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The More You Work, the Stupider You Become

Dec. 7, 2013
New research suggests that for managers of all types, working longer hours can actually make you less productive, and even, well, stupider.

I was listening to a sports talk show the other day, and the hosts were ripping into NFL head coaches who say (or at least claim) they work 18-20 hour days, often sleeping on a cot in their office because they’re so dedicated to winning that they can’t afford to even leave the cozy confines of their stadium offices. I find it comical that given the salaries of these coaches and the amount spent (usually in taxpayer dollars) on these stadiums that they honestly expect us to believe they sleep on cots, but I guess that’s beside the point. What the radio hosts were more incredulous about was the idea that these coaches feel it’s necessary to tell the world (and by extension, their bosses) how hard they’re working, as if the actual time elapsed while they’re physically in the stadium somehow translates into real value provided to the team.

I mention this because there’s a fascinating new book out that suggests that for managers of all types, working longer hours can actually make you less effective, and even, well, stupider. It’s the old sleep deprivation concept taken to its logical conclusion—once your brain hits what I call “The Napping Point,” you’re no longer able to think as clearly as usual, and thus it takes you much longer to do even the simplest tasks.

According to Tasha Eurich, author of Bankable Leadership: Happy People, Bottom-Line Results, and the Power to Deliver Both (Greenleaf, 2013), the idea that the more time you put in, the better the results you’ll achieve is based on a false premise. “In reality,” she notes, “the relationship between [time and results], after a certain point, is one of diminishing returns. A person can only work so much before they cease to be effective.”

Eurich advocates instead a concept she calls One Less Thing (which she of course, inevitably, reduces to a three-letter acronym: OLT), which aims to identify the point at which you or your team will produce less given what you put in. She cites statistics compiled by Booz & Company that say as your company’s number of priorities grow, revenue declines. And the reverse of that is also true, she points out: “Companies with more than 10 priorities only grew above industry average 29% of the time, whereas 44% of companies with just one to three priorities reported above-average industry growth.”

As Eurich sees it, great leaders are made, not born, and just about anybody can learn the principles of effective leadership, regardless of their background. Following the OLT principle, she says, will help keep your team focused on the right things, “spending no more time than necessary to produce the results you need.” So how do you do that? By asking three questions about every activity your team is performing:

  1. Can this activity be focused so less time is spent completing it?
  2. Can this activity be delegated to another person or group?
  3. Can this activity be stopped?

Admittedly, there’s nothing truly groundbreaking in the OLT principle, but if nothing else this book might make a good Christmas present to give to your boss, in case he or she is one of those who not only puts in 18-hour days, 7 days a week, but expects you to do the same.

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