Leave on time and achieve more

Brian Hunt BSc, MSc, I.Eng., MIET, FInstLM, CBAP

Parkinsons Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

In the UK, the massive job losses of the 1980s and 1990s meant that for many, receiving a gold watch on retirement was replaced by getting a black bin liner, a cancelled security pass and the dole queue.

Of those that survived, some were left with a fear of losing their own jobs and they learned to look busy and indispensable at all times. They made sure to arrive before the boss and leave after, and sent emails late in the evening, early morning and at weekends. As the uncertain economic times continue a long hours culture has become embedded and is often seen as a sign of commitment.

The result is that some employees spend their time looking busy while actually doing things of little or no value. Working inefficiently has become an established part of business life and strategies and websites for looking busy while avoiding work exist by the score. Ive included some at the end of this blog. Hence the average working day absorbs a lot of waste which could be used to work more productively and thus leave earlier.

Working long hours is fine when there is a purpose and self motivation, but not just for the sake of it. Thomas Edison and his muckerschose to work long hours to create products that changed the world. The average working week at his Research Laboratory was 55 hours, longer when they were focussing on solving a problem or following a line of inspiration. (source http://tiny.cc/elacuw )

Even then, Edison took time off for rest and to refresh his mind. That balance is just as necessary for todays overstretched and overstressed employees.


Edison asleep on a workbench. Smithsonian image #87-1670 reproduced by kind permission of The National Museum of American History


      • In the UK, full time workers have the third longest working hours (42.7 hours) in Europe, behind only Austria and Greece (both 43.7 hours) (source: http://tiny.cc/7yacuw)

      • UK managers and senior officials work an average of 7.6 hours unpaid overtime per week (source: http://tiny.cc/7yacuw)

      • Our efficiency is not as good as our competitors:

        • Dutch workers spend 1,379 hours at work each year to produce £51,452 value while the average UK worker works longer (1,625 hours) and produces £47,859 of value. This allows Dutch workers to work five hours a week less and be 27% more productive (source http://tiny.cc/u4acuw )

      • On an output per worker basis, UK productivity was 21 percentage points lower than the rest of the G7 in 2012, and was the widest productivity gap since 1991 (Source: Office for National Statistics at http://tinyurl.com/nws52qo

      • There is a 40 to 80 percent greater chance of heart disease when people work for more than eight hours a day (source: American Journal of Epidemiology at http://tinyurl.com/kjnc24m )

Why you should stop working late

Tired people make bad decisions and react poorly to unexpected events.

Creative thinking needs a clear and alert mind. Taking a break from trying to solve a problem can allow your unconscious mind to processes the information and ‘join the dots’ so that the solution presents itself.

Having a work life balance is better for mental and physical health.

Fitting your work into the contracted hours will force you find more productive ways of working:

  • Only attend meetings which have a clear purpose and need you to be there. Being in back to back meetings every day is less a sign of status than one of poor time management.

  • Work smarter rather than longer and harder. Take time to step back and identity where time is lost in your work. Do all the activities add value? Simple process improvement techniques can be learned in an hour. See my article The Mighty WOMBAT: A Simple Approach to Finding Muda at http://tiny.cc/krbcuw
  • Standardise and simplify routine tasks.

A big time saver: the 80:20 rule

The 80:20 rule, or Pareto Principle, is named after the 19th Century Italian Economist Vilfredo Pareto who found that 20% of the people held 80% of the wealth. This relationship was named vital few against the trivial manyby the Quality Systems Guru Joseph M. Juran and applies to many situations. This vital fewcan represent as much as 40% of the workload. The Pareto Chart below shows that electrical problems are the biggest single cause of car breakdown callouts. Finding ways of removing that vital fewwill reduce your total workload.

causes of car breakdown

Source: AA Common causes of car breakdowns in Ireland at http://tiny.cc/gfccuw

Following the Pareto Principle, concentrate on the vital few activities that provide the most results, and produce more output in less time.

For example, when producing written work, using 20% of effort to produce 80% of output may be sufficient. Match output to the expectations and needs of the customer. Dont provide a twenty page report when a half page summary is sufficient.


Focus on achieving visible and measurable benefits during your contracted hours. This increases your personal value and, should you want to seek a job with a more sensible hours policy, is important to be able to describe what you have achieved to a prospective employer. Of course, working extra hours is sometiems unavoidable but when this becomes routine, that’s a sign of a badly managed organisation.

Being able to say I always stayed late at the officesuggests poor self-management, potential health problems and no a work-life balance. That doesn’t make for a good CV!


Looking busy while doing nothing:




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