The Breakdown | Explaining Southern California's economy

Why working hard is working wrong

There's a deep Calvinist preoccupation in the American workplace with hard work. Break the big rocks into little rocks all day long and you shall surely see a reward. And in fact, for some people, this is an excellent formula.

However, it may not be the way to go for most of us. I've been following the Energy Project for a while now, via the blog posts that president and CEO Tony Schwartz writes for his site and for Harvard Business Review. Schwartz offers a very different perspective, based on the idea that people aren't machines and that our energy is actually the most valuable capital we bring to the workplace:

The way we’re working isn’t working. Does anyone doubt that’s true?

Only 20 percent of us– 1 out of every five – feels fully engaged at work, according to one global study of 90,000 employees across 18 countries. Forty percent of us are actively disengaged. Over 100 studies have now demonstrated the correlation between employee engagement and business performance.

So where have we gone so wrong?

The answer is rooted in the false assumption that we operate best in the same linear way that our computers do: continuously, at high speeds, for long periods of time, running multiple programs at the same time.

That’s unsustainable. When demand exceeds our capacity, we default into the survival zone. We’re suboptimal. It’s not good for us, and it’s not good for our employers.

Schwartz advocates alternating periods of work that focus on effective concentration and flow with periods of renewal. These aren't unfamiliar concepts. Athletes are aware that when they deplete their energy levels in competition, they need to rest up and restore, in order to be at their peaks the next time they take to the field. 

Something that Schwartz and his colleagues particularly object to is multitasking. This very contemporary workplace skill has become something of a given these days — if you're bad at multitasking, you'll be less successful at work. 

However, all that multitasking is robbing you of true productivity. And robbing your employer, or investors, or whoever, of value. Multitasking in and of itself isn't necessarily bad. But it's kind of just another tool. One that can be easily misused in the foolhardy pursuit of the productivity that multitasking actually undermines.

I experience this all the time in my own work. The way I blog is organized around making arguments, and for that to work, the points need to logically transition into each other. If I neglect this aspect, the argument falls apart. 

Argument requires concentration. But when I finish a post, I need to promote it via social media and start hunting for the next topic or theme to post about — or review topics and themes I've been following to see if I need to weight in again.

For the past year or so — ever since I first encountered the Energy Project — i've been making a conscious effort to pause between tasks. I don't necessarily follow Schwartz's prescription of 90 minutes working phases followed by renewal phases, but that's because I can often write two or three posts in 90 minutes, depending on how they're structured. But I still take plenty of breaks.

So when I publish a post, I pause for a few minutes. Then I go back and read it over. Then I do the Facebook/Twitter/G+ thing. Then I take a breather.

I feel that this process has enabled me not just to increase my output, but also be less ragged by the end of the day. I've also discovered that because the majority of my day involves reading and writing, it helps to watch some videos in the gaps. These are sometimes related to business and the economy. But sometimes they're completely unrelated. 

We're not talking dancing cats here. But I'll check out a tutorial, or watch a few minutes of an old tennis match. I try to avoid checking out CNBC.

Other times, I'll just go for a stroll around the station and look for someone to chat with. I'll also go outside and meander around the block. This last one should be more effective than it is. But I make myself do it anyway, to keep the blood flowing along with the ideas.

This is all a work in progress. I'd rate my energy levels at around a B- these days (I generally like to be in B+/A- territory, but my wife and I have had a new baby to attend to for the past year, and that's gobbled up my reserve energy). Heading into the holidays, those levels will be under threat (in both good and bad ways). So what I'm telling myself is that renewal is even more important. 

I'd welcome any renewal tips readers might have. What do you do to re-energize at work and at home? And how do you change — or not change — your patterns during the holiday season?

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.