Work and The Negative Returns Curve

Work and The Negative Returns Curve

Work is an interesting thing. For most of us, it takes up most of our lives. At least 60% of our time is spent at work, either at an office, or more so these days, working from home. And depending on how engaged you are with what you do, how much you love or tolerate it, you might be looking for ways to make work more effective and efficient. Ways to squeeze more out of the time you spend working, etc.

This is the essence of productivity. Finding ways to produce more.

If you work for a company or business, you might be able to skirt away by doing the least amount of work you can get away with. Since your labour is paid for on a fixed monthly basis, that might make sense. Or you might want to push harder to get noticed and promoted. If you work on commission or you work for yourself, then your income is probably tied more directly to your labour. So the more you work, the more you earn.

At this point, it gets very tempting to maximise the amount of time you spend working. After all, if you can work more, you can make more. But the human body is not a machine, and the amount of energy and attention we have is finite. We still have to do pesky things like eat and sleep.

If you push and try to work as many hours as possible, you will quickly come against your upper limits. And that is a limit you need to get very familiar with, and respect accordingly.

In the early days of my career, as a whip-smart youngling, I would work almost all the time. From the moment I woke up, to the moment I went to bed, every day of the week. Understandably I burnt out often. Sure I was much younger and able to put in insane hours without too much of a strain. Also, I love what I do, still do. But overtime, I have come to respect the productivity decimating power of a burnout, and I’ve changed the way I think about work.

It is not use burning the candle at both ends for weeks on end to be completely wiped out and unable to work for days or even a month at a time. The better way is to find your rhythm and optimise it at both ends – your work, and your play.

The case against overwork

Because human energy and attention is finite, putting in more hours at work than you need to actually starts to become detrimental. The work you do 4 days into a work stretch will not be as good as the work you do right at the start or midway through. Plus, bad work can lead to even more work down the line, where you have to backtrack and make changes or fix the bad work you did.

You probably don’t need to work as much or as long as you think.

Especially in the creative space. It might do you better to focus on writing for 2 hours every day, than to try bang out an entire book in 9hour daily sessions. But everyone is different, the point is to find the rhythm that works for you.

Personally I am able to give about 3-4 solid days to my design work in a week. On day one, I can do an easy 12 hour stretch. On day 3, I can average out at 8hrs of work. By the 5th day, I am barely functional. If I push further than that, which I certainly could, I would definitely pay for it by the next week. In this state, no matter what I do, I simply cannot work. My brain and body are far too tired to do anything creative or productive.

Find your balance

As I’ve grown and refined the way I work, I have learned to institute a couple of things like respecting the weekend, respecting how long tasks actually take, and communicating clearly to people when I’m available and when I’m not.

These days I am able to strike a balance, knowing that once Monday rolls in, I am completely focused on the grind, and by Thursday, Friday, I am easing off, and when it’s the weekend, I do not think about work at all. Whether I am at work or leisure, I am able to give my all to it, knowing that I am doing the right thing at the right time. I rest and bum out when I need to, and I get on the grind when I need to.

Make your work time more efficient

Striking a balance also helps us do one other important thing, which is focus on the efficacy of the time we actually spend working. If I can only work for a limited time, then I have to make sure that it is time well spent. I have to ensure that I am working on the right things – the things that actually move me forward, on the projects that excite and teach me, on the ideas that could give exponential return.

By respecting the time off, we can become even more deliberate and intentional about the work we do.

Which is why if you are someone who works for yourself, you have to be strict with your hours and your time. It is far too easy for something to come in to encroach on that. Clients need things last minute. People are disorganised, everything is urgent. It is okay to throw on the cape and save the day from time to time. But acquiescing constantly to such demands will just throw you off course and into chaos.

And that isn’t what we want.

We want a life by design. A life where everything is at the appropriate level at the appropriate time.

It is okay to go all out and have hectic head-down work sessions. Some seasons call for it. But it is also doubly important to make sure you get some down time, that you take care of yourself, that you have other things in your life other than work. The chance to pursue curiosity, the time to rest and relax and play, the time to have experiences, the time to nurture relationships.

The time to live.

That is paradoxically, how we become more productive in the long run.