Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sometimes less is more

For those of you returning from northern hemisphere summer breaks, you might appreciate this.  (Of course, if you're an American, you probably didn't get or take a break.  And, there is still Labor Day weekend.)

A recent article in the Economist casts a cautionary eye over the usual prescriptions for getting ahead by constant hyper-activity.  The Shumpeter Column suggests that--playing on Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In--sometimes 'leaning in' might be less effective than 'leaning back.'  There are health as well as productivity benefits of mellowing out, several of which are highlighted in the article, including,

'Americans now toil for eight-and-a-half hours a week more than they did in 1979. A survey last year by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that almost a third of working adults get six hours or less of sleep a night. Another survey last year by Good Technology, a provider of secure mobile systems for businesses, found that more than 80% of respondents continue to work after leaving the office, 69% cannot go to bed without checking their inbox and 38% routinely check their work e-mails at the dinner table.'

'Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School, who has been conducting a huge study of work and creativity, reports that workers are generally more creative on low-pressure days than on high-pressure days when they are confronted with a flurry of unpredictable demands. In 2012 Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, and two colleagues deprived 13 people in the IT business of e-mail for five days and studied them intensively. They found that people without it concentrated on tasks for longer and experienced less stress.'

According to the Economist, 'The most obvious beneficiaries of leaning back would be creative workers—the very people who are supposed to be at the heart of the modern economy. In the early 1990s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist, asked 275 creative types if he could interview them for a book he was writing. A third did not bother to reply at all and another third refused to take part. Peter Drucker, a management guru, summed up the mood of the refuseniks: “One of the secrets of productivity is to have a very big waste-paper basket to take care of all invitations such as yours.” Creative people’s most important resource is their time—particularly big chunks of uninterrupted time—and their biggest enemies are those who try to nibble away at it with e-mails or meetings. Indeed, creative people may be at their most productive when, to the manager’s untutored eye, they appear to be doing nothing.'

Though not always the creative types, managers at all levels should consider what they are really paid to do.  'Those at the top are best employed thinking about strategy rather than operations—about whether the company is doing the right thing rather than whether it is sticking to its plans. When he was boss of General Electric, Jack Welch used to spend an hour a day in what he called “looking out of the window time”. When he was in charge of Microsoft Bill Gates used to take two “think weeks” a year when he would lock himself in an isolated cottage. Jim Collins, of “Good to Great” fame, advises all bosses to keep a “stop doing list”. Is there a meeting you can cancel? Or a dinner you can avoid?

For a personal account of burnout among entrepreneurs, see Toby Ruckert's open and honest blog post.

For more from the Economist on the sanity of disconnecting, see 'Get a Life!'

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