Work Less, Accomplish More

In the United States, most people are paid for their time instead of for their work.  In many other cultures this is unheard of.  A young man from Africa was going to college in the U.S. and his land lady hired him to dig a ditch.  She was going to pay him a reasonable amount per hour.  He was horrified!  Why would she pay him per hour?


Time didn’t represent the amount of work that was actually accomplished.  Having a finished ditch was a much better measurement of work.  If he went slow it would be easier and he’d make more money.  If he worked quickly, it would be harder and he’d make less. They eventually reached an agreement, he dug the ditch and was paid a fair rate. This young man’s attitude is much more aligned with the attitude of highly productive people, than those that think about the number of hours worked in a day.  When it comes down to it, the number of hours you spend each day doesn’t at all determine how much work you get done.

In fact, when you concentrate on the amount of time you work and make that your metric, you are likely to be much less efficient. The reason we do this is because most of us still think in terms of putting in an 8 hour day of work.  If we would think in terms of accomplishing certain activities, we’d find that many of the tasks that traditionally take a full day could actually be
completed in much less time.

For example, consider a imaginary school where the students aren’t required to be in class for a specific amount of time.  They have certain things they need to learn each day.  Once they learn those items (and demonstrate their mastery of the concepts) they can leave for the day. Don’t you think the amount they would learn in a single hour would far surpass the amount their peers learn in a traditional school setting? Of course it would.

When you think about it, the whole concept of measuring time instead of measuring accomplishment comes from trying to apply factory management concepts to people. If a factory machine puts out 100 rubber duckies per hour, then time makes sense as a way of measurement.  The longer the machine runs, the more bathtub toys you will produce.  People don’t work like a machine.  Compare one hour of being highly productive to one hour of being distracted and unfocused.  The results in terms of actual accomplishment is dramatic.

If you want to become more effective you need to stop setting goals in terms of time.  For example, as a student you shouldn’t decide that you are going to study for one hour.  Instead decide that you will study until you master 5 topics.  Create a concrete way to measure your understanding.  Once  you’ve completed your task, stop and do something fun. Remember your goal is to concentrate on accomplishment–not the amount of time spent.

If you work for someone else, it isn’t likely that they will let you get all your work done quickly and then take off at noon.  More likely their assumption would be that you don’t have enough to do! So what should you do?  In the end, if you plan to really be a highly productive person, you probably need to work for yourself.  If you are 10 times more productive than the average employee, they aren’t going to just decide to pay you 10 times as much.  To benefit from your efficiency you are going to have to do something to make sure that your skill translates into greater earning potential. Running your own business is something you should keep in mind.

However, you can still keep your focus on accomplishment instead of time as an employee.  For most people working in an office, it is very unlikely that even 50% of your time will be spent being highly productive and focused.  Much of your time will be spent interacting with others in ways that doesn’t accomplish anything, looking for something, wasting time, etc.  This is normal and part of it has to do with the fact that it is very difficult to say highly focused for an entire day.

You can increase your efficiency by taking a look at when you are most productive.  For example, if you can focus the most from 8am until 11am set this as your optimal work time and give yourself goals so you can be completely focused during that time period.  Put all of your really hard work into that work window.  Once you are done, you can deal with the other more trivial tasks that don’t require as much effort–including talking with people at the water cooler, etc.  By keeping your attention focused during that time you will be able to train yourself for efficiency even if you can’t just quit for the day at 11am–something you could potentially do if you had your own business, but that is the subject for another day.


  1. Garrick says

    Its so strange to read this article because of the number of times I have found myself thinking the exact same thing. I’m glad that someone has finally taken the initiative and decided to share this viewpoint with the world.

  2. says

    a very valid post and very ironic that this practice has carried on for years.

    even in my industry which is primarily IT services people are monitored on a x hours/day metric! people who complete one single task and then while away time till end of day are not in the radar at all!

    the question is – though lots of people realise this (for years now) why hasnt this concept changed! [i would like to point out that some managers do drive their teams on a task-basis while the organization demands a time-basis record]

  3. says

    I found myself instantly relating to the ideas in this post because I’m in an an extreme example of an environment that equates an employee with the time they spend for which they’re “paid” to stay. They go so far as not put much emphasis on delays and shortcomings as much as being late to work. The reward system works, both explicitly and implicitly, with how neat the employee’s timecard is.

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