The analytically minded folks at The Draugiem Group, a Latvian-based umbrella organization that includes the largest social networking firm in the Baltic nation, recently asked themselves an interesting question: How are our most productive employees different from our least productive employees?
To answer that question with some mathematical vigor, The Draugiem Group used DeskTime, a time-tracking app developed by a Santa Monica, Calif.-based subsidiary, to study the work habits of its 100-plus employees. The company’s data-based results, however, are not what many U.S. CIOs and IT managers would expect.
First, The Draugiem Group discovered that its elite workers—the organization’s top 10 percent in terms of productivity—share a similar work pattern. They work intensely for 52 minutes, then they take off the next 17 minutes.
What is key about the 52-minute work periods is that these most productive employees treat them as “sprints,” according to Julia Gifford, a Draugiem Group manager, and they work during them “with intense purpose.”
The 17-minute breaks are equally as important as the all-out 52-minute sprints, as the intensity and vigor of latter would not be possible, or sustainable, without the calm and peacefulness of the former. During the 17-minute breaks, the most productive employees totally separate themselves from work. As Gifford puts it, “[Y]ou’re entirely resting, not peeking at your email every five minutes, or just ‘quickly checking Facebook.’ “
The intense and purposeful work habits of The Draugiem Group’s top workers reminds me of Stanford University computer scientist Donald Knuth’s technique of operating in batch mode, during which he “is concentrating intensively and uninterruptedly on one subject at a time, rather than swapping a number of topics in and out of my mind.”
Focus on Your Work, Not the Clock
The second key finding from The Draugiem Group’s employee study is that its elite performers—the aforementioned top 10 percent of its workforce in terms of productivity—work fewer hours than the average U.S. worker does. Not just fewer hours, in fact, but far fewer hours.
Salaried, full-time U.S. employees work an average of 49 hours per week, according to Gallup’s recently published annual Work and Education Survey. And non-salaried, full-time U.S. workers put in 47 hours per week. The most productive Draugiem Group employees work less than 40 hours per week, according to Gifford. “The employees with the highest productivity ratings, in fact, don’t even work eight-hour days.”
These findings dovetail with a wealth of research (like these studies analyzed by Evan Robin, a programmer who is interested in programmer productivity) that demonstrates that, over the long-term, the 40-hour work week is the most productive. Yes, businesses can achieve short-term gains when workers briefly put in 60- and 70-hour weeks, but such human-based efforts are not sustainable over extended periods of time—and, in fact, are counterproductive. As most of us have probably noticed, the problem with perpetually overworked employees is that they tend to make more mistakes; avoid challenges, often due to a lack of energy; and produce work that typically comes across as routine, predictable and tired. If you are looking for inspired work, you will not get it from these employees.
What Works Best for You?
Everyone has their own work style, and what works well for me might not work for you (and vice versa). But if your work style has you often feeling worn out, you should test-drive the Draugiem employees’ 52 minutes of sprinting and 17 minutes of utter relaxation. Perhaps you will find it, or some variation, to be more agreeable.
Similarly, if you are reading these words and thinking that it’s impossible, given your day-to-day workload, for you to ever do less work in your present job, you should browse these seven productivity tips from Alex Cavoulacos, a founder of Muse. My favorites are the ones devoted to meetings, which experience has taught me is too frequently a poor investment of one’s time. I especially like the sixth tip, the headline of which is “Do You Even Need a Meeting at all?”
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