Diminishing Returns

Hitting the Sweet Spot – Escaping the Efficiency Trap

I’ve talked about why attention management is a far better way to maximize your time than simply working more hours. I saw this firsthand when I took on Mary as a client (not her actual name). Mary was the head of global R&D for one of the biggest pharma companies in the world.

Mary was working 92 hours a week!

That wasn’t an average of many varying weeks, that was a typical, average work week. And she still couldn’t get everything done. No wonder she was referred to me!

A few weeks later, she was down to 52 hours a week, and we were still trending downwards. And a funny thing happened: As Mary worked fewer hours, she developed a reputation as the “go to person” for M&A deals that other departments cold not get a handle on. Her job performance had actually improved!

As this was happening, she was also able to enjoy her personal life again. One day she told me “Mike, I’ve been walking past Boston commons for five years and I never had time to go there. And my husband and I had a wonderful stroll there last evening.”

So, according to science, what is the optimal number of hours to get the most done? We are talking about cognitively demanding tasks here, not administrative work. The kind of work that leaders like Mary do.

In my work with leaders, I’ve done my research. It turns out the OECD has studied this. And their answer… Drum roll please…

  • 37-hours a week is the sweet spot. After that, you have diminishing returns.
  • After 40 hours, productivity begins to plummet.
  • After 55 hours, productivity falls off a cliff.

Why is this? There are two explanations:

  • The law of diminishing returns.
  • Loss of efficiency due to completion bias.

Let’s take a deeper dive into each reason.

The Law of Diminishing Returns (infographic and deep caption)

The law of diminishing returns describes a vicious cycle that causes us to work less efficiently the more time we spend on the job. It’s just not healthy to work a 60 or 80-hour week on a regular basis. Our bodies and minds aren’t built that way.

  • We feel overwhelmed. We have too much work and there’s a major deadline looming.
  • We work 60 or 80-hour weeks, instead of 40-hour weeks.
  • We hit our physical and mental limits. Cognitive exhaustion sets in.
  • Because it’s harder to think, tasks start taking longer.
  • This causes stress, which makes it even harder to focus.
  • The work starts taking even longer.
  • Small distractions slow us down even more than usual.
  • A lot of hours are wasted due to diminishing returns.

Loss of Efficiency Due to Completion Bias (infographic and deep caption)

Completion bias is the natural human tendency to enjoy finishing tasks more than actually making significant progress. Because we get a dopamine rush from checking trivial, easy tasks off our to-do list, we tend to prioritize them more than we should. In turn, this can cause us to fall behind on important projects.

  • We are overwhelmed and under pressure to get things done.
  • We put in more hours.
  • Completion bias sets in, and we fall prey to the tyranny of the inbox.
  • We fall further behind on important tasks.
  • We try to get important projects done at the last minute, leading to further stress.
  • This makes it harder to focus.
  • Trivial tasks make us feel like we’re getting things done, so we waste more time.
  • Completion bias causes us to waste a lot of hours.
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