To Get More Done, Work Less
The counterintuitive magic of putting time limits on your tasks
For most of my working life, I lived by the principle I’d absorbed as a child, one I heard often both at home and at school: If you want to succeed, then put in more time. Long after my co-workers had gone home, I’d still be toiling away at my desk, convinced I was proving my value.
But when I eventually became a psychologist and started looking into the work habits of hundreds of entrepreneurs, I noticed something strange: The most successful people seemed to spend the fewest hours working. They’d spend a lot of time thinking about business strategies, sure, but they didn’t seem to value the 12-hour workdays or seven-day workweeks that hustle culture has long glorified. Instead, they’d use their extra time to pursue hobbies, spend time with their families, or simply let their minds wander. They were able to decouple time from results.
You may have heard of Parkinson’s law: “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” But is it true in practice? Can people actually get everything done when they have less time to do it?
All evidence points to yes. In 2019, Microsoft put the idea to the test with one of its subsidiaries in Japan: All employees took every Friday off, working only four days per week during the month of August. The change led to a nearly 40% increase in productivity, while employee satisfaction went up and office utility costs went down.
Why would this happen? Well, specific policy changes certainly contributed to the outcome, including capping all meetings at 30 minutes. But the larger reason is this: The longer we work, the less efficient we become. A study by the Stanford economics professor John Pencavel, published in the Economic Journal, examined the productivity of munitions-factory workers during World War I and found that their pace slowed significantly when they worked past a certain threshold. Whatever increase in output could be gained by stacking more hours onto the workday was offset by lost operational costs and unhappy employees.
The reason may have to do with mood and energy. A 23-month study of nurses in Gothenburg, Sweden, found that they were “happier, healthier, and more energetic” when working…