Bragging about working long hours isn’t big and it isn’t clever

Darwin took it handy, so did Dickens – why 80-hour weeks are unproductive

No  weekends, no holidays – UK government adviser Dominic Cummings expects a lot from his staff. Photograph: Joss Barratt/Channel 4/PA

No weekends, no holidays – UK government adviser Dominic Cummings expects a lot from his staff. Photograph: Joss Barratt/Channel 4/PA

 

People say that Dominic Cummings is brilliant. The Downing Street adviser is also said to be ruthless, inspiring, bullying, a complete liability and “mad”.

I wouldn’t know. The closest I have come to seeing him was a TV drama in January where his role as a mastermind of the 2016 Vote Leave referendum campaign was played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

But people I know who have had a lot to do with Cummings all agree that, whatever else he is, he is no idiot. Last weekend, however, as I was thumbing through the Sunday papers on the last bank holiday of the summer, I read something about him that did not seem clever at all.

According to the Sunday Times, he had just told a meeting of ministerial advisers they should enjoy the bank holiday, “because it’s the last weekend you’ll be having before we leave the European Union”. Advisers have already had their summer holidays cancelled until after October 31st, the day UK prime minister Boris Johnson has vowed to take Britain out of the EU, “do or die”.

So it appears that Brexit, one of the most important events in British postwar history, may have been placed in the hands of men and women who have gone without a summer break and worked for days on end for the best part of two months straight.

This is not brilliant. This is loopy.

There is plenty of evidence showing people who work mad hours are more prone to get ill, drink heavily and make rubbish decisions. Even if you work gladly on a project you love, which may be the case for Cummings’ crew, you are more likely to muck up when tired.

A lot of people think they can get by with just five or six hours of sleep a night with no serious dip in performance. Experts say they are deluded: all but a tiny portion of us need a good seven to nine hours a night.

Worst of all, more hours do not necessarily mean more productivity. A study of workers at a global consultancy firm a few years ago found their bosses could not tell the difference between those who toiled for 80 hours a week and those who simply pretended to.

Cummings may understand all this already. Perhaps the leaked news of cancelled weekends and holidays are merely part of a ploy to convince anti-Brexiters they are up against a force of ferociously disciplined campaigners.

I hope so. Otherwise he sounds like one of those irksome bosses who imposes manic work habits on his underlings because he prefers to work like that himself. Until a few months ago, he was regularly publishing vast screeds on a blog about things like cognitive technologies that smack of a man in his tracksuit pants hunched over a laptop at four in the morning.

Great minds

This may be unfair. But I doubt Cummings’ work days look like those of Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and other great creative minds.

Not that long ago, a friend (who is definitely clever) sent me an article by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Silicon Valley consultant who spent a lot of time investigating the working lives of influential thinkers for a book he wrote called Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.

He found that Darwin ambled into his study around 8am and worked a good hour and a half before taking a break to read the mail. He did another 90 minutes before noon and then, after a walk and an afternoon nap, another briefish stint before dinner. As Mr Pang writes, if Darwin had been working in a company today, “he would have been fired within a week”.

Yet he still managed to write 19 books, including On the Origin of Species, one of the most famous books in the history of science.

Henri Poincaré, the great French mathematician, wrote 30 books and 500 papers by following the less than blistering pace of a roughly four-hour day. The prolific Dickens wrote from 9am to 2pm, with a break for lunch.

Today’s office worker may not be aspiring to write Bleak House. But there is much to be said for Pang’s conclusion that the belief in the power of the 80-hour week is piffle. Long walks. Afternoon naps. Brief periods of intense work and lots of rest sound far better.

By October 31st, I am sure a lot of people in Westminster will thoroughly agree. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

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