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  • Writer's pictureEdwin and George

Time to accelerate your career? Work smarter, not harder

Updated: Apr 23, 2023

EGM On A Mission: Let’s Build Better Companies

‘People tell me that hard work never killed anybody. But why take the chance?’ (Ronald Regan)

Try telling that to Elon Musk, who says he works 120 hours each week.

Busyness had become a powerful status symbol (although Regan did win the cold war and Musk’s problems seem never ending).

And at work it seems that if you want to get on, you have to be full on. Online day and night, contactable over the weekend and checking your emails hundreds of times each day.

Lunch is for whimps.’ (Gordon Gekko)

Or is it? No it's fact...the quote and character deserve to stay in the 1980s.

In 2017, researchers at Columbia University asked students in New York to guess the status of individuals based on a description of their job role and what they did each day.

  • Anything that indicated the person was busy, stressed or working long hours resulted in the students giving higher estimations of how senior the person was.

Interestingly the researchers then did the same exercise with an Italian group of students - and guess what? They got exactly the opposite response.

And it looks like the Italians were right.

A clear case of the Italian phrase dolce far niente (‘sweet doing nothing’) as the ‘New Scientist’ reported at the time.

Recent research by Cass Business School finds that people who work with high intensity, are always checking emails and work long hours are, in fact, less likely to get promoted or feel secure in their jobs.

  • In part, it’s due to the higher chances of tiredness and lower productivity – especially in environments where high quality work is valued over effort.

  • It can also reflect on capability. People who are stressed, work long hours and are seen to be always under pressure risk giving the wrong impression to their bosses.

So, take lunch, switch off the computer, take that walk, go to the yoga class and spend time relaxing.

But there’s no doubt that both managers and individuals need to take action to tackle this culture of busyness and overwork.


An article in the ‘Harvard Business Review’ describes the actions managers can take. (‘Beware a culture of busyness,’ Adam Waytz, HBR March 2023).

  1. Reward output, not activity – get rid of measures such as utilisation rates (the time a person spends working on a client project). Not surprisingly paying people by effort leads to – more effort. Research on the legal profession shows that when firms promote people based on billable hours, this leads to lawyers working longer and drives up inefficient behaviour.

  2. Eliminate ‘low value’ work – companies bombard their staff with low value tasks (data entry, non-essential meetings, over-engineered expense reports and timesheets). Reduce the amount of this work.

  3. Force people ‘off the clock’ – research shows that half of employees don’t take their full annual leave. This isn’t effective for mental health or productivity. Managers need to ‘tackle’ (or’ coach’) the worst offenders. In addition, many companies have eliminated the ability for staff to send emails to each other out of hours. Other ideas include allowing designated time for self-development or team activities.

  4. Model the right behaviours – the message that companies value well-being and high-quality output will only resonate if staff see their bosses modelling this behaviour (not by dumping their work onto their team, we would add).

  5. Build slack into the system – while budgets are tight, taking on that extra pair of hands may result in a win-win result. It can release experienced staff to focus on ‘deep work.’ The impact of the quality of output can outweigh the cost. As author Seth Godin puts it, ‘having slack in the system makes the system more resilient.’


In 2009, psychologist Paul Graham wrote a paper identifying, at a high level, two ways people manage their time.

There is the manager’s schedule approach.

  • This approach is used by most professional and white-collar workers. Time is divided into one-hour slots with attending meetings being the main scheduled activity. The individual moves from meeting to meeting and, when they aren’t in meetings, they encounter regular distractions. They are dealing with telephone calls or in conversation with colleagues. ‘Deep work’ and activities requiring a high level of focus are aren’t usually scheduled – these activities get done in-between meetings, often on an ad hoc basis. These people often have a long to-do list and they move from one item to another.

Then there is the maker’s schedule approach.

  • This approach is used by writers and those who spend a lot of time creating or innovating. To these people, a meeting or a distraction is unwelcome. Their work requires a high level of focus and ‘deep work.’ They set up ‘distraction free workplaces, often working alone. They ‘batch’ similar activities in their schedule. For example, a half day for research, a half day for meetings, a full day for writing and producing the end result. They set themselves a small number of goals and focus totally on achieving them.

Perhaps it’s time to start moving away from a manager’s schedule to a maker’s schedule?

When a company encourages busyness, employees rarely resist. But busyness isn’t a virtue and it’s past time that companies stop seeing it as such. Evaluating employees on how busy they are is a terrible way to motivate creative and innovative people. There is a massive downside to unproductive effort. Never mistake activity for achievement.

And for individuals. In 2019, the New Scientist’ published an article about how high performers progress in their careers. One observation was that people who have more control over their work feel more motivated, engaged and produce a higher quality of output over the long-run.

Time to accelerate your career? Work smarter, not harder.

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