Leadership Blog

Less Hours, More Focus Leads to Higher Performance

There is an argument that employees can be more productive by working fewer hours and taking more time for rest and renewal during the work day.

At US company, the Energy Project, they’ve tested this assumption over the years by progressively reducing the number of hours they ask employees to work.

They report that, “Our hours are truly 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and we encourage all employees to take an hour off for lunch, away from their desks. If people want to take a nap or work out during the day, we support that.  We don’t expect them to send or reply to email in the evenings or on the weekends.  We provide five weeks of vacation for first-year employees, and seven weeks for those who’ve been with us more than five years.”

So How Do They Do?

They admit that each time they’ve opted to give their employees more time for rest and renewal, they’ve wondered anxiously if they have finally gone too far.  But every year since 2009, their revenue and profitability have significantly increased.

This approach is effective for the same reason that interval training is an efficient way to work out. You get more accomplished by working intensely for short periods and then refueling than you do by working continuously over a long period of time.  None of us can operate continuously at peak levels for very long.  There is also other research that mutli-tasking at work reduces rather than improves performance - better to focus on one thing, take a break and move to another.

When Are We at Our Best?

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel in economics for his work in behavioral economics, conducted one of the most fascinating studies in this area. Along with several colleagues, Mr. Kahneman set out to study “diurnal rhythms” — those that occur at predictable times every day — among 909 working women. The goal was to assess whether the way people felt was correlated with the time of day.

The most compelling evidence turned out to be around fatigue. Among a dozen feelings including “happy,” “competent,” “hassled” and “worried,” “fatigued” was far and away the one most strongly correlated to specific times of day.

Interestingly, most respondents in the study experienced the highest level of negative emotions in the mornings, but also the most energy and the greatest feelings of competence. Energy and competence peaked around noon, and then both declined steadily until bedtime.

In short, the longer subjects were awake, the more fatigued they became and the more incompetent they felt.

So What to Do?

It makes us think that our preference for half-day workshops and training sessions, mostly in the morning, has some merit and is founded on more than our intuition and untested experience over many years.  We have come to realise that full-day workshops are hard to sustain to the end.  We lose some people mentally or physically as the full day progresses.

But there is an antidote to fatigue and its impact on competence. Not surprisingly, it’s rest. Among 16 potential daily activities — including eating, praying, relaxing and exercising — taking a rest break had far and away the biggest impact on reducing fatigue.   So what are the implications for how we ought to work most efficiently?

Here, the work of K. Anders Ericsson, one of the foremost researchers into expert performance, is relevant. In his most well-known study, Mr. Ericsson found that top violinists practice in intense, relatively short intervals, first thing in the morning, for no longer than 90 minutes, followed by a break. They almost never practice more than 4½ hours a day.

In short, the best violinists do all of their hardest work in the mornings when they have the most energy and the fewest distractions. In the afternoons, the best violinists regularly take a rest (sometimes a nap), averaging 20 to 30 minutes. They also report that rest breaks  — and sleep — are among the most important things they do to improve as violinists.

Mr. Ericsson studied a sample of just 30 violinists, so his findings are not conclusive. But other researchers have found almost precisely the same practice and renewal patterns among athletes, chess players, artists, scientists and writers.

Lessons for Leaders

The lessons for leaders are surprisingly simple.  Actively encourage your people (and do it yourself) to”

1. Do their most challenging and important work as soon as possible in the morning, when they have the most energy. If their highest energy is in the evenings, and they have flexibility, save their hardest work for then.

2. Focus in the most absorbed way possible when they are working and then take a break at least every 90 minutes to refuel their energy reservoir. Any activity — like deep breathing, reading a novel, talking with a friend or taking a walk — can be effective. The key is choosing something they find restorative.

3. Always have lunch, preferably away from their desk or normal workspace.

4. If they can, take a rest no longer than 20 to 30 minutes between 1pm and 4 p.m.  It will give them a surge of energy — and potential productivity — for the rest of the afternoon. If a rest period isn’t possible, simply closing their eyes for a few minutes can still be a source of modest renewal.  This may seem strange in some organisations with a macho culture, but there is evidence to show that it increases rather than decreases productivity and satisfaction.


The Importance of Naming Your Emotions

As a leader, you may not be aware of it but the impact of your emotional state has a great impact on others around you.  They can be acutely aware of your mood, even if you are not or indeed you think you have managed to mask it.

Although our emotional state profoundly influences the quality of our work, many of us aren’t really aware of how we’re feeling at any given moment or what the impact may be.  Most employers don’t give emotions much attention either, preferring that we leave them at the door in the morning so they don’t get in the way during the day.  Unfortunately, that isn’t possible.  We’re neither machines, nor robots. 

Best of Times, Worst of Times

Think about how you feel when you’re performing at your best.  What adjectives come to mind?  As you can imagine, the answers are remarkably consistent.

At our best, we feel:

  • Positive
  • Happy
  • Confident
  • Calm
  • Focused
  • Enthusiastic
  • Open and
  • Optimistic.

That’s when we’re most productive and get along best with others.  At our worst, we’re typically experiencing the opposite feelings:

  • Negativity
  • Unhappiness
  • Self-doubt
  • Impatience
  • Irritability
  • Defensiveness and
  • Pessimism.

Our Vision Narrows

When we are experiencing negative feelings, our sense of value feels at risk, our vision narrows, and our energy gets consumed in self-protection.  Think of it like this: imagine that you sense a serious threat to your physical well-being from something or someone lurking in the shadows. Then you’re asked to solve a complex problem. How will you perform? In this “fight, flight or freeze” state, you would struggle to think clearly or imaginatively, and it would be difficult to collaborate effectively. It’s the same with an emotional threat such as sadness, worry or anxiety brought on by the ups and downs of everyday events – at home or at work.

Most of us move along the spectrum between our best and our worst all day long, depending on what’s going on around us.  Interestingly, the most prevalent unexpressed emotions in the workplace revolve around suffering: the state of undergoing pain, distress or hardship.  It might start at home, but it does not stop at the door to work. It’s not that suffering is a modern phenomenon or that it’s the only thing we feel at work. What seems to have changed is the pervasive impact of increased demand in our lives, leading to anxiety, uncertainty and a sense of feeling overwhelmed.

How Are You Feeling?

“How are you feeling?”  These are four deceptively simple words with that we regularly ask at meetings or in our case, at the start of workshops and training sessions.  We encourage people to ask it of each other.  When it is asked, we don’t want it to mean, “How are you?” or even “How are you doing?” because the standard responses to these questions are usually some version of “Fine.”  What we mean is, “How are you really feeling?”

Name it or Tame it

So what’s the value of getting people to express what they ’re actually feeling, rather than keeping things relentlessly light and bland? The answer is that naming our emotions tends to diffuse their charge and lessen the burden they create.  The psychologist Dan Siegel refers to this practice as “name it to tame it.”

It’s also true that we can’t change what we don’t notice.  Denying or avoiding feelings doesn’t make them go away, nor does it lessen their impact on us, even if it’s unconscious. Noticing and naming emotions gives us the chance to take a step back and make choices about what to do with them.

Say it Out Loud

Emotions are just a form of energy, forever seeking expression.  Paradoxically, sharing what we’re feeling in simple terms helps us to better contain and manage even the most difficult emotions.  By naming them out loud, we are effectively taking responsibility for them, making it less likely that they will spill out at the expense of others over the course of a day.

It was reported by one experienced facilitator who was taking a workshop session with a group of senior leaders that when doing this exercise of asking each other how they were feeling, she could see that they were way outside their comfort zone.  As it turned out, the first person who got asked how she was feeling said: “Actually, I’m feeling kind of anxious and distracted.  One of the children isn’t well.  It’s nothing serious but I am a little worried about her.”

There is no doubt that sharing this news, and her resulting concerns, was healthy and appropriate, not least because it was such an emotional event affecting that leader.  The impact on one of her colleagues was transformational. He had been highly sceptical about the value of sharing feelings, which he usually kept close to his chest.  “It has just dawned on me,” he told his colleagues, “how much likely goes unsaid between us and what the cost of holding that in must be.” COMMENT

We know from research on emotional intelligence that whatever a leader happens to be feeling at work is disproportionately contagious, for better and for worse.  Mostly, we’ve been told to notice emotions without feeling compelled to act on them.  That has merit, for sure – stay calm in a crisis and all that.

Permission to Speak Out

Another approach is to invite people, including the leader, to express emotions.  You can help yourself as a leader by openly giving permission to others to ask you about how you are feeling?  Ask them to do this when they detect that your mood, tone of voice or choice of words is betraying a deeper, negative emotion.  It may be one you not have noticed or did not want to express but if it becomes apparent to others you aught to explain. 

This act of speaking out will bring it to your attention and by you being aware, you will be able to explain it, manage it more appropriately and most importantly, let others know what it is that is influencing your behaviour in that moment.  Otherwise others may misinterpret what is going on and this has consequences.

So, can you ask of your leader, “how are you (really) feeling?



Leadership’s An Inside Job

You may be familiar with the idea of “leadership from within” and indeed there is something fundamentally principled and important about the concept.  In the world of leadership discussion we talk a lot about lists of behaviours associated with exemplar leadership but the concept of character, of leadership “as an inside job” is just so compelling and powerful.

As Peter Urs Bender explains in his version of the leader-within in contract to the leader-without an authentic leader has values and lives to principles not too far from the famous “do no evil” mantra of Google.  You might see it as not being “all about me”.  He describes the contrast as follows:

The Leader-Without

The Leader-Within

  • Tells others what to do
  • Leads through "command and control"
  • Sees "my interests vs. yours"
  • Holds onto power
  • Wants things done his/her way
  • Is motivated by externals - money, power, fame
  • Disregards/puts down feelings Is driven by fear and pressure


  • Walks the talk
  • Leads through coaching and empowering
  • Sees shared interests; builds cooperation and partnerships
  • Shares power
  • Encourages personal initiative
  • Is more internally-motivated
    - values, fulfillment, well being
  • Values feelings
  • Is calmer and more focused under pressure

This type of leader-within is referred to as a Level 5 Leader in Good to Great.  This is a leader who looks out the window rather than in the mirror. This is a leader who is dedicated, professional, calm, and other-oriented

One evocative example of leadership from within is in the film Invictus.  This tells how Nelson Mandela, at his darkest moments of despair, with little hope, drew on the idea that he and not others held the power.  This is the power to decide how you react to circumstances, even if you cannot control the events. 

When you read the poem, you can imagine Mandela thinking, “You can treat me badly, beat me, try to humiliate me but through all that, you cannot control what I think or believe in and even moreso, I will stand on my principles, whatever you throw at me.” 

Our favourite lines are,

“I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul…


I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.”


The full text is more revealing and we have provided this below along with a link to a YouTube recital by Alan Bates that would make your hairs stand on end.  When you place this in the context of a leader seeking courage and inner strength during a period of isolation, attack and ridicule, it underlines the need to be what Stephen Covey called, a principle-centred leader.  


Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.


In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.


Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.


It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

And for the record, Invictus was written by the English poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903).  It was written in 1875 and first published in 1888.  It originally bore no title: early printings contained only the dedication To R. T. H. B. - a reference to Robert Thomas Hamilton Bruce (1846–1899), a successful Scottish flour merchant and baker who was also a literary patron.  The familiar title "Invictus" (Latin for "unconquered") was added by Arthur Quiller-Couch when he included the poem in The Oxford Book Of English Verse (1900).

For those who would like to listen to the recital, go to: https://youtu.be/4udFqqeAKSw


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On Leadership

Benjamin Disraeli
“I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?”

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