To be more productive at work, less is more

Shorter and more flexible hours could do wonders

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 October, 2014, 10:56am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 October, 2014, 10:56am

Hongkongers are depressed and stressed, with financial woes and career anxiety high on the agenda. And, if some recent reports are to believed, they are also less productive than other workers in the region.

In a 2011 Gallup poll, Hong Kong workers were found to have a low level of "career well-being" - a worker's view of their own job situation. The negative outlook reflected low levels of productivity, with only 45 per cent of those interviewed considering themselves as "extremely productive" in their jobs. Hong Kong ranked at the bottom of all 22 Asian economies surveyed.

Working more doesn't help. More than 10-hour working days are common in the city, and 35 per cent of those who work more than 50 hours in a week show symptoms of depression, according to a 2012 survey commissioned by the Baptist Oi Kwan Social Service.

So, how do we end the destructive cycle?

Being "productive" doesn't mean squeezing more into your day; in fact, the way to get more done is to work smart. This is the message from Tony Schwartz, chief executive of the Energy Project that advises multinational corporations on how to engage and produce productive employees.

"A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal - including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent holidays - boosts productivity," he said in a published report last year.

Research in the field of productivity shows that, although we can't make more time, we can measurably increase our energy. Ninety minutes of deliberate, productive work blocks is the golden rule, following a 1993 study of elite performers by Professor Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University, published in Psychological Review.

Ericsson found the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions of no more than 90 minutes, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than 4½ hours in any given day.

Another way, based on similar research, known as the Pomodoro method, breaks work into 25-minute chunks, after which you take a five-minute break. Complete four rounds of "pomodoros," (amounting to 100 minutes of work with 15 total break minutes), and take a longer rest of 15 to 20 minutes.

And you can forget multitasking - it has been scientifically demonstrated that the brain cannot switch between tasks efficiently as it takes four times longer for our brain to recognise new things.

"Being productive is about doing the right things, not everything, at the right time," says 37-year-old Tytus Michalski, managing director at Hong Kong-based Fresco Capital. The company, which has invested in 29 start-ups globally, is managed by just two people.

Michalski credits his company's success to its efficient and productive approach - a conscious effort. Aware of his inefficiencies, Michalski started measuring his time in 15-minute blocks a few years ago.

"Doing that for a year was a helpful process. It's important to be aware of how you spend your time," he says.

Results from his experiment, combined with his own comprehensive review of productivity tools, have been used to ensure the most productive approach to his day.

The secret behind Michalski's productivity is not about long hours in the office - he rarely works past 6pm - but having an "off" switch.

"Being productive is about slowing down and not getting caught in the moment," he says.

And for Michalski, a black belt in karate, that means making sure he gets into his karate at least two to three times a week to "detox" work stresses.

The same approach is taken by Joanne Ooi, chief executive of Hong Kong-based online jewellery retailer Plukka. Despite operating her company across two time zones, Ooi is fanatical about tennis, playing three to four times a week.

"It's a precondition for me to be healthy through fitness, to be productive," she says. "Nothing gets in the way of my tennis; I block it out in my diary."

Science supports the notion that health, happiness and productivity are deeply entwined.

For a year, Professor Avner Ben-Ner and others at the University of Minnesota installed treadmill workstations in a US financial services and observed the results. The study, published online in February 2014, on peer-review site Plos.org found overall work performance, quality and quantity of performance, and interactions with co-workers improved as a result of executives incorporating exercise on the treadmills into their day.

Being productive is about doing the right things, not everything, at the right time
Tytus Michalski, managing director, Fresco Capital

What's more, happy workers are more productive. More than 700 people took part in a series of experiments in 2009, such as solving mathematics problems after watching a comedy show. Researchers, led by Professor Andrew Oswald at the University of Warwick in Britain, concluded that feelings of happiness made people around 12 per cent more productive, while unhappy workers were 10 per cent less productive.

Sleep is another key factor. A recent Harvard study estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies US$63.2 billion a year in lost productivity. Too little sleep - below six hours a night - is routinely associated with burnout in various scientific studies across a number of vocations.

Allison Baum, who established the Hong Kong branch of General Assembly, a global online education platform for entrepreneurs, believes productivity is ultimately a mindset.

"Make a list, even if it's a simple task, and cross it off the list," she says. As soon as you start feeling productive you can start taking on bigger things, as you're in the zone."

Elaine Tsung, founder of the Garage Society, a shared workspace in Central, observes several successful businesses and entrepreneurs on a daily basis. She believes productivity boils down to being flexible with your schedule.

"A lot of people who work here do so at their own pace. Really, nine to five is not productive - I see a lot of people who come in later once they've worked in the morning, and gone to the gym … avoiding crowds."

She also believes productivity begets productivity. "If you come into a workplace and you see everyone else is doing their work, the vibe and energy is more productive overall."

While not all office workers have the ability to control their workspaces or hours of work, Baum suggests controlling your own "productivity schedule" during your day.

"Listen to your own gut about your schedule; I cannot be productive in the afternoon … I used to beat myself up about it, but now I schedule my productive times, between 7am and 11am," she says.

Michalski similarly breaks up his day into two chunks. "The first part is where I do 'work' and the second chunk is full of meetings."

He does the important things first. "My brain degrades over the day - making important decisions at 6pm is not wise."

Ooi finds the efficient use of technology slashes hours off her working day. "Technology is a huge enabler of productivity," she says.

Ooi uses digital dictation and voice notes on her iPhone wherever possible in order to avoid downtime and wasted time.

"I'm a huge user of WhatsApp. I run the company through different chat group threads, dealing with everything in real time," she says.

"Technology frees up huge amounts of time and I'm able to work from any location."

She's also a fan of ditching face-to-face meetings wherever possible (as are Michalski and Baum), citing most of them as time-wasters.

So what's the ultimate solution to avoid getting sidetracked, and keeping productive? "Keep it simple," says Michalski. "Write a daily update or 'to do' list of the right things - and stick to it."

After all, heeding that advice will not only make you more productive, but healthier and happier.

An intense alternative

Why limit productivity to your working life? Justin Choo, a triathlete and ultra runner has applied productivity principles to his training regimen. For years Choo would train for up to 12 hours a week through a combination of swimming, running and cycling.
Fed up with training formany hours away from family and friends, Choo, 36, a veterinarian, decided to maximise returns by "hacking" his runs: by having more intense sessions in shorter bursts.
Starting in July this year this new schedule involves running for only 10 to 15 minutes a day at a higher intensity, a maximum effort 10x one-minute treadmill session once a week, with limited rest, and includes a weekly strength session.
"The idea for me has been to run with good form every day, without getting too fatigued - which results in a slower run speed. If you train slow, you race slow."
He achieved the new goals by getting out of bed a little earlier every morning. "I'm definitely the fittest, fastest and leanest I've been and get more out of each targeted session … I don't sacrifice quality time with the family and I'm more efficient at work.
"Overall, I'm more energised, sleep better, more focused with work and parenting … just more productive."