—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual—and argued that people need to nurture each source to avoid burning out.

The pair argued that the key to human productivity was not time, but energy management. “The number of hours in a day is fixed, but the quantity and quality of energy available to us is not,” wrote Loehr and Schwartz. “It is our most precious resource. The more we take responsibility for the energy we bring to the world, the more empowered and productive we become.”

Consider Hughes the day after she quit her job. Yes, she had all the time in the world but it’s unlikely that she would have achieved anything because she had exhausted herself through overwork.

In their research, Loehr and Schwartz identified four sources of energy—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual—and argued that people need to nurture each source to avoid burning out like Hughes. “To be fully engaged,” they wrote, “we must be physically energized, emotionally connected, mentally focused and spiritually aligned with a purpose beyond our immediate self-interest.”

When The Power of Full Engagement came out in 2003, its premise seemed radical, but not as much anymore. Across the world, people are beginning to decouple time and productivity. Just look at all the organizations trialling six-hour workdays. Employees at these companies work fewer hours yet produce the same volume of work. Indeed, some organizations even recorded an uptick in production.

Instead of fixating on time, Loehr and Schwartz recommend that we build our lives around energy. The concept may seem alien right now, but we can see what they would look like by looking at how early adopters are already revolutionizing their roles, workplaces, and companies.

Rebuild your schedule

In 2009, Tony Schwartz sat down to write his new book, a productivity manual called The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. It was Schwartz’s fifth book and he was well used to working long hours behind the keyboard, bashing out one draft after another. But for this project, Schwartz decided to try something different.

Instead of working in long, unbroken stints, Schwartz borrowed an idea from Nathan Kleitman—the best rest-activity cycle (BRAC). The BRAC is a rhythm that plays out in 80–120-minute cycles, throughout the day and night. During the cycle, we go through alternating periods of rest and activity. For example, you might be alert for 90 minutes and restful for 20 minutes. Kleitman realized that forcing yourself to concentrate through the restful phase was a wasteful use of energy.

So when Schwartz started drafting The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, he wrote without interruptions for three 90-minute periods per day, taking a break between each one. By aligning his work schedule to his body’s natural 90-minute cycles of higher to lower alertness, Schwartz made the most of his limited energy and cut his book production time in half.

To operate optimally, our brains need to toggle between focused and unfocused tasks.

In her influential essay, Embracing Our Humanness to Increase Productivity, Allison Green Schoop, associate strategy director at strategy firm frog, proposed several ways businesses could implement structures to support such biological rhythms.

“[C]alendar tools could align the organization around 90-minute work and rest cycles,” she wrote. “They could even encourage different types of meetings for different times of day, leaving morning hours for demanding cognitive tasks and creative thinking and afternoon hours for administrative staff meetings and client check-ins.”

Monitor your energy

In early-2006, financial-services company Wachovia hired consultants from The Energy Project, a consultancy focused on human performance, to improve productivity in its workforce.

The Energy Project’s consultants designed a course, focusing on “specific strategies for strengthening one of the four main dimensions of energy.” The strategies were simple and easy to implement. To improve physical energy, for example, people should set a rigid bedtime. To improve emotional energy, they could increase the amount of positive feedback they give. To improve mental energy, they ought to reduce interruptions as much as possible. And to improve spiritual energy, people were encouraged to reserve time in their day for what they considered most important.

In the spring of 2006, The Energy Project consultants delivered the course to 106 Wachovia employees at a dozen regional banks. The result was immediate and significant.

Compared to a control group, revenues from loans issued by Wachovia’s newly trained employees increased by 13% and revenues from deposits grew by 20%. This wasn’t a short-term uptick, either. “[W]ith only a handful of exceptions,” wrote the study’s authors, “the participants continued to significantly outperform the control group for a full year after completing the program.”

Prioritize downtime

Richard Feynman was an exceedingly lazy man —he admitted so himself. “I’m actively irresponsible,” he said in a 1981 interview. “I tell everybody I don’t do anything; if anyone asks me to be on a committee…’no’ I tell them.” But Feynman’s laziness didn’t hold him back, as his Nobel Prize in Physics will attest. In fact, his prioritization of “lazy” downtime might have even helped him.

Srini Pillay, former assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explained that our brains are limited in the amount of focused work they can do. Excessive focus exhausts the “focus circuits” in our brain, making the work exponentially harder. “It can drain your energy and make you lose self-control,” wrote Pillay in Harvard Business Review. “This energy drain can also make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought-out, and you become less collaborative.” To operate optimally, our brains need to toggle between focused and unfocused tasks.

While one way of achieving this is laziness, Pillay recommends some more positive alternatives. Positive constructive daydreaming is a type of “mind-wandering” similar to daydreaming but delivers some of the benefits of Pillay suggested. “To start PCD, you choose a low-key activity such as knitting, gardening or casual reading, then wander into the recesses of your mind,” Pillay wrote. Alternatively, Pillay recommended taking naps to boost alertness and psychological halloweenism, where you pretend to be someone else, in order to break out of your own psychological constraints.

Building healthier lives

More than a decade after her burnout brought her psychology career crashing to a halt, Hughes is buoyant about her life. After stepping back from the world of all-encompassing work, Hughes reevaluated her life and rebuilt her schedule with intent. She implemented hard limits on her working hours and ring-fenced large swathes of her day for her.

That change has driven a huge improvement in the quality of her life. “I have never felt more joyful,” Hughes says, “and I have never been healthier.”

Yet even though she works far fewer hours than she did in her psychology career, Hughes still accomplishes a huge amount. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish during a few quiet hours in the morning,” she says, reflecting on her current routine.

Hughes’ story doesn’t just illustrate how flawed our perception of productivity is. By rebuilding her life, Hughes proves that a healthy, sustainable work life is achievable—but we have to intelligently work for it. So the next time you have a pressing deadline, don’t just pour hours into your work. Step back, evaluate your energy, and invest your resources carefully.