Brett Romero

Data Inspired Insights

Tag: expected benefit

4 Reasons Working Long Hours is Crazy

I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review about why working long hours is bad for business. This article resonated with me for several reasons, but mainly because over the past 2-3 years, I have been concerned with, and viewed first hand, the growing cult of working long hours.

Unfortunately, there are an increasing number of people who equate productivity and working hard with spending long hours at work. Consulting and Legal are arguably the worst culprits, but finance, tech, and various other sectors can be just as bad. Many in the tech startup world in particular seem to consider it a badge of honor to work excessive hours and sleep as little as possible.

In a lot of cases, companies have been making genuine attempts to improve work-life balance with various initiatives. These range from sending corporate communications to shutting down the office for a period each year to force people to take leave. Yet despite this, unused vacation leave reached a 40-year high in 2014.

Anyway, in an effort to fight this rising tide, I thought I would put together 4 good reasons why working long hours is detrimental and a waste of time.

1. Longer Hours Means Reduced Output

When I say reduced output, I don’t mean that each extra hour worked is less productive then the previous one (although that is also true). I mean your actual total output falls – you work longer and produce less. And the longer you work long hours, the less productive you become.

There is an exception here of course. Working longer hours for a short period (e.g. a couple of weeks to meet a deadline) can boost productivity – but this boost quickly erodes and then reverses. A good illustration of this was provided by a report from the Business Roundtable Report from 1980. The report detailed how the initial gains from extra hours were quickly eaten up by increasingly poor productivity. From the Executive Summary:

“Where a work schedule of 60 or more hours per week is continued longer than about two months, the cumulative effect of decreased productivity will cause a delay in the completion date beyond that which could have been realized with the same crew size on a 40-hour week.”

For physical workers this is one thing (the report was based on construction projects), but what about office workers? Unfortunately the story only gets worse. Shifting concrete mix or laying bricks when you are tired is one thing, but problem solving, complex reasoning and the intricacies of office politics require a higher level of focus.

Think about managing a software development project and having a team that is mentally exhausted after working long hours for months. It is not hard to imagine a scenario where the productivity of the team actually becomes negative as important files are mistakenly deleted or code is committed with catastrophic errors that then require significant time and effort to fix.

There are many reasons for this drop in productivity including mental exhaustion, depression and declining health. However the biggest driver of lost productivity is sleep deprivation.

2. Sleep Deprivation Is the Silent Killer

In addition to being a serious productivity killer, the biggest issue with sleep deprivation is that, as Dr. Charles A. Czeisler [1] explains in this interview with Havard Business Review, people consistently underestimate its impact. He goes on to explain that a person averaging four hours of sleep a night for four or five days has the same level of cognitive impairment as someone who has been awake for 24 hours – equivalent to legal drunkenness. Within 10 days, the level of impairment is the same as someone who has gone 48 hours without sleep.

The problem is, in many cases, very few people are taking this productivity loss as seriously as they should be. Consider how your boss would react if you decided to start dropping Jaeger bombs in the morning before coming to work. They are likely to be pretty unhappy, and not just because of your juvenile choice of drink. In fact, you would probably be lucky to keep your job. Yet, work long hours for an extended period, which has a similar impact on your productivity (and is a lot less fun), and you are more likely to be promoted than get a reprimand.

Again, there is a caveat here. An estimated 1-3% of people can function at a normal level on 5-6 hours sleep a night. But before you start reassuring yourself you are that person – research also shows that of 100 people who think they can function with 5-6 hours sleep, only 5 actually can. The rest have no idea they are even impaired. Which takes us to reason number 3.

3. People Do Not Realize When They Are Not Productive

A simple mistake that many people make is confusing being busy with being productive. Anyone who has spent any decent amount of time working in an office will know at least one person who seems to be perpetually busy, but never seems to get anything done[2].

The fact is that ‘busy’ and ‘productive’ are often very different things. Frantically sending emails, multitasking, scheduling pointless meetings or just doing a bunch of work that is completely unnecessary are not productive activities, but they are often the hallmarks of busy people.

But it is not just the frantically busy people who are not being productive. There is a limited amount of time that everyone is productive during a day. Consider the following scenario, which I am sure many people will recognize.

You are working late at night on a problem. You are spending hours trying to fix a seemingly intractable problem (for example, searching for the source of a bug, or trying to identify why the numbers do not add up). Eventually you give up, resolving to get in early the next day and fix it. Then something amazing happens. You get in the next morning, and within 10 minutes you have fixed the problem. In fact, you are amazed you spent so long worrying about something that was so simple to fix.

When you were trying to solve the problem the night before, did you feel impaired or less productive? Tired, frustrated, sure, but did you believe you were any less capable of solving the problem?

Here is where the downward cycle can start. People who consistently work 60-80 hours a week are (with some exceptions) mentally exhausted, but are not aware this is the case. All they see is that they have a significant amount of work that needs to get done and not enough hours to finish it. What is the first solution that comes to a weary mind in that scenario? Put in a couple of late ones and get over the hump. Maybe spend Saturday working and try get ahead a little bit.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to work, and as they continue to increase their sleep deficit, they are increasingly likely to make mistakes and/or fall further behind.

4. We Have Already Learnt This Lesson

“We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” ― Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

The tragedy of this move towards longer hours is that we have been down this path before. The conclusion that shorter hours actually boost absolute productivity is not new, or even controversial. Ernst Abbe as early as 1900 moved his workers from a 9 hour to an 8 hour work day and noted that overall output increased. Henry Ford is another famous example. In 1926, he moved his workers from a 6-day to a 5-day workweek and again saw output increase.

These are not one-off cases. Although this push initially came from the union movement, business after business found that the overall output per worker actually increased with shorter hours.

What Can You Do?

It is easy to blame a highly competitive labor market and/or evil corporations for this trend towards ever-increasing hours. The fact is we all have some power to change the culture of our workplaces through our own actions.

As an employee, you are somewhat limited by your surroundings, particularly if you work somewhere that judges your performance on hours rather than productivity. However, assuming you do not work in a place that thinks work life balance is a list of priorities in descending order[3], there is still a lot you can do to improve your situation:

  1. Get your rest. If you want to get back to a 40-hour week, you need to be well rested and switched on when you arrive at the office.
  2. Be prepared to actually work. Working does not include reading blogs, regularly checking Facebook/Twitter, getting into pointless arguments, or wondering the hallways. If you turn up to work and are focused on work, you will be amazed how much you can get done in 8 hours[4].
  3. Be organized. Making the most of your 8 hours means being organized. Make lists, prioritize, plan well ahead and finish tasks early to get them off your plate. Whatever method(s) works for you, ensure when you turn up to work, you already know exactly what you need to do.
  4. Know when to leave. It is hard to understate the importance of this. Spending hours and hours late at night trying to solve a problem is possibly the single biggest time suck in the modern workplace. If it is not due that night, leave it for the morning. Go home, relax and have dinner. You will be doing everyone a favor.

Employers and managers obviously also have a key role to play. If you really want to encourage better habits in your employees (and you really, really should want to), you need to lead by example. This means:

  1. Cut down your own hours. At the very least, work from home outside business hours. If you say one thing and do another, your staff will choose to follow actions over instructions every time.
  2. Schedule emails for business hours. If you find yourself writing emails after hours or on weekends and you do not need a response immediately, schedule the emails to go out during business hours.
  3. Push for realistic deadlines. If you repeatedly provide unrealistic deadlines for tasks and projects, staff will be forced to put in extra hours to meet them, and will often fail anyway. Set generous deadlines and aim to finish early.
  4. Tell people to go home. If you see staff repeatedly staying late and you know there is no real reason they should be staying late, send them home. Every hour they stay working late is decreasing what you will get out of them the next day.
  5. Address poor time management. Consulting, for example, is littered with examples of people being praised for pulling all-nighters to finish off a piece of work. Sure, they met the deadline. Congratulations. Now let us talk about the weeks of poor time and resource management that led to that situation in the first place.

 

[1] Dr. Czeisler is the incumbent of an endowed professorship donated to Harvard by Cephalon and consults for a number of companies, including Actelion, Cephalon, Coca-Cola, Hypnion, Pfizer, Respironics, Sanofi-Aventis, Takeda, and Vanda.

[2] If you work in an office and do not know anyone like this, it is probably you.

[3] If this is your case, consider an alternative job. Or alternatively, start planning for your Eat Pray Love moment to strike in a few years time.

[4] A side effect of this is you are likely to become a lot less tolerant of long pointless meetings. Be wary of anyone who doesn’t mind long pointless meetings

 

 

4 Economics Concepts to Improve Decision Making

Rightly or wrongly, the reputation of the economics profession has taken a battering over the last 6 years. Largely this is because of the perceived inability of economists to foresee the Global Financial Crisis, and the anemic recovery that occurred afterwards in most countries. Leaving the debates over austerity vs. stimulus, liquidity traps and the zero lower bound for another day, I thought I would go back to some basic economic concepts and how, with a little bit of imagination, they can be useful in situations most people encounter in everyday life.

1. Opportunity Costs

Opportunity cost is a concept used in economics to help determine the cost of a particular action or choice. At the most basic level, the opportunity cost of doing something is the cost of NOT doing the most (economically) beneficial alternative.

For example, it is Saturday morning and you are going to drive to your friend’s house for a morning session of Call of Duty. The cost of doing this might appear to simply be the cost of gas to get there and any marginal wear and tear on the car. However, economically the cost is more than that – it also includes the benefit of the most productive activity forgone. Depending on your circumstances, that might have been picking up the breakfast shift at the local café, or putting time into that startup idea you have been working on. Whatever the case may be, you have unconsciously placed a higher value on time spent playing games then the alternative and, in many cases, that is a tangible value (the café example).

This may change nothing in your mind, you may really get a lot out of hanging out and playing games – video games are a huge industry precisely because people place a high value on playing games. But once you start consciously thinking about the cost of your actions in this manner, it tends to have an impact on how and where you spend your time.

2. Incentives

One of the parts of general economic theory that tends to rub people up the wrong way is the idea that everything can be quantified and compared. This is not a particularly romantic way to look at the world, but this line of thinking can be used to help understand and change behaviors.

For example, many people have trouble finding the motivation to go to the gym. Why is it so hard to go consistently? When you hit that sleep button on the alarm, you are making a choice based on the incentives in front of you – and you are valuing an additional hours’ sleep higher than the benefit of a gym session. There can be a range of very rational reasons for that – the benefits of any given gym session are tiny and hard to identify even if the long term benefits of consistent gym work (e.g. improved fitness, a more appealing physique) are highly valued. When you look at it that way, every morning you are faced with a choice between an immeasurably small improvement in health/fitness, or an additional hour of sleep and relaxation.

However, once we realize what the problem is, we can use incentives to reweight the choice to get the desired result. In the gym example, this can be done in a range of ways that will probably sound familiar. You can set a goal like running a half marathon – that provides additional incentive in the form of not letting yourself and/or others down or avoiding embarrassment. It could be a more immediate incentive such as treating yourself to a better lunch if you go to the gym. Organizing a gym or exercise partner will provide incentive in the form of not wanting to let your partner down by cancelling (this only really works if they don’t happen to sleep in the same bed as you). Sometimes, all that is needed is to clearly identify what the benefits will be and remind yourself of them.

Expanding this way of thinking, it can be used to look at a lot of different aspects of your life. If you have a goal to cook at home more regularly, what steps can you take to make that more appealing after a day at work (or make eating out less appealing)? Trying to commit to further study? Perhaps clearly identifying and reminding yourself of how the it will get you closer to that dream job will help provide the needed motivation.

The next logical step for this way of thinking is using it to understand the behaviors of those around you, and then utilizing that understanding to make changes. If you are a manager, how can you rearrange the incentives for the people you are managing to improve productivity or eliminate some unwanted behavior? If you have children, what incentives can you use to motivate them to help with the housework or clean up their room?

One thing to be aware of is that the incentives people are responding to can be complicated and counterintuitive. Understanding your own motivations, never mind the motivations of those around you, is something that takes time. However, the simple act of stopping to consider what may be causing you or someone else to make a choice can often lead to meaningful insights.

3. Sunk Costs

The standard definition of a sunk cost is a cost that has already been paid and is unrecoverable. In economics the concept is usually used in relation to firms (businesses), but we all deal with sunken costs on a pretty regular basis.

The classic example is where you have bought a ticket to a concert but when the day arrives you have come down with a cold (or worse). You spent all that money on the ticket so you should definitely go, right? Actually, to make the economically optimal decision in this situation, you should ignore how much you spent on the ticket (the sunk cost) and simply base your decision to go or not on whether you would still enjoy the concert more than the next best alternative (lying in bed and binge watching season 4 of the Walking Dead). Depending on how bad you are feeling, that decision could go either way.

That sounds simple right? Let’s try a thought experiment to see how difficult this can be in practice. Using the same example from above, let’s first imagine the concert ticket only cost you $10. You probably don’t have to be feeling very sick before The Walking Dead is sounding pretty appealing. Now imagine the ticket cost you $1,000. In your mind, what would it take to stop you going to that concert? Broken leg? Getting stung by an Irukandji jellyfish? If you were being rational (at least in an economic sense), you would be just as willing to forgo the concert regardless of what the ticket cost.

Applying this thinking can be tough in practice (I would have to be close to death to pass up a $1,000 concert ticket), but being conscious of it can help to avoid some poor decision-making. Should you keep pouring time and money into an unsuccessful business because you spent a bunch of money and time getting it started? You probably shouldn’t. Is it acceptable not to drink yourself into a coma after you spent money on an all-you-can-drink pass? Yes, it certainly is. It can even apply to relationships – should you continue dating your current jerk boyfriend because you have already spent 5 years with him? This isn’t a relationship advice blog, so I’ll leave that one to you, but you can see where this is going.

4. Expected Cost/Benefit

Calculating the expected cost or benefit of a set of choices can be a great way to analyze a situation where there are multiple possible outcomes, even if you don’t have specific numbers to attach to certain outcomes. Used in the right situations, it helps to identify, clarify and compare the expected outcomes of different courses of action.

Let’s look at an example where you need to decide whether to apply for a promotion or not. Let’s imagine you are in a work place and a position opens up at the next level that will be filled internally. Here is the scenario:

  • The next level pays $10,000 p.a. more than your current job
  • You are one of two people that can go for the position, but the other candidate is much better qualified and you believe they will get the job if they apply
  • When you speak to the other candidate, they are on the fence as to whether they want the promotion (let’s say there is a 50% chance they will apply)
  • Your current boss is a bit of a possessive jerk and if you apply for the job and don’t get it, you estimate he will cut your bonus by $5,000
  • Your current boss can also be a generous possessive jerk, and if you don’t apply, you estimate he will bump up your bonus by $2,000 for showing loyalty

Should you go for the position? We can calculate the expected benefit/cost of each course of action to help us make the decision. Here are all the possible outcomes:

Candidate 2 Applies

Candidate 2 Doesn’t Apply

You Apply

-$5,000

+$10,000

You Don’t Apply

+$2,000

+$2,000

Given these outcomes, we can now weight the outcomes by the probability of them occurring to determine what the best course of action is:

Expected Benefit of Applying: 50% × -$5,000 + 50% × $10,000 = $2,500

Expected Benefit of Not Applying: 50% × $2,000 + 50% × $2,000 = $2,000

Based on this calculation, you should apply for the job, as the expected benefit is $500 higher than not applying.

Of course this is a stylized example, in reality it is unlikely that you have all the information given above. However, even missing some pieces of information, you can still use this approach to provide a baseline for your thinking. You may not know what the chances of the other person applying are, but by doing this calculation, you can determine that if there is anything more than a 50% chance of them applying, you will be better off not applying. You may not be able to estimate the impact on your bonus of an unsuccessful application, but you can work out how big the cut would have to be to stop you applying (a $6,000 cut in the above case) and then decide whether that is likely to occur. In short, you can use the information you do have to help you make your decision.

Initially it may be difficult to picture many scenarios where this type of thinking may be useful. However, with a little imagination, you may be surprised how often these situations present themselves. Some example scenarios may include:

  • Trying to buy a car knowing someone else is also interested – should I increase my offer, stick to my original low-ball offer, or pull out altogether?
  • Salary negotiations at work – should I accept the first offer or hold out for more money?
  • Deciding who to have lunch with when you are double booked – who would be the most offended and/or who can I most easily make it up to?

BONUS POINT: Getting Over Decisions That Don’t Pan Out

One of the key benefits of approaching your decision-making in a more rational, fact-based manner (aside from hopefully better decision-making) is that there will be less regret when you make a decision that does turn out badly.

Sometimes, even when you make the correct decision based on the information you have on hand, things will turn out badly – and the reverse can also be true. What changes when you start approaching your decision-making in a more calculated way is you provide yourself with an audit trail of assumptions and reasoning used. Now, instead of wondering why you made a particular decision, you can analyze the assumptions and reasoning used and work out what, if anything, went wrong. Did I underestimate how annoyed my current boss would be with me for applying for other jobs? Did I let sunk costs influence my decision? From that point, the only thing left to do is to learn and readjust for next time.

 

Used any other economic concepts in your day to day life? Had any interesting experiences using the ones mentioned above? Please leave a comment and share the story!

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