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PRODUCTIVITY

5 Easy Ways to Work Smarter, Not Longer

Working insanely long hours is doing you more harm than good. It's time to distance yourself from the cult of overwork--here's how.

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You know what they call a Wall Street banker with an hour free from work? Unemployed. The assumption has been that if you're not at the grindstone all the time, you're not pulling your weight and are unsuitable for promotion, responsibility, and opportunity.

Entrepreneurs, of course, are often driven to work similar hours--there's always more to do, right?

Now consider this: according to the New Yorker, a number of major banks and brokerages are putting limits on work hours. In an article called "The Cult of Overwork," James Surowiecki notes that Goldman Sachs has banished junior investment bankers from work on Saturdays. Analysts are supposed to work no more than 70 to 75 hours a week. Credit Suisse has told its analysts to stay home on Saturdays, and Bank of America Merrill Lynch now insists that analysts take 4 weekend days off per month.

OK, so that may sound like a diet consisting of only 4,000 calories a day. But as Surowiecki wrote, this type of change is "positively radical." The short take is the companies have begun to realize that they're not getting more work out of people with even longer hours, and might be cutting down on the volume and quantity of effort they actually could get. Fatigue and sleep deprivation slows thinking and impedes effectiveness, not just in the extra hours, but during the whole week.

Seeing the dangerous effects takes an open mind (and perhaps a break from work for some perspective). Here are five easy ways to extricate yourself from the cult of overwork:

Be ruthless about prioritizing tasks.

One of the biggest drivers of overwork is to assume that absolutely everything is important and, therefore, must be done. But that is silly. Is changing the shade of red on an interior page of your website something that will make or break the business? Of course not. I've written about the famous time-management tip that Bethlehem Steel CEO Charles Schwab thought so valuable that he paid a consultant what today would have been $550,000 after he saw its effectiveness. List your items to do, prioritize them, and work on the most important, then the second most important, and so on. Now you need to move beyond your own day and prioritize the tasks for your company as a whole. Focus on what drives value for customers, investors, and employees. Everything else is superfluous.

Don't start anything without a plan first.

The biggest time waster is redoing a task you didn't do completely the first time around, thus doubling the time it takes. That includes not having everything you need at hand to accomplish something, allotting insufficient time for what is necessary, failing to track and follow up on items when you were supposed to, or otherwise wasting opportunity because you didn't think things through sufficiently up front. Planning takes a little extra time up front, but you save enormous amounts--more than you think possible, until you try it and see the results.

Be realistic about how many gains you can really make.

You need to think and dream big. It's one of the cardinal differences between you and people who settle for following orders all their lives. But temper your long-term ambitions with short-term realism. Want to squeeze in one more city during a business trip? You can try, but cutting short buffers for planes that may leave late could have you miss an important meeting. Get a few more sales this week? Great thought, but not if you prospect when your customers are out on a long weekend. Examine every effort and ask yourself, "Will this really make a difference, or am I indulging in wishful thinking that keeps me in the long-hours cult?"

Invest in help.

You want to save money--understandably. And you want things done right. Trying to do everything yourself, though, is another way of ignoring priorities and avoiding planning. You can't do everything yourself and shouldn't. Get the help you need and train people to do a job the way it needs to be done. At the same time, avoid being overbearing. Don't expect others to put in the same efforts when they don't own part of the business. Put people on a treadmill and you'll help them build up enough momentum to walk right out the door.

Carve out and protect time for yourself.

One of the hidden problems of overwork is that people often have put their entire sense of identity into the business or job. You end up working more and more because there's either not enough going on in your life or you're not recognizing its importance. Schedule time to keep yourself healthy, maintain important relationships, and follow passions that aren't related to your current venture.

By giving up the cult of long hours, you will probably find that you do at least as well as you did and run a good chance of doing better than ever before.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Jan 27, 2014

ERIK SHERMAN's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.
@ErikSherman




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