You’d be forgiven for thinking I chose the title for this article specifically to trick you into reading. People do that all the time now, like “Lose Twenty Pounds With This 2-Minute Exercise Miracle!” or “Six Easy Steps To Make a Million Dollars!” Unfortunately, most of those articles don’t deliver what they’ve promised, although I will say that it is fairly easy to make a million dollars if you can convince 10 people to give you $100,000 each. (Or 20 people to give you $50,000, or twenty million people to each give you a nickel.)

However, it turns out that accomplishing more by doing less isn’t just wishful thinking. I’ve spent the last few months researching the way we work, and a growing body of research suggests that “work smarter, not harder” isn’t just a cutesy little phrase. In fact, the way we work is just as important as the work that we do, and those people who understand that tend to be more productive – and less exhausted – than those of us who are constantly driving blindly forward.

This makes more sense if we remember that our brains are a part of our bodies, and they have limits just like every other part of us. For example, Olympic athletes generally don’t practice for more than 4-5 hours a day because our muscles can only operate at their peak physical level for so long before they begin to tire and perform more poorly. Athletes appreciate the importance of rest in order to perform at their best when it really counts, and it would do the rest of us a lot of good to realize that our brains function in exactly the same way.

And to show that I’m not making this up, here are some of the statistics I’ve come across in the last few months:

  • With a $3.4 trillion GDP, Germany has an economy roughly 300% the size of South Korea ($1.13 trillion). However, Germany is only 60% larger than South Korea (80 million vs. 50 million), and its citizens work an average of 800 hours less every year than South Koreans do (1,371 hours vs. 2.412 hours).
  • Einstein slept more than 10 hours a day and took frequent naps, decades before research revealed that a 20-30 minute mid-day nap is more effective at boosting brain activity than a cup of coffee.
  • Our waking brains appear to operate in two distinct modes which can most easily be described as ‘focused’ and ‘unfocused.’ Although it is not entirely clear what happens during ‘unfocused’ activity, it is increasingly clear that our brains are at their best when they cycle between these two modes, instead of operating entirely in one or the other.
  • A longitudinal study of workplace behaviors in multiple industries found that the most productive people work an average of 52 minutes following by a 17-minute break.
  • A different study found that the average worker is interrupted 87 times a day, making it virtually impossible to concentrate on any one activity for a long period of time. Because of this, it has been suggested that most of us only do about 3 hours of actual, concentrated work in a typical 8-hour workday.

So if our brains require unfocused time (dare I call it daydreaming?) in order to work at their peak efficiency, if taking breaks leads to more productivity than working non-stop, and if a bunch of lazy Germans can outperform a bunch of overworked South Koreans, why is it so difficult to convince people that the best way to speed up is to actually slow down?

I think the key lies in the fact that we are primarily visual creatures. Let’s assume that the research is correct and that our brains operate in two modes – focused and unfocused. Only one of those looks like work. Answering the phone, writing an email, having a meeting, taking notes, building a presentation, meeting with customers, re-engineering an assembly line – that all looks productive. Sitting and thinking, getting a coffee, taking a walk around the office, turning off the Internet to avoid constant email interruptions – that all looks like you’re being lazy. This despite the fact that sitting and thinking is really the only way to come up with great new ideas, and taking breaks is the only way to give your brain the rest it needs in order to operate at peak efficiency for days or weeks or months at a time.

I’m not encouraging you to slack off. Rather, I’m encouraging you to recognize that doing things that look like work all the time probably isn’t the best way for you to get ahead.

Oh, and one last thing. A recent survey suggests that most bosses can’t tell the difference between an employee who works 80 hours a week and one who pretends to work 80 hours a week. So if you happen to be stuck in a working environment where you feel compelled to spend absurd hours at the office because that’s what expected of you, don’t beat yourself up too much if you take a few breaks now and then. In fact, that might be exactly what you should do, even if your hard-driving boss doesn’t agree.


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