10 huge productivity lessons I learned working 90-hour weeks last month

Takeaway: Working long hours has been shown to make you no more productive than working 40-hour weeks in the long-term. So how do you become more productive when working longer hours won’t do the trick? By working smarter, not harder. Do this by stepping back from your work, spending more time on planning (not just executing), scheduling less time for things, guarding and nurturing your energy levels at all times, being more honest with yourself, and by reminding yourself of what’s most important.

Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes, 1s. It’s pretty skimmable, though :)

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If you’re anything like me, you have way more than 40 hours of work to do every week.

On the surface, it would appear that there are two answers to this problem:

  1. Continue working 40 hours a week, and fall behind
  2. Work more than 40 hours every week, and try to catch up to become more productive

But in practice, the choice isn’t this simple. Even though working longer hours would appear on the surface to make you more productive, I think it is the exact wrong approach to take–not because you’ll have less time to relax and recharge, even though you will–but because this approach has been proven time and time again to make you much less productive in the long-run.

I consider myself a productive person, but aside from being a total slob for a week, I don’t recall being as unproductive as when I worked 90-hour weeks last month.

For the entire month of February, I alternated between working 90 hours one week, and then 20 hours the next, to see how working extreme hours would affect my productivity. Here are 10 of the biggest lessons I learned from that experiment!

1. Working longer hours will make you more productive, but only in the short-run

This is my biggest finding of this productivity experiment: There are huge productivity benefits to be gained by investing more time into your work, but only in the short-run.

In the long-run, working long hours pushes you to procrastinate more, work less efficiently, and causes you to get less done, usually without you realizing it. In fact, after 40 hours, research has shown that your marginal productivity begins to drop, until “at approximately eight 60-hour weeks, the total work done is the same as what would have been done in eight 40-hour weeks”. And with 70 and 80-hour weeks, you reach the break-even point in just three weeks.1

1127762_52274900When I was working 90-hour weeks, I got a lot done, but only during the first few days of the week; after that I didn’t have the time or mental space to recharge, so my productivity practically fell off a cliff.2

It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking working longer hours will make you more productive; after all, for a while it does. But I personally believe, very strongly, that there are fundamental limits to how much work you can get done, and that past a certain point most of your productivity gains come from working smarter–not harder.

Most studies seem to conclude that the magical amount of hours you should work a week is around 40 hours. After this experiment, I would tend to agree.

2. Just because you’re busy, doesn’t mean you’re productive

There is a big difference between being busy and being productive, though sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between the two.

In my view, productivity has absolutely nothing to do with how much you do; it has everything to do with how much you accomplish. After all, you can do a lot over the course of a day without actually accomplishing anything. For example, if you work 60-hour weeks, but you mindlessly chat with your coworkers, check your email all day long, and work on low-leverage tasks most of the day, you’re going to be a lot less productive than someone who works half that time, even though you do more actual work than they do.

Productivity isn’t about how much you get done over a day–it’s about how much you accomplish.

One of my favorite ways to stay focused over the course of a day is to define the three outcomes I want to get out of the day each morning. These three outcomes are what I channel my time and energy into over the day.

3. Just because you feel productive, doesn’t mean you’re productive

Just because you feel productive, doesn’t mean you’re actually productive. In fact, I can think of several where the opposite is the case:

The same is true for when you consistently work long hours. I think working longer hours makes you feel more productive, and a lot less guilty about the mountain of work you have to accomplish.

But working extra hours may only feel that way, especially when you’re not investing your time and energy into the smartest, highest-leverage tasks.

4. Schedule time where you completely separate from your work

I think scheduling time where you completely disconnect from your work allows you the time and space to question the value of what you’re working on, so you can work smarter, and not just harder. As a simplified example, if you work as an accountant, you could be busy sharpening pencils all day (or checking your email–a close digital equivalent), or you could decide to work smarter by stepping back from your work, reflecting on what the highest-leverage activities in your work are, and then working on those instead.

Completely separating from your work makes you more creative, focused, and energized, because it allows you to see your work from an elevated, 10,000 foot perspective. That lets you see what you should be doing differently, and get more done in less time, because you’ll be working smarter, not just harder. You may feel less productive doing so, but like with unitasking and not doing busy work, you’ll get a lot more accomplished.

When I forced myself to work 90-hour weeks, I constantly found myself working on low-leverage, bullshit activities that didn’t lead to meaningful results at the end of the day–something I only discovered when I stepped back from my work the week after.

A challenge for you: Open up your calendar right now and schedule two one-hour breaks tomorrow where you’ll complexly separate from your work. You’ll thank yourself later on.

Interlude: My 10 favorite productivity experiments from my year of productivity

10 of my favorite experiments from my year of productivity, in no particular order. Just click on any picture to visit the experiment’s article.

5. For every minute you plan, you’ll save 5 minutes in execution

One my favorite productivity quotes is from Brian Tracy:

“Every minute you spend in planning, saves 10 minutes in execution.” – Brian Tracy

I’d argue the number is a bit smaller than 10, but regardless, the principle is the same.3 When all you do is execute and you never step back from your work to plan, it’s more difficult to work smarter. Even if you consistently work harder than everyone else, if you’re not working on the smartest, highest-leverage tasks, you’re not going to be as productive as someone who works half as much as you do.

When you take a step back from your work and plan what to do instead of simply executing all of the time, you become more focused, and will find it easier to channel your time and energy into a few concentrated targets, making you much more productive. When you simply hunker down and dedicate a lot of time to a task, I think it becomes very difficult to determine which targets you should focus on.

6. To get more done in less time, schedule less time to do something

Throwing more time at your tasks is the exact wrong way to get more done. A much more productive strategy? Throw more energy at your tasks.

My favorite way to do this is to dedicate less time to what I have to do.

An interesting thing happens when you dedicate less time to what you have to do. The less time you schedule to complete a task, the more you push yourself to expend more energy over less time so you can get it done. Conversely, when you schedule more time to complete a task, you give yourself more room to slack off and procrastinate.

During this experiment I alternated between working 90 hours one week, and then 20 the next. Interestingly, when I only had 20 hours to do 40 hours of work in, I got way more done in less time. Since I had a lot less time to accomplish everything in, I essentially forced myself to channel all of my energy and time into what I had to accomplish.

The more work you have to do, the more time you naturally want to dedicate to getting that work done. It’s the approach most people take, and it’s the approach that makes the most sense on the surface. But I would argue that scheduling less time for a task, not more, is what will allow you to get more done in less time.

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7. Guard and nurture your energy levels at all times

According to Brian Tracy, author of the fantastic book Eat That Frog, “[o]ne of the most important requirements for being happy and productive is for you to guard and nurture your energy levels at all times.” For example, when you have a lot to do, if you’re running on just a few hours of sleep, sometimes the most productive thing you can do is to go to bed early and get a full night’s sleep.

Brian offers up four questions that will let you reflect on your energy levels (I took these straight from Eat That Frog):

  1. What am I doing physically that I should do more of?
  2. What am I doing physically that I should do less of?
  3. What am I not doing that I should start doing if I want to perform at my best?
  4. What am I doing today that affects my health that I should stop doing altogether?

739322_51147528I think of energy as the fuel you burn throughout the day to get work done, and unfortunately during this experiment I removed many elements from my life that recharged and energized me, simply because I didn’t have time for them. Especially if you want to push yourself to get more done in less time, guarding and nurturing your energy levels at all times is a fantastic way to become more productive.

8. Working long hours will drain your willpower reserves

Every time you force yourself to work when you don’t want to, you use up some of your willpower–a mental resource that can be depleted.4

Pushing myself to work 90-hour weeks amidst a significant amount of mental resistance completely drained my willpower reserves, particularly since so much of my motivation for AYOP is intrinsic. This had a number of disastrous effects on my productivity:

  • I procrastinated more than I ever have before–as much as 3-4 hours on some days5
  • My productivity crashed on Wednesday and Thursday of my 90-hour weeks, after which my mind simply resisted doing more work
  • I found myself wanting to focus on low-leverage, bullshit tasks (like checking Google Analytics, Twitter, and Email) instead of doing stuff that actually mattered

Though you may not work weeks as long as 90 hours, I think when you push yourself to work hours longer than you feel comfortable with, you begin to deplete your willpower reserves, which zaps you of your energy and motivation, both key contributors to how productive you are.

9. One of the worst (and least productive) things you can do is be dishonest with yourself

One of the topics I write about quite often on AYOP is the importance of being honest with yourself, because I think pretty much every productivity tactic and hack is useless if you’re not honest with yourself. For example:

  • Is your to-do list doable, or do you keep putting things off to another day?
  • Do you make goals or New Year’s Resolutions that are too ambitious and give up a few weeks in, instead of setting more realistic goals from the start?
  • Do you hit the snooze button 5 times every morning instead of setting an alarm for when you actually will get up?
  • Do you ignore your body when it tells you that it’s full?
  • Do you ignore your mind when it tells you it’s overworked?
  • Do you spend several hours in front of the TV, and then try to forget about where your time went?

During this experiment, the more pressure I put on myself to be productive, the more dishonest I became with myself. I tried to blindly will myself into being productive when I didn’t have the energy to be, which caused me to procrastinate and make excuses for doing less work every day. Instead of being honest with myself and thinking about how much energy I had to be productive, I pushed myself too hard, which made me even less productive at the end of the day because I burned out from not taking enough breaks.

I think the more pressure you put on yourself to be productive, the less honest you become with yourself. That can harm your productivity more than you think.

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10. There are way more important things in life than being productive

It goes without saying, but every single second you spend working is a second you don’t get to spend doing something more meaningful, like spending time with your loved ones. Sure, this point is total common sense, but unfortunately common sense isn’t always common action.

Even when I spent a little time with my girlfriend when working 90-hour weeks, I felt incredibly energized afterward. But these types of commitments–the ones that are more important, but not as urgent as the things on your to-do list–are unfortunately the first things many people stop doing when they get busy at work. I’ll admit that I’m guilty of this as much as anyone.

When you work excessive hours, that extra time has to come from somewhere, which may force you to push away the very things that reenergize you, like working out and spending time with loved ones. After you stop doing the very things that reenergize you, you begin to fight a losing battle, and become stressed out, unmotivated, and ultimately less productive.

Particularly when working long hours has been shown to make you no more productive than working 40-hour weeks (especially in the long-term), I think that often one of the most productive things you can do is take a step back from your work. Doing so will help you reenergize, work smarter, come up with better solutions, guard yourself against low-leverage tasks, and best of all, regain control over your work. It’s counterintuitive, but separating yourself from your work and focusing on the things in your life that are more important might just make you more productive in the long-run.

 


  1. Source: http://legacy.igda.org/why-crunch-modes-doesnt-work-six-lessons 

  2. I made sure to continue to get enough sleep and hit the gym every morning because both activities affect my energy so much, but I still crashed around Wednesday or Thursday. 

  3. Albeit, I don’t have much evidence to back this up; just a hunch. 

  4. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ego_depletion 

  5. According to RescueTime

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27 Comments

  1. Hi Chris, love this post and glad to see you learning lessons each day. I especially like the last point, people on the internet seem to get so hung up on productivity in and of itself these days. I’ve notice that when I have balance and joy in my life, I am far more productive when I am working, even if I’m working shorter hours.

    • Thanks man! So true; a lot of people think that when they take the time to invest in themselves they’ll be less productive because they have less time to give to their work. Nothing could be further from the truth–you absolutely need that time to refuel and recharge to be productive in the future. :)

  2. Damn Chris, another great post! Makes me wonder if there ever will be a point in my life where every action I do is perfect; when it comes to routine, motivation, happiness, productivity and so-forth :) Anyway, take care man!

    • Interesting thought!

      Occasionally I have a daydream, and in it every single thing I say, do, and think is perfect, haha.

      I define productivity as being able to get more done in less time (so you can have more time for the things that mean the most to you). I bet if every action of yours were perfect, you’d be able to get a whole day’s worth of work done in 10 minutes. Guess it just goes to show how powerful working smarter–not harder–can be!

  3. Rachel Adnyana says:

    Hi Chris, I’ve been reading for a while but not commented before – I’m a bit useless at commenting :p Anyway I found this post very interesting if not surprising. I’m just wondering if you could clarify what is “work” for you – do you just work on this blog (plus promotions, guest posting etc) or do you do some other type of work too? I know you mentioned doing things like checking in on twitter as being not very productive tasks but what were you trying to focus on for those 90 hours? My main work is writing but there’s no way I could write (or even write and research) for 90 hours a week, haha! Just curious :)

    • Haha! Man, I can barely write for a few hours a day, so I’m right there with you. For the experiment I defined “work” as anything that directly benefitted the project. For my longer weeks last month, that mostly included:

      – Researching (reading academic/journal articles, news articles, etc)
      – Writing
      – Responding to emails
      – Participating in media interviews
      – Reading (books on productivity)
      – Working out
      – Planning (usually during a workout)
      – Rehearsing for few talks (two corporate talks, and a TEDx talk)

      I’d say these things took up about 90% of my time last week!

      • Rachel Adnyana says:

        Thanks for the clarification! Interesting that you include working out – I would have never thought to include that as work time although I’m sure I’d be a hell of a lot fitter if I did!

      • Hi, Chris. First of all thank you for your work.
        But I am wondering…. Lets imaging such situation: I am software developer, I am working for 8 hours at work, but after the work, I come home and reading, learning some new stuff in my area (e.g. new technologies, new methods, articles) etc.
        Does learning and reading count as work in my situation? It does not benefitted my Work as an employee, but it benefits me as a professional.

  4. Sounds like you burned out mid-week. Working long days will definitely make you want to quit early.

    I’m all about working smarter. Working hard just sucks out all your energy to get the same results. When I work long days I definitely have to
    take breaks throughout to refresh and so I don’t feel over worked.

    ~Lea

  5. Leo Silvennoinen says:

    Hi Chris, great ideas here!

    Personally what I find hard, is to define what “work” is. For example, for me programming feels almost like playing a game (at times) and it can be exciting and engaging. In fact, it can be as much or even more fun as many “free time activities” (whatever these are).

    On the other hand, sometimes socializing can feel like work, even though that’s usually counted as something that’s done for enjoyment during your free time. And when it does, it’s certainly not recharging your batteries. Along the same lines, I’m involved in lot of voluntary club activities and even though these are “hobbies” they often feel more work than any “actual work”. :) And what about paying bills and cleaning the house or whatnot house-hold maintenance chores. These can also feel like work a lot of time.

    I’m not disagreeing with your conclusion at all (about working 40 hours), I just find it somewhat difficult to make the distinction between free time and work activities. Even harder is to rank them in how they energize you or drain you. And because of this ambiguity, I find it hard to plan a schedule that would have 40 hours of work. This could also be partly because I don’t work a regular 9-to-5 job.

    Anyway, I suspect this is highly individual; what is work to one person, may be relaxing and fun to someone else.

    What did you define as work?

    • Thanks Leo!

      Good call! One of the toughest part of this experiment was defining its boundaries. As my AYOP project has progressed, I think the boundaries between it and the rest of my life have become blurred.. For this experiment, I defined “work” as anything that would directly benefit the project, which mostly meant researching, writing, responding to emails, conducting interviews, reading, and planning.

      That’s what made the experiment interesting, in a way. I love experimenting with productivity, so a lot of the time the project doesn’t feel like work, in that it doesn’t require much willpower to devote my time and energy toward it. Because of that, I have no problem devoting 50-60 hours to it every week, because doing so requires hardly any willpower because I love it so much. But when I added 30 more hours to my week, almost every task I added to my day required a ton of willpower to complete, which drained me even quicker.

      Hope that answers it :-)

  6. It seems that the body is largely controlling the output, as well as the priorities we define. Interesting how you drew a applicable lesson out of your extreme experiment, I like that.

  7. I can tell you’ve put some work into this post! Good job, I’m bookmarking this. The point 3 really stings for me.

  8. Very good article, Chris!

    All of the advice important, though I think it’s highly individual what we need to work on. For me, managing energy levels is something I’ve focused on a lot lately. But I will keep it up for however long it takes until I know it automatically. In practice, this means that I need to do the most important things ASAP in the morning while i am at my mental and creative peak.

  9. Some very interesting results. I can’t imagine keeping this pace up for too long a time period. I actually read once that there’s a company that will finance your startup in silicon valley, but people work so hard to get going with it that they end up working 80-90 hour weeks for months on end. That just blows my mind.

    I imagine that with just about anything else, there’s marginal returns that go with it. Eventually you’ll start to see your productivity decrease. You’ll spend more time doing less and less. Then you’ll try to make up for it by working even harder which just makes you less productive. That makes it seem like a trap to me. I say find a good productive pace and stick to it and if you start to lose that productivity, it’s time for a break.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head, especially with taking breaks. I like to compare taking breaks to running a marathon. It’s a lot easier (and in many cases, faster) to run a marathon by running for three minutes, then walking for one, instead of trying to run the entire thing. You can calm down, adjust your form, and run better this way. Trying to do more, more, more works great at first, but it’s simply a recipe for burnout after that.

  10. Adam Molinaro says:

    I enjoy exercising, and have done so consistently since high school (>20 yrs). Of course age has something to do with it, but personally, I’ve noticed your #6 (“To get more done in less time…”) holds true for working out. I have previously worked out as much as 5-6 days a week, but now work out 3-4, and sometimes as few as 2. I find I am more focused for each “visit,” and usually look forward to the session (sometimes it felt more like a chore to go so often). Moreover, if I give myself a little less time for each session (e.g., 45-50 minutes instead of 60-70), I am more focused and work out more intensely. My workouts are usually much more effective.

  11. Adam Molinaro says:

    One follow up question: You mentioned February. Did you do this experiment the same time you did your ‘Water [only]’ experiment?

  12. Great stuff, Chris! Just heard you on Beyond the To-Do List and came to check this out. Thanks!

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