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Working Long Hours: How to Stay Productive

Denise Rebollido, June 3, 2021
working long hours: how to stay productive

While remote work has given us the freedom to create our own schedule and skip the stressful commute, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. With more pressure to keep up with various communication channels, working long hours is occasionally part of the deal. Even if it might mean earning more, constantly putting in too many hours is a surefire way to burn out if you’re not careful.

In this article, we’ll dive into: 

  • The adverse effects of working long hours
  • Why we do it anyway
  • Working long hours tips that’ll help you stay productive

Let’s get started!

The Impact of Long Work Hours

The average working hours vary across countries but researchers from the Australian National University are advocating for a limit of no more than 39 hours a week. Working more than that could put your mental and physical health at risk — and it’s not hard to see why.

Long, sedentary days in front of the computer dealing with back-to-back meetings and endless Slack notifications leaves little time for other areas in life. This can lead to health problems like back pain, stroke, and heart disease. It’s just as likely to take a toll on your mental health too, making you more vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and depression over time.

In addition, powering through every minute of the day means struggling to get enough sleep at night. Lack of sleep not only makes you more irritable but also negatively affects your performance at work. Given all that we know about working excessively, why do we still succumb to it?

Reasons for Working Long Hours

Modern technology has transformed the way we work in many ways, but it has also ignited a hyperconnected culture that makes it harder than ever to unplug when we need to.

When we’re faced with a close deadline on a crucial project, we tend to drop everything on impulse, answer just one more email past midnight, and let our work stretch into the weekend — all in an effort to get more done. But, as one study from Stanford University found, productivity actually drops when we start to work more than 50 hours a week.

For some people, the main benefit of working overtime is higher pay, while others think of it as a chance to prove their dedication, hoping to increase their chances of getting promoted. Working longer might also have to do with a shortage of staff, a flat organizational structure where everyone wears many hats, or maybe you just enjoy the work so much that you lose track of time.

Because long hours are often perceived as a sign of commitment, does it make you more likely to get ahead in your career? The straight answer is: it depends. It depends on the nature of your job, industry practices, and your definition of success. If your goal is to be the next Mozart then you’ll definitely benefit from 10,000 hours of dedicated practice.

Regardless of your reasons for working overtime, it’s important to stay healthy and productive whenever you’re going through a long week. Here are some strategies that will help you cope with working long hours.

How to Stay Productive When You Need to Work Long Hours

1. Keep your mental focus sharp

Email, social media, personal errands, and background noise are just some of the day-to-day distractions that can sap your focus and make it harder to get through long hours at work. These little things might not seem to do much harm the moment you get sidetracked but it can take a full 23 minutes for your brain to refocus on the task at hand after each interruption.

Our cognitive resources are limited throughout the day and to make the best use of them, you need to optimize your digital and physical workspace in a way that minimizes distractions. Put a physical barrier around your home office if you must but in most cases, a closed door is enough.

Have a look at focus apps which, according to productivity expert Francesco D’Alessio, will be the next key players in the productivity space. Apps like these help you work in focused sessions and keep your mind from wandering, whether that’s by blocking distracting websites or playing focus-enhancing music.

The Pomodoro Method is particularly useful if you’re naturally susceptible to distractions. You divide your work into small chunks, work on a single task for 25 minutes and when the time’s up, take a 5-minute break. To make things easier, use a digital timer and integrate it with your favorite task manager. The short bursts of intense focus can make large projects more manageable and train your brain to resist distractions.

2. Streamline your workflow

Think of all the mundane, low-value tasks that repeatedly bog you down. A recent report from Asana reveals that “busywork” like this takes up 60% of the average knowledge worker’s day. Automating any inefficient parts of your workflow can help you save time and prioritize important work.

Instead of switching between apps to know what you need to do, you can use Pleexy to automatically send to-do items from various sources to your main task manager. With Everhour, you can track your time right inside the project management app you use so you don’t need to have another tab open for this purpose.

Spend a lot of time on meetings? Use a calendar scheduling app to avoid back-and-forth email threads. Speaking of email, we all know how it feels to sift through dozens of messages just to find what we need. Instead, use an email management tool to snooze non-urgent emails and filter out irrelevant ones from your inbox.

If you need to deal with admin tasks that can’t be automated, delegate them whenever possible. You shouldn’t have to push your limits all throughout the day. As Tony Schwartz writes in Harvard Business Review, “the counterintuitive secret to getting things done is to make them more automatic, so they require less energy.”

3. Structure your day for maximum productivity

There’s nothing more chilling than winding down after a long day’s work only to realize you forgot to get a critical report done. Despite our best efforts, urgent and last-minute requests come up out of nowhere, taking the place of what we had originally planned for the day.

To get around this, it helps to schedule your tasks, especially time-sensitive ones, in your calendar. You can also apply the time blocking technique to batch similar tasks together, reduce context switching, and protect your time from unexpected interruptions.

If you have a mentally taxing task that you’re likely to put off, do it first before anything else. With limited time and energy, you need to tackle your biggest goal first thing in the morning when your energy levels are high.

Of course, everyone’s biological clock is slightly different. Pay attention to what times of the day you’re most productive and when your energy starts to take a dip. If possible, create a schedule that takes into account these highs and lows. This way, you can schedule your tasks based on your alertness levels and stop feeling like you’re working against your internal rhythm all the time.

4. Take periodic breaks

As counterproductive as it may seem, taking breaks can help you stay focused and replenish your motivation while working on something challenging for sustained periods of time. Be careful though as the wrong kind of breaks will only make you want to take breaks more frequently.

Rather than scrolling through social media, enrich your knowledge by reading a book, an interesting article — anything. It doesn’t have to be related to work. Making reading a daily habit can strengthen the brain and enhance creativity.

If you can’t sneak in a mid-day workout, do some simple desk exercises just to get your blood flowing and relieve any tension in your body. If the weather’s nice, take a walk outside to take the strain off your eyes. Simply being in nature has been known to lower stress and make you feel better. 

Sometimes, the best kind of break is simply doing nothing. Meditating for five minutes is enough to relax your mind and keep you going.

5. Stick to a healthy diet

Anyone with a busy schedule knows how convenient it is to give in to fast food. To survive a long week, it’s imperative that you keep yourself energized and healthy at the same time. It’s a good idea to use part of the weekend to prepare your meals for the week ahead.

Steer clear of refined carbs since these lack the proper nutrients and lead to an energy crash in the middle of the day. Opt for lots of protein, whole grains, vegetables, and fruit.

One age-old advice that’s so hard to stick to is to stay hydrated. Always aim for about 3 to 4 liters of water a day. There’s a multitude of benefits from drinking plenty of water on a daily basis — from improved concentration to relief of headaches.

Another thing you should pay attention to is your caffeine intake. As satisfying as it is to brew your coffee, too much of it isn’t good for you in the long run. Large amounts of caffeine can cause anxiety, insomnia, and digestive problems. Whenever you feel the need to have a second, third, maybe fifth cup, choose a healthier alternative like green tea.

6. Get enough sleep

You must have heard it a million times but getting enough sleep is probably the single most important productivity hack you’ll ever come across. Sleep-deprived individuals reportedly take longer to finish tasks and have trouble thinking of new ideas.

There’s a wide range of practices to help you get better sleep but you can start with the basics: 

  • Create a pre-bedtime routine
  • Get more bright light exposure during the day
  • Avoid caffeine 6 to 8 hours before bed
  • Limit screen time before going to bed
  • Make your bed as comfortable as possible

Some days, getting 8 hours of sleep is just not possible and that’s okay. You can always take a quick 20-minute nap during one of your breaks. Just make sure you don’t overdo it or else you’ll wake up feeling more groggy than refreshed.

7. Reflect on the big picture

Spending most of your days tied to your desk with no end in sight to the long hours can exhaust your motivation. To keep your spirits high, take some time to reflect on the big picture and remind yourself of the goal you’re working towards.

In reality, motivating yourself is easier said than done. One study suggests focusing on the progress you’ve made before thinking about the work that’s left. The closer you are to the goal, focusing on the remaining work becomes more effective at increasing your motivation. The next time you feel like abandoning your job altogether, a simple shift in perspective can go a long way.

8. Set healthy work-life boundaries

If you’re already grinding away night and day, you don’t want to let thoughts about work consume you in your free time. No matter how busy you are, always strive to schedule some downtime during the week to protect your well-being.

If it helps, have a shutdown ritual every day after work even if it’s as simple as reviewing your to-do list or organizing your workspace. Doing so will clear your mind of any pending tasks and help you start the next day with confidence. It also serves as a signal that it’s time to disconnect from work so you can be more present in whatever you choose to do with your personal time.

You are more than your job. So, whenever you get the chance, schedule some fun activities with your loved ones, engage in a hobby, or make time for self-care. Give yourself the break you need to find inspiration and mentally recharge for the work that you can always go back to when it’s time.

Final Thoughts

Sometimes, we don’t have a choice but to work long hours, which can feel rewarding if you’re trying to accelerate your career. It becomes a problem when you stop being productive, or worse, reach the point of burnout. Keeping your goals in mind and maintaining healthy habits will help you stay motivated and do your best work.

denise rebollido

Denise Rebollido

Community Manager at Pleexy, a productivity tool that connects the world’s best task management apps together. When she’s not working, she likes to read, travel, and spend slow days at the beach.