Radhika Nagpal earned tenure at Harvard while working 50 hours per week. In a recent Scientific American piece, she writes about this and other uncommon decisions she made about her work life (e.g. capping her travel, doing one fun and one hard thing each week, etc.).
Inspired by this piece, I decided to work a 50-hour week last week. Here’s what I did to make my 70-hour work week fit into 50 hours:
- I shortened as many meetings as I could. I immediately searched for hour-long meetings that I could make half an hour. And then I searched for half-hour meetings that I could make fifteen minutes. And then I declined more meetings than I had previously.
- I made sure that every meeting I had for the week had objectives set in advance, whether it was my meeting or not. If someone sent out an invite without objectives or pre-work, I asked for both—even if the person was senior to me. I also started thinking about checklists for meetings—in what meetings should we always make sure we cover the same things (e.g. social media).
- By the end of the week, I’d added the practice of writing a quick reflection in the calendar invite after a meeting. By having objectives and a guess at how long the meeting would take up front, I could quickly compare my guesses about objectives and timing to the actual result. This creates an opportunity to learn from the delta between what I expected and what happened.
- I said no to other people more but actually spent more time doing important things for other people. I made up a rule that if someone else on the management team wanted something, I would do it if it was either easy (less than fifteen minutes) or if I thought it contributed to one of their top two priorities. This week, that meant that I actually spent considerable time—several hours–reviewing and editing a contract with a potential partner but that there were several documents I didn’t review at all.
It also made me realize a few other broad things about the way I was working:
- I need to take more time to develop my team. Everything I do to make my team more effective individually and as a group means increasing leverage on our time for all of us. I already believed that, but now I feel it. I need to spend more time teaching and giving feedback—and having my team do the same for me.
- Written reflection is so valuable. Since this was an experiment and not a decision, I blocked off half an hour for writing a reflection each day (in addition to my 50 hours). I sketched out what I’d done that day by hour, recorded my hours worked and hours left for the week, jotted down “things of note,” and wrote about how I’d spent my free time. I learned so much from doing this (including everything written here). There’s a lot of research that writing helps you process and learn. Again, I already believed that, but now I feel it. Freshly, at that.
- The boundaries between my work and life are porous—and I like it that way. Unlike Radhika, I don’t have a husband and two kids. I have a couple of plants that I’m a little too willing to subject to a survival of the fittest watering strategy. My work is play—with discussion of an amazing poem on Tuesday and office flip cup on Thursday. And my play is work—with a two-hour dinner with colleagues on Monday night where we seamlessly weaved between yoga and business reflections. I don’t need sharp boundaries because I bring pretty close to my whole self to work—and so do my colleagues.
- When you are always in productivity mode, you cut yourself off from serendipity. Serendipity is one of my favorite things, and I value it really highly. But serendipity is more planned than it is often given credit for. The serendipity that happens inside your house is pretty limited. At a coffee shop, somewhat higher. At a coffee shop in a neighborhood where certain types of people hang out, even higher. There is a certain serendipity that comes from just passing time together as a group. And if you only do 50 hours and plan out most of it into the most efficient meetings you can manage, you cut yourself off from serendipity.
Working 50 hours wasn’t all roses:
- Someone on my team mentioned that I was using “Because I want it” a lot as a rationale. That’s the worst. I hate it when other people do that. But now I was doing it! It’s hard not to become transactional and demanding when trying to move fast. But it’s less fun for everyone and not the basis of great relationships. I screwed this up.
- By Thursday, every fiber of my being was exhausted. Working 50 hours meant that I had to work at an exhausting pace for much of it, hyper-focused for long stretches of time.
Nor did my life outside of work change in the ways I expected:
- In my newly freed up time, I did more of the things I already like to do. For me this meant practicing yoga and reading fiction books. I saw tangible progress on both in just one week—piking into a headstand for the first time in ten years and finishing two great books. But I didn’t do any of the things I’d been meaning to do—like get my hair cut, cancel my duplicate health insurance, finish my taxes, or respond to anyone ever on any online dating site. There’s a difference between having free time and creating new patterns of action.
- More time at home means more time to make my home a mess. Having grown up in a messy, disorganized house, I hate the idea of having a messy, disorganized house. But spending more time in my apartment gave me more time to cook and to try on clothes I usually couldn’t be bothered to make into an outfit, so that by the end of the week, things were more chaotic than usual.
But overall, it was a useful experiment—one that I plan to repeat regularly, if not every week. We put so little time into thinking about how to work more effectively. And so little time into reflection. Yet both have, as I’ve recently been reminded, incredibly high dividends.