Working hours: when less is more

A new campaign by the Trades Union Congress is urging employees to work only their set hours. According to its calculations, the average employee does almost an extra day of work every week (seven hours and 18 minutes to be precise) because many work until at least six or seven o’clock. This is particularly true for accountants who are renowned for their long working hours.

Performance management is a big issue that underpins every business. Indeed, the UK has had a productivity problem for decades – successive governments have tried to raise our game but a glance at the productivity league tables shows we are still lagging behind our competitors. In the US, for example, workers are almost 30% more productive than staff based in the UK.

But working set hours is probably one of the least effective ‘systems’ for businesses to get the most out of their staff. This approach wrongly assumes that people are consistent in their approach and outlook.

Although psychometric tools have been developed to classify such things as people’s personality types and their role within a team, what many of us fail to recognise is that individuals vary significantly in the amount, intensity and type of energy they have – day by day, week by week and month by month.

This goes some way to explaining why people work really well, achieve loads and identify clear outcomes on some days, whereas on other days, they don’t have their normal creativity, energy or enthusiasm, and achieving the same outcomes seems to be an uphill struggle.

Energy management isn’t some new age mumbo-jumbo, nor is it just about whether someone is a morning, afternoon or evening person. The type of energy someone has is very important, whether it be physical energy or cognitive energy. Although it is true that most of us have underlying traits in terms of our creativity, analytical skills, process development or logic chains, there are optimum times of the day, week, month, and even year, when one or more of these traits, or energy types, is at its most prominent.

The easiest way to think of this is to treat each one of these traits as a form of energy. It’s the fuel that drives our thoughts, emotions and activities (think, feel, do). Being aware of what energy type is dominant at any one time is critical and should drive time management.

But unfortunately, we often carry out this process the opposite way round. The worst conflict someone can have is between a rigid time and task management structure, and the predominant energy in their system. For example, a person has scheduled time to be creative with their team, so you’re going to be creative, damn-it! It just doesn’t work.

Those days that fly by, when everything gets done are where there is ‘match up’ between the outcomes a person wants to achieve, the type and amount of energy they have, and the time available to do it.

The good news is this type of ‘match up’ can be enhanced with the right environment and by interacting with people who are operating on the same or complementary energy rushes. But to be truly effective, it is not sufficient just to become aware of these issues; we must also gain some control over them.

Here there are real synergies with my coaching work with top-level sports people. Competition times are set, whether it’s a match that kicks off at 3pm or a tee off time at 7am. Regardless of the ‘mood’ a person is in, or the energy type and level that predominates, nothing short of a winning performance will do.

And even though we all have preferences for a predominant type and level of energy, we also have the ability to change them according to need and environment. The result may not always be as free-flowing and beneficial as tapping into a naturally occurring state, but we can still respond to a high level. Success will depend on a clear understanding and self-awareness, which can be identified by answering the following questions.

What are my natural energy states (‘biorhythms’) and levels and how and when do these occur? How do they feel? What characterises each state? What are my underlying or predominant energy traits, and their type and intensity? What is the nature of the relationship between my ‘think, feel, do’ make-up? Which of these can I use (and it might be different for different outputs) to change my energy level and type?

Answering these questions leads to a deeper self-understanding, and for managers, helps to deepen their understanding of individual team members. Strategies and processes can then be developed that allow individuals to manage their predominant energy type to one that maximally suits the challenges they face right there and then.

To some extent we do this already. We have little routines or cues we ‘do’ or ‘think’ prior to doing anything different. These can include a key presentation or speech or a meeting with someone who can influence us. Lots of consultants recommend using visualisation or breathing techniques, or ‘chill down scripts’ and relaxing music for mood setting – all of which work well. But self-understanding is the key to absolute control. By matching the right techniques to the individual, they stand a better chance of oosting the best energy type and level for the work ahead.

You can get more out of your working day by following these tips. Match your energy to your task by becoming aware of your primary energy sources and preferences for applying them in certain situations. Learn to re-establish the energy needed for one task by drawing on other energy sources. For example, go for a walk to clear your head, which draws on physical energy to replace cognitive energy. Harness the power inherent in emotion and learn to control it.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that many things outside the work environment – in particular food, alcohol, personal issues, intimate relationships and friendships – can, depending on the circumstances, either drain you of energy or act as a boost. Learn to recognise when you are energy draining or charging up, and what type of energy you are dealing with – then adapt accordingly.

Another quick win in a broader business context is to recognise energy types and energy highs and lows in others around you, and then adapt your interaction and task allocation to these people accordingly.

Rather than becoming a slave to time and task management – and feeling forced to work long hours – the key to reaching and performing at the highest level is simple. First identify, then learn to manipulate your biorhythms. This will enable an understanding and maximisation of your energy levels, thus delivering the key to maximal productivity and achieving your true potential.

Matt Jevon is a performance synergist who works with high performing sports and business people

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