Monday, June 27, 2011

Work Limit

I have a big deadline at work this week. We are doing a major system upgrade, and as part of that, we are migrating a large amount of data from an old database that none of us fully understands to a new one that I designed. I'm project manager for the whole project and responsible for producing (and testing) the scripts that will migrate the data. The upgrade starts Thursday at 7 p.m. My scripts are written and (mostly) tested. But the process is not smooth and requires far too much manual intervention. The rest of the project still needs some babysitting. I have a lot of work left to do.

So why am I blogging instead of working? Because I have reached my work limit.

I figured out back in graduate school that the number of hours I actually spend working is not exactly equivalent to the number of hours I spend in my office (or at my work computer at home). Furthermore, the amount of actual useful work I produce is not exactly equivalent to the number of hours I spend working. The relationships look something like this:

Not only does trying to spend more hours working lead me to start wasting time reading blogs and stupid news stories rather than actually working, but at some point, putting in more hours actually leads me to produce less actual work.

And I have reached that point. I spent far too long today trying to figure out how to write one particular test script. It was complicated, but not that complicated. Finally, someone else came and looked at the problem, and saw an elegant solution that I should have seen- and that I would have seen if my brain wasn't trying to work past capacity. I'm at my work limit. I know from past experience that if I keep pushing to get more work done, I'll start making stupid mistakes and my actual productivity will begin to plummet. So I walked out of the office without my laptop tonight, and decided to give myself the night off from work. I played catch with Petunia (she's surprisingly good!) and did yoga with Pumpkin (yoga done with a preschooler is funnier than yoga done alone, but not as relaxing). After I snuggled with Pumpkin for the requisite time (now up to two minutes post story- it is a good thing she hasn't figured out how to watch the clock!) and prepped things for tomorrow night's dinner, I came in to the office- but to write a blog post, not a data migration script.

I have been aware of my work limit since graduate school. In fact, I was starting to get an inkling that such a limit might exist in college- I never pulled an all-nighter in college, because it was always obvious to me that doing so would be less effective than going to bed and getting up fresh to tackle my work the next day. (I have, in fact, pulled two all-nighters in my life: one to print my PhD thesis and one to give birth to Pumpkin. Petunia's birth was faster, and I was asleep by 2 a.m. that night.) It was in graduate school, though, that I noticed that the more and more I tried to work, the fewer and fewer solid results I was gathering. Being a good scientist, I tried an experiment, and scaled back my work hours. To my surprise, my results increased. As a bonus, I was happier and healthier. I've never worked insane hours since.

I know that other people's work limits will be different than mine, and also that the relationship between hours in the office and hours worked will be different for different people. But I suspect that everyone has a work limit, and that no one can force themselves to be completely efficient and focused on work for extra long work weeks, particularly not week after week.

This leads me to question the dramatic statements I sometimes hear (and read!) from other people, about how many hours they are working. Are they really working those long hours? Or are they just putting in the time in the office? According to research quoted by Laura Vanderkam in 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, people of all professions tend to over-estimate the hours they work when asked to estimate the length of their work week. If they actually track their time, the result comes out to a lower number. That makes sense to me- I know that I became much more aware of how I was spending my time when I was a consultant who had to charge hours. I didn't have a charge code for "randomly reading articles on the internet" or "gossiping with my colleagues", so I had to keep those things down to below the chargeable time limit, or just not charge for blocks of time in my day. If you've never done a time-tracking exercise, I encourage you to try it. It can be very eye opening! (I posted about my most recent time-tracking exercise, if you're curious about how its done.)

And even if people are really working all of those hours, are they actually producing more work than they would produce in fewer hours? The knowledge that I start to lose efficiency helps me keep my actual hours in the office to 40-45 per week. This is on the low end for my industry- but no one has ever complained about my productivity. Quite the opposite, actually. Maybe learning about my work limit was one of the most useful things I did in graduate school.


  1. Awesome. I am going to make my husband read this. I think that he works far past his "limit" all the time--his workload is horrific, but I agree that if he doesn't spend any time away from it he's not working efficiently.

    I also never pulled all-nighters. Around 2 am I'd feel so stupid and sluggish I'd have to go to sleep; getting up at 6 was like having a new brain!

  2. Anonymous11:07 PM

    What are the labels on your axes? (I feel like I'm at a talk).

  3. I'm very much the same way, and I can't remember if I have ever pulled an all-nighter. I'm a very efficient worker if I do 7-8 hours a day. Any more than that, then I get distracted easily and my productivity plummets.

  4. Anonymous4:51 AM

    YES. The hours I can work will depend on how much is grunt work (repetitive .do file fixing) and how much is thinking work. I can spend longer hours with a mix.

    Breaks also help. I was actually most efficient right after DC was born because I had planned breaks (in which I was allowed to goof off) and observation (from someone I was paying to take care of my baby). So goofing off was limited, but I got enough in.

    Last year NPR had a horrible story on morning edition about how we can only make a certain number of decisions each day before burning out. (Apparently this is why Google has someone to take care of drycleaning and meals for employees.) I got nothing done that entire day because my decision load burned out trying to decide whether or not to make a decision.

    Honest to God, I think medical residents should have longer residencies for fewer hours each week. (Currently there's legislation cutting the number of hours each week, but not lengthening residencies, so residents aren't getting their 10K hours.) You can't remember a lot of the stuff you did if you don't get the sleep needed to make those connections. Yes, that means longer before making the big bucks and starting a real job, but it could very well mean fewer lives lost from medical error from sleep-deprived doctors, and possibly less drug-addiction among doctors. (An empirical question, as there is a trade-off.)

  5. My "work peak" is probably 9 hour days right now, and my work limit is closer to 11. More than an 11 hour day means it will take me twice as long to getting going the next morning.

    I've pulled one almost-all-nighter in my life for a final group projects (we had tests running up through the last minute), but singing ABBA loudly at 2am really helps me stay awake...

  6. When I was at university, I worked out I could do about six hours of intensive study in a day. Anything more was ineffective. I swear this was not a calculation to justify tge relative split of time between my social life and study!! I think it may have something to do with my best friends description of me as 'brutally efficient' though.

    This duration of effectiveness is probably still true in that I can probably only do around 6 hours of thinking work - but I've got plenty of administriva to fill the rest of my workday

  7. Thanks for the nice comments, everyone!

    @anonymous- the axes are hours. X-axis is hours in the office (or at my work computer at home). Y-axis is as the legend says. I "normalized" work produced to be hours. Sorry, I swear I typed a label on the x-axis. I must have lost it when I was playing around with the different types of graphs that Google spreadsheet can do.

    @nicoleandmaggie- I totally agree about medical residents. I do NOT want someone who is past his or her work limit making life and death decisions for me or my loved ones!

  8. Good post. I think everyone has a work limit but few acknowledge it. That's why many companies, bosses and workers themselves equate productivity with longer hours.

    I think the true work limit is around 40 hours a week (and within those 40 hours, there is time for breaks, gossip, surfing the net) because no one is working at their best all day, every day. As Nicoleandmaggie mentioned, you can work those hours if thoughtful/difficult work is balanced with repetitive grunt work but very few can do difficult work hour after hour.

  9. Hmm... I think some rare people are good at managing their work time, and not playing on the internet/gossiping around the water cooler at work. Most of us, not so much.

    Where I used to work ages ago, they hired a big name mgmt consulting firm that recommended getting rid of all private offices and instead having everyone sit in cubicles next to their team in an open floorplan, where anyone could walk by and see what was on anyone else's screen.

    Also, pretty much every internet site worth wasting valuable company time on was blocked.

    Productivity soared.

    @nicoleandmaggie & @Cloud - Another solution might be for individuals to choose not to be cared for by a resident/not seeking treatment at teaching hospitals. About resident training programs, I'm not sure I agree with your unstated premise that the lion's share of "medical errors" and "lost lives" are the fault of vaunted sleep-deprived residents instead of their attendings and especially their nurses/poorly-trained medical assts filling in for RN's due to shortages.

    Circa 2003, all American residency programs instituted an 80-hour max work week. There are some places that are misreporting their residents' hours though (Johns Hopkins is a prime example). I can't see more legislation really solving that where a cultural problem of overwork and old school doctors' real bootcamp mentality encourages risk-taking. Once the old boys all retire or get sent to rehab, and more women fill the ranks of actual decision-makers, the culture will eventually change.

  10. Anonymous8:17 AM

    I don't know about the lion's share of mistakes, but there are several papers about the July effect, including an excellent one that came out several years ago by some very good economists (I saw it presented before it was published... and understood why my wisdom teeth experience was so dreadful.) In July you are much better off NOT going to a teaching hospital.

  11. the milliner8:35 AM

    I so have a work limit. Same thing happens to me during long, big, hard & intense projects, or when I'm working too many hours in the week. I hit the wall and then I just stop working. Despite the large list of urgent to do's, I take a break. Clean my desk. Put some order back in. Usually doing something physical helps me. And like you've mentioned, my productivity and effectiveness increases a lot after the break.

    I don't work long hours anymore because I just can't (too tired) and won't (making more time for life outside of work).

    Before DS came along, I was definitely in the camp of working long hours and work weeks. I loved what I did. But I was working too much.

    In unversity we (a lot of the class) did so many overnighters in the lab that there were foam cushions under our cutting tables that we used for napping. High school seniors touring the faculty thought it was a joke. Sadly no. I used to be a night owl and hey! I was in my 20's, so I was somehow able to manage it (though 8am classes in a dark auditorium with a slide show were hard).

    I couldn't pull an all-nighter now to save my life (well, perhaps to save my life...and I even napped in the middle of the night at the hospital for DS' birth, after I got my epidural needless to say).

    I think the latest I've stayed up since DS was born (other than the night wakings, which, I guess is some form of torturous all nighter) is about 1am. And I think it happened once.

  12. This is interesting, I'm really glad you're the same as me, I always felt a little guilty! I've always been honest with my bosses, and I cant be sure, but I think I'm often more productive than some of my collegues who routinely stay late and pop in on the weekends. Some of them appear to be avoiding their family life, but thats a debate for another time.

    The uk was significantly different, people worked a 37.5 hour week and you'd be surprised to see anyone in past 4 on a friday, we were actually banned from the lab after 6pm and on weekends because it was dangerous. I got a 30% pay rise (or similar) when I arrived in the US though.

    I'm not sure if other industries are different, but I guess I've been doing a 40 hour week at my first job, then a 20 hour+ week working on my business and making cakes and decorations. I'm not sure if things change when your tasks are more diverse.

    It does really scare me the number of people who are in the food industry who just dont appear to get any sleep. I've promised I wont become one of those!

  13. @hush- oh, I still read blogs at work, etc. I just keep it short. I use them as a short "brain-cleansing" between more involved tasks. Which, incidentally, is what I am doing right now. There is actually research that says this tends to make workers more productive. I should dig that up and post it...

    I'm not arguing that people shouldn't take breaks at work. I guess I just think that taking really long breaks seems to correlate with being at work really long hours, and I'm not in for that.

  14. @Cloud - I hear you - everything in moderation, definitely. But. In general, too much of people secretly being on the internets at work sometimes gives this false illusion of people looking like they're working really hard. And the perception becomes the reality. This depends of course on the degree to which mgmt has it's head up its ass or not. If mgmt looks at "productivity" and makes false attributions thinking - 'gee they all seem to be working hard so I guess the employees just need to be here longer to get all the work done then.' Which, in turn, makes it harder for certain of us who use our time more efficiently to leave work early (i.e. when we're actually done doing all the things we're supposed to) - as crappy management mis-responds to what they think they're seeing by insisting on more work hours/face time. Know what I'm sayin'?

    @nicoleandmaggie - Amen on July effect research, and gawd help anyone due to have her first baby at a teaching hospital in July! But isn't it interesting there's no "August effect," and no "September effect."? Basically, it is a 31-day shitshow as the care teams learn how to integrate the new residents, and as the residents learn how to manage their staff. I'm friends with too many docs, and they all say they went through a phase early on as residents where they had to learn to tell well-meaning pseudo-nurses to please eff off so they could do their job.

  15. Well, I'm in the minority here. I have pulled many all-nighters, and I'm sure that I'll have more before I'm done with working.

    BUT I have a slightly different efficiency/work limit axes, and I think that's why. Maybe it was the years of schooling or working in IT with the waterfall version of the software development life cycle. I actually do my best work near a deadline when I have to put in long hours of intense focus. And then, after the deadline, I need time to putz around and mentally recuperation.

    Generally, I also need a mix of thinking work and tedious work, but I need to do it in chunks of time or else I don't focus enough on one task to get it done (a problem I'm currently having). So if I have a day full of meetings with an hour here and there between them, I pretty much don't get any actual work done! To make up for it, I will set aside days where I don't meet with anyone or even work from home so I don't get any distractions and can just focus on the work.

    Recently, we did a major redesign of our system, and we had our deadline shortened due to contract issues. So suddenly, my whole team was cramming in LOTS of long hours (and cups of coffee) for 2-3 months. Then after the release, there were some patches, which required quick turnarounds. I'm sure you can image just how burnt out everyone was. The PM and I made sure everyone had down time for a while after that. Now we are ramping back up for the next big release.

    Long story short: I can work long hours for a few weeks straight, but then I need some comp time or easy work for a little while afterwards. That is actually how I'm most productive.

    Speaking of which, I'm supposed to finish reviewing something right now instead of blogging...
    Good luck on the migration! I hope it goes smoothly!

  16. Anonymous1:44 PM

    My day sounds like your day! I'm currently in the wait 30 min period... Oh lord I hope I'm done soon. We hit 2 deadlines today and have one to go. This weekend is going to be AWESOME.


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