Why work so hard, work smart instead

Working long hours doesn’t mean you’re being productive. But how do we stop ourselves falling into the effort over reward trap?

David Quinn: BrightHR Social Media Manager

The myth that you need to burn the midnight oil for better results is hard to shake. Psychologists call this the labour illusion. The theory is that unless you see someone breaking a sweat, it’s difficult to believe their work has much value. This attitude is prevalent in some workplaces where employers equate bums on seats and long hours with high productivity. But, by paying attention to the time your workers spend at work instead of the quality of work produced you could be falling into The Effort Trap’.

All work isn’t created equal, and hard work doesn’t automatically translate to meaningful work. Ploughing through a to-do list of trivial tasks that get you no nearer to achieving your major goals is a waste of time and effort. The key here is to identify the right tasks and then dedicate uninterrupted time to them.

With that in mind, we explore the ways we work and how they affect productivity.


The old way of working

The way we manage work was designed for industrial times. But, trying to fit factory-based processes into modern day knowledge work is often a mismatch. It’s easy to determine how much work is done on an assembly line, but it’s trickier to calculate productivity in today’s knowledge-based work environments.

This could account for the reluctance of some businesses to automate certain processes as it’s far easier to measure results when manual work like filling in forms and printing is involved.

We can all fall into this ‘more time, better work’ trap. Take the example of a locksmith. At first, it might take an hour to complete a job, but as time goes on and expertise increases he/she will get quicker and more efficient. However, the faster and better they got at changing locks, the more customers complained about the price. They fell into ‘The Effort Trap’ and assumed that changing a lock efficiently didn’t hold as much value as slogging away for hours.

This type of mentality in modern business keeps workers unproductive, as they fear that if tasks are finished quickly, they could be considered lazy. With this mindset, it's no wonder many employees are keeping busy for busy's sake and why many companies seem to overcomplicate what can often be simple tasks.  


New ways of working

Manual work is being replaced by thinking and knowledge jobs. However, measuring productivity hasn’t fully caught-up with this shift. The emphasis is still on the hours put-in and on tangible results. Quality is often more important than quantity in the new way of working, so time spent on a project is rarely an adequate sign of the value of work.

The Effort Trap encourages thinking like ‘writing more strategies’ is best, when the focus should be on ‘writing better strategies’. Business owners should be concerned with defining targets and quality, instead of just concentrating on time.

One system that can be used to measure the work produced and not the hours spent is the results-only work environment (ROWE™) developed by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, authors of the book ‘Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution’.

In the ROWE™ system performance is measured by criteria you set. Your employees have the freedom to do the work when and how they think is best. The following should be considered when thinking of using the ROWE™ system in your business:

  • Set clear quality requirements and goals.
  • Prioritise communication to get feedback on progress.
  • Support your workers to keep them motivated.


Deep work and shallow work

Deep work is where you concentrate on a hard to replicate task for a long time without distraction. As a result, deep work is very taxing on your brain. Shallow work is made up of tasks that aren’t difficult to replicate and don’t need intense focus, for example answering emails and updating social media.

Deep work produces results that make a big impact. Shallow work, although important has the appearance of keeping you busy but doesn’t achieve much. Because deep work is mentally taxing, it’s normally done in short spurts, for a few hours at a time. Onlookers who see that someone has put-in a solid four hours of deep work and goes home might mistakenly accuse him/her of slacking-off.

The key is to get the balance right between deep and shallow work, as it’s unrealistic to ditch all shallow work. Productivity skyrockets when you can focus on important tasks for a specified period of time. Encouraging your employees to do more deep work could make a significant difference to your business. Less shallow work means more time spent on tasks and projects that affect your bottom line.


Stop being a busy fool be a lazy genius

Focusing on one thing without switching from task to task may give the appearance of laziness. Being still, instead of looking as busy as a bee, may give a bad impression to those with wrong and outdated impressions of work.

You need to redefine work in your business by encouraging your workers to be lazy geniuses and not busy fools. A busy fool will tick irrelevant things off on a long to-do list but won’t advance their business. A lazy genius is the worker that’ll shut off distractions, even ignore some emails but emerge with a piece of work that’ll grow your business or save time or money.

Download The Lazy Manifesto to learn about how to promote the lazy genius approach to encourage smarter employees, better quality work and higher productivity

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