On Productivity and Time

numbers-time-watch-white.jpgDisclaimer: In this entry I will be mainly focusing on office work and this is not to say that other types of work are lesser or should operate to the same rules.

Although day time and night time are objective, the earth continues round the sun regardless if anyone labels it, time as we measure it is a man-made concept. Hours, minutes and seconds are purely human concepts. Even then working to these times is a relatively new idea when you look at how humans have worked throughout history. A farmer in Medieval England didn’t look at the hourglass and go well that’s been eight hours I better stop now. Now I’m not suggesting that people need to work from dawn to dusk as farmers did and still do, in fact what I’m suggesting is something on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Studies have shown that a six hour workday makes employees more productive and boosts morale. So why do most people work eight hours days? In the 1800s a reformer named Robert Owens noting that most factory workers worked up to 18 hours a day campaigned to have workers days segmented into three, eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation and eight hours for rest. Unfortunately he didn’t see this become the standard in his lifetime although it paved the way for Ford to implement it in 1914, whereupon the company saw an unprecedented rise in productivity, their profit margins doubled in just two years.

Even though the eight hour day was more successful than having employees work upwards of ten hours a day it doesn’t mean it’s the optimal work to rest ratio. The golden ratio isn’t even down to the number of solid hours put in at work but in the structure of the work day. The ideal work-to-break ratio is 52 minutes of work to 17 minutes of break. This was discovered in a study by the Draugeim Group who used a computer application to track employees work habits. Those who worked for almost an hour and then took a short break, completely separating themselves from their work, were more focused than those who worked long hours with few breaks. So a person who is in the office for six hours working to the ideal work-to-break ratio will be more productive than a person who is there for eight hours with one hour long break in the middle.

This on the face of it doesn’t seem particularly logical but when you look at how the human brain works it makes perfect sense. Our brains (I say “our” because I’m pretty sure there aren’t any dogs reading this, if there are, sorry for leaving you out Spot) function best when periods of high level mental activity are interspersed with shorter periods of low level mental activity. So in practice you’d spend an hour working on spreadsheets or planning a project then 20 minutes going for a walk or catching up with a colleague over a cuppa. This is not to say that everyone works in the same way, some people might remain highly focused for two hours at a time, but I think that every person needs to experiment to find out how they work best. Also companies need to be open to considering adjusting employees schedules to fit their most productive pattern after all it would not only benefit the individual but the company as well.


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